He’s Gone – Grateful Dead

tldr: He’s Gone is in E major. It starts with a vamp on an E chord, mixing in E major pentatonic notes, an F#m (ii) chord, and a B (V) chord. The chorus adds in a mixolydian bVII chord, D. The bridge then changes key to A major (with a caveat, below), transitioning by way of that bVII chord as IV chord in the new key. The bridge then returns to E major through a chord transition that moves by chromatic half-steps, kicked off by an altered Dm chord and ending with an A chord that pivots from a I chord to a IV chord in E major. There is also a short instrumental part over F#m to E.

He’s Gone Full Analysis

Love this song, which has been requested by a reader. He’s Gone is in E major. The opening is based around an E chord, and there are a couple of ways of riffing on it. The primary way is playing the E major pentatonic scale off of the E chord. You can add a bluesy feel by adding in the minor 3rd (the G note), either to slide up to the major third (G# note) or down to the major 2 (F# note). You can also work in a B (V) chord and an F#m (ii) chord, particularly as a partial chord with the F# and A notes. This one is a lot simpler to show then type out, so I threw together a short video on it.

One thing I forgot to add at the end is that you can play the same stuff higher up on the fretboard, around the E chord at the seventh fret. There’s an F#m in there, as well as a B at the seventh fret. For example,

 E   F#m  /E  E  B E
-7------------7--------------
-9------------9--------------
-9------------9--------------
-9-7-7-7-7/9--9--------------
-7-9-9-9-9/11-7--6/11-or-9/14
-----------------7/12----7/12

If you don’t recognize the F#m and second E partial chords (bolded), the F#m comes from a less-common but still useful minor chord shape, and the E is from an inverted A-shaped E chord, with the third (G#) in the bass, which was a classic Hendrix move. Alternatively, you could view that E as a partial G-shaped E chord (that is, using the shape of an open G chord, but in barre chord form). The only guitar player I’ve seen routinely use that shape is, incidentally, Bob Weir, in songs like Looks Like Rain.

  F#m        E    E/G#  E
-------------7----------x---
-------------9-->-9-----9---
--6----------9-->-9--or-9---
--7----------9-->-9-----9---
--9----------7-->-11----11--
------------------------12--

The main verse starts with the same intro pattern and then comes back around with the classic IV – V, which is A – B.

The chorus adds in a mixolydian bVII chord, D, going A – D – E in a couple different orders, before ending back on the V chord, B. You could view this as a borrowed chord or a brief shift to E mixolydian that gets recentered on E natural major on the concluding B chord.

There’s a little instrumental part that reverses the intro a bit and focuses on the F#m chord moving back to the E.

Finally, there’s a bridge that changes to the key of A. It starts with B – D – A, B – D – A, which would be V – bVII – IV in E major, but the lack of an E chord and the movement to the A chord suggests to me a tonal shift that resolves on that A. The D chord, then, serves as a IV chord leading to the I, and the next phrase is D – A – G – D, with the G being the bVII of A mixolydian. The key and mode is actually a bit ambiguous here — you could say that we’re in A mixolydian, or A natural major with a borrowed bVII, or even that the bridge starts in A major and shifts to D major on that last phrase (D major being the parent scale of A mixolydian, with all the same notes) —but I don’t think the distinction has much practical significance here.

The key change is also interesting because it is accomplished by moving from the major V chord in E major up a minor third (B to D) . The D note of the D chord is the alteration, and it provides a chromatic movement towards the C# of the A chord on which we resolve as the new tonic:

B:    B  D#   F#
D:       D    F#  A
A:   A   C# E

Last, the bridge goes back to E major by altering the D chord to D minor: D – Dm – A – B. This similarly operates through a chromatic walk-down of half steps, shown in the bolded notes:

D:   A   D  F#   [] 
Dm:  A   D  F    [] 
A:   A   C# E   
B:     B    D# F

(brackets where note was moved for illustrative purposes)

The A facilitates the key change from A major back to E, doing double duty as its own I chord and as the IV chord of E major. The B, being the V of E, then finishes the transition back to E.

Takeaways:

  • Key change from V chord to the major chord that is up a minor third, which is the IV chord in the new key.
  • Key change to the key of the V chord (from A major back to E major) by moving to major chord up a whole step (A to B). This creates a IV – V – I transition.

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