Hall & Oates are one of my favourite songwriting duos of all time. In truth, I could’ve picked any one of their many hits to study in today’s online guitar lesson, but in the end I opted for their first ever top 10 hit, “Sara Smile” to teach to you all today. Released in 1975 from their fourth studio album “Daryl Hall & John Oates”, “Sara Smile” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has since been covered by a number of different artists, including After 7, Boyz II Men, Jimmy Wayne, Rumer and Richie Kotzen.
I love this tune. Not only is it a great song, but it taught me a lot about R&B and soul style chords on the guitar, at a time in my guitar playing journey when I needed to put all of the more advanced chords that I was learning into context with a song. With that in mind, this is an ideal record to learn if you are just getting into R&B and Soul, or if you are looking to expand your repertoire of chords beyond the standard major and minor open or barre shapes.
“Sara Smile” Chords
Firstly, let’s take a look at all of the chords used in the composition of “Sara Smile.” There are 12 different chords in the song, so make sure you take the time to familiarise yourself with them by practising each shape from the diagrams below.
You may have noticed that I have chosen to fret a lot of these chord shapes with the thumb playing the bass note. I first encountered this method when I learned this song years ago, and found it extremely helpful to my rhythm guitar playing, and found that I improved a lot in that area as a result. You don’t have to fret the chords in this way, and I have suggested alternate fingerings in some of the diagrams. However, I have found that using this method frees up your remaining fingers to execute fills whenever appropriate, in a similar style to guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix or Keith Richards. If you do not wish to use the thumb for the three minor 7 chords in the song, then feel free to use this fingering instead:
“Sara Smile” Guitar Tab
Let’s take a look at the guitar tab for “Sara Smile.” The tab below is the main part for the song, and not the rhythmic stabs heard on one of the tracks of guitar. You can figure this out by playing the same chords in the rhythm heard on the original recording. I have also left out the lead guitar part heard in the intro, as today’s lesson focuses on purely rhythm guitar. Play close attention to the differences in rhythm here, as some of the chords land on the beat, and some of them are pushed, landing on the eighth note just before the downbeat. Getting this tight will help you sound more in the pocket when you come to perform this piece. I also included the bass run in between the Gm7 and the Bb/C chords in the intro. You don’t have to play this part yourself, but I choose to play it this way because I like the way it sounds.
“Sara Smile” is in the key of D minor, which is the relative minor of F major. I prefer to analyse songs from the perspective of the relative major key, and that’s how I will be undertaking the harmonic analysis for this tune. The introduction starts out on a Dm7 chord, which is the VI chord in F major, before shifting to chords III (Am7) and II (Gm7.) Although chords II, III & VI are minor chords in any major key, it is perfectly acceptable to extend all three to minor 7 chords and still remain diatonic. We then finish off the intro progression with a Bb/C chord, which is chord IV/V. Some may also choose to see this as a C11 chord, but I prefer to think of it as Bb major triad, with a C in the bass.
The verse is diatonic to our D minor/F major key, with chords VI (Dm7) III (with V – C, in the bass) and IV (Bb.) In bar 4, we have our first deviation from the key, with the G/A moving up to the A chord. If these chords were diatonic to the key of D minor/F major, then they would be minor chords. However, since they are major chords, we can deduce that they have borrowed from the key of D major, since they are chords IV and V in D major (the G/A essentially functioning as a G major chord, with the A bass note adding a little harmonic interest.) This concept is known as borrowing from the parallel major key, and is quite a common songwriting trick in popular music. A parallel key is a key with the same tonic (or root note) with different notes in the scale, as in this case, D major and D minor are not the same key. You may choose to experiment with the concept in your own songwriting, perhaps choosing to write a song in C major for example, and borrowing chords from its parallel minor key of C minor.
Perhaps the most harmonically interesting section of “Sara Smile” is the pre chorus. This section begins with chords IV and V of F major, before going to the C#dim7 chord in the second bar. C#dim7 is not diatonic to the key of F major, and has in fact been borrowed from D harmonic minor. The reason for this is to create a nice tension and release effect, with a chromatic bassline which walks up from C, to C# before finally arriving at Dm7. We then have the same IV V chord progression in the third bar of the pre chorus, before switching to another non diatonic chord in Eb, before resolving to Dm7. This chord is the bVII in the key of F major, another borrowed chord, this time from the F mixolydian mode. Again, I would encourage you to experiment with borrowing chords from different parallel scales and modes in your own songwriting, as you will come up with more interesting and unique chord progressions.
A great song with some interesting extended chords, both diatonic and non diatonic, and definitely one to study for those looking to improve their songwriting. Although some of the chord shapes may be unfamiliar and difficult to fret at first, I encourage you to persist with them and practice until the shapes fall under the fingers more naturally. I will probably put some more lessons up containing similar chord shapes to aid your learning and cement these chords into your repertoire. Until then, have fun with this Hall & Oates classic, and I’ll see you next time.