Life’s Been Good – Joe Walsh

tldr: The song opens in A major using blues harmony, with the A major pentatonic plus blues notes played between the A and D chords. (Technically, this is in the mixolydian mode). There is a key change to C major for the main verses of the song, and that it is done via a cool transition part in the key of A minor — the parallel minor of A major, and the relative minor of C major, making it serve as a great pivot between the two. The verses in C major all use diatonic chords, except the ending, which returns to an A major chord by means of a G major pivot chord (which is the V chord of C major and the bVII chord of A mixolydian). There is also an extended lead part over A major using the A major pentatonic scale, and which also temporarily uses the G major pentatonic scale over a G chord.

Life’s Been Good full analysis

Very cool song that uses blues harmony and key changes between relative and parallel major and minor keys. Life’s Been Good opens in A major, then modulates to A minor, and then again to C major for the main verses before returning to A major. This works because A minor is both the parallel minor key of A major and the relative minor key of C major. Parallel means rooted on the same tonic note, and relative means sharing all of the same constituent notes over different tonic notes, and both concepts present smooth transitions for key changes.

Starting in A major, the opening riff is based in the A major pentatonic at the second fret over the A and D chords, blues style, with the minor third note added in as a passing note. Technically speaking, this part is in the mixolydian mode, which matters later on. That is common for blues harmony, which mixes major with minor, and the flat 7 of the minor pentatonic corresponds with the flat 7 of mixolydian. That flat 7 (G note) shows up in this part, in the C chord mentioned below, but just try both the G and G sharp in riffing off this and you can hear from the start that the G fits better.

To play this part, I recommend you think in terms of rooting your hand around the open A chord at the second fret, played with your index finger barred across those three strings, and moving your hand to slide into and out of that position. This is a useful concept across many blues-style songs, using the minor third to slide up to the major third or down into the major second. If you are unfamiliar with it, try this as an exercise (the 3 is the minor third):

------------------------------
---------2-2-----2------------
-2-2-----2-2-----2------------
-2-2-----2-2-----2------------
-0-0-3/4-----3/2-0------------
------------------------------

In this song specifically, the bends that lead off each phrase also use your index finger, at the second fret of the A string, and then you slide into that rooted position with your ring finger, like this:

             A           A
------------------------------
------------------------------
-------------2-----------2-2-2
-------------2-------2---2-2-2
2b3b2-0--3/4---0-3/4---4---0-0
------------------------------
             A           D
------------------------------
-------------------------3-333
-------------2-----------2-222
-------------2-------2---0-000
2b3b2-0--3/4---0-3/4---4------
------------------------------

How much of the A and D chords you actually play is up to you; I used partials to show the key parts used. The rest of this intro is just a variation on that, with one exception that is a little different. Use your ring finger for your slide from the C chord to B (from 555 to 444) and then use your index finger barred again at the 222:

 C B A  C B A
-------------------------
-5\4-2--5\4-2------------
-5\4-2--5\4-2------------
-5\4-2--5\4-2------------
-------------------------
-------------------------

Joe also sometimes adds A chord voicings at higher octaves.

Then there is a cool transition to the main verses that kicks off with a low F played twice, followed by F – C – F, and then a low Am played twice, followed by Am – G – Am:

-1-1--555--333--1-1--------
-1-1--666--555--1-1--------
-2-2--555--555--2-2--------
-3-3----------------(twice)
-3-3-----------------------
-1-1-----------------------
-----------------------------
-1-1--555--333--1-1-------0-1
-2-2--555--444--2-2-------0-2
-2-2--777--555--2-2-------0-2
-0-0---------------(twice)---
-----------------------------

The F announces an abrupt key change, as that is a bVI from the perspective of A major. Notice the nature of all of these chords relative to A: F is a bVI chord, C is a bIII, Am is a i, and G is a bVII. These are all A minor chords, and the song has changed keys from A major to A minor. It’s a cool sounding transition using the major chords of A minor.

Then the song changes key again, using A minor to pivot to its relative major key, C major. Recall that a relative major and minor share all of the same notes and chords, just played over a different tonic. So the chords alone don’t reveal this key change, but rather the prominence of the C chord and lack of Am does. The main verse is something like F – C – Dm7 – C, or IV – I – ii – I, and the pre-chorus and chorus are something like:

G – F – C – G (V – IV – I – V)

F – G – C – G (IV – V – I – V)

G – F – C – G

C – G/B – A (I – iii – VI)

The ending chord, an A major chord, is not diatonic, and is instead a return to the opening A major (mixolydian). The G chord (inverted to start on the B note to walk down between the chords) serves as the pivot: as the V chord of the C major key, and also the bVII of A mixolydian, it facilitates the transition between the two. The first time, the song doesn’t stay with the transition to returns back to C major. The second time, the song stays with A major (mixolydian) and there’s an extended vamp based around the A major chord. The lead over this uses straight-up A major pentatonic. The only variant here is that there’s also a G chord, which Joe highlights by temporarily using G major pentatonic over.

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