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Yesterday: Introduction

 

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Yesterday

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Welcome to the all-time classic pop song, "Yesterday," as made famous by The Beatles and Paul McCartney. With a harmonic structure that moves easily between the major and the relative minor key, it is one of the most haunting and beautiful melodies ever written, which is perhaps the reason this is one of the most covered songs in history.

Before anything else I want to mention an intriguing feature of this song, and clarify my terms. Technically, the song is in the key of F, which was Paul's key of choice vocally. However, F was NOT his key of choice when it came to playing this song, so instead he played it in the key of G, with his guitar tuned down one full step! This is like a reverse capo, which I'll get to later, but I wanted to clarify that I'll be referencing the key of G in this tutorial, since we are playing from that key. So you'll need to tune your guitar down to play along with us here today. We're in a 4/4 time signature at a tempo of around 98 to 100 bpm.

Ostensibly simple, featuring McCartney singing and playing a steel-string acoustic guitar backed only by a string quartet, "Yesterday" has two contrasting sections, differing in melody and harmonic pacing, producing a strong distinction between the verse and bridge. This is one of the hallmarks of great songwriting.

This song moves back and forth between G major and its relative E minor. The verse section opens with a G chord, with the opening chord acting almost as a decoy; the home key (G major) has little time to establish itself before heading towards the relative E minor. This is a great songwriting device that allows for a longer harmonic phrase and creating more possibilities for the melody. By the second half of the verse we're back in the key of G, with the end of every verse punctuated with a "plagal cadence" (IV - I), which adds to its somber mood, but also builds the underpinning and distinguishing hook.

The bridge section starts firmly in Em, causing an emotional shift, and we notice the vocals rise here starting with the question "why?" The harmonic structure moves more quickly and the bass walks in quarter notes to give this section a different rhythmic feel. It ends by repeating the hook and returning the key to G major.

McCartney's casual yet specific right hand technique keeps a very steady 8th note pulse beating throughout the entire piece, occasionally disrupting his pattern to add harmonic traffic with the moving bass line.

The string arrangement reinforces the song's air of sadness, and McCartney's poignant vocal and simple guitar playing personifies the stark emotions of the lyric. The folks at Guitar Tricks have given us an awesome backing track that recreates the original composition, giving you the challenge of holding down the rhythmic bones of the song by yourself, as well as the fun and focus of playing the ensemble with the string section.