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What Happens During That Section of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog?

This is one that a few of my students have come to me with in recent months, and that both they and I were unable to find a satisfactory answer to anywhere else on the internet. As one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular hits Black Dog is inevitably a song that many guitarists are going to want to learn to play. It features a turnaround in which some very difficult to anticipate rhythms are played (rumoured to be a deliberate move to make the song difficult to dance to).

Let’s start by analysing what happens in the main verse riff. Played entirely in 4/4 time, this riff bears many similarities to the turnaround riff and so provides a useful comparison point.

The tablature in this example has been deliberately stretched to allow me to accurately annotate above it, demonstrating which beat of the bar each note is played on. The + symbol here represents the ‘and’ or ‘off beat’ as in counting 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Again this has been done for accuracy and ease of interpretation.

Here you can see that the main riff in the call and response verse starts on the off beat that follows the 3rd beat of the bar. When listening to the song you’ll hear John Bonham play a large cymbal crash on the 2nd beat of the following bar (where the 5b is). This can be confusing to the ear as it comes at a point where the rhythm of the riff is just starting to establish itself, and can cause the listener to think that this is in fact the 1st beat of the bar. Try playing this to a metronome a few times to be sure you are playing and counting correctly.

Now to look at the turnaround.

So here’s where it gets interesting. Despite how it may sound, if you can zone out the guitar riff and keep counting along with the drums on this you’ll realise that the groove never actually breaks. That cymbal crash now comes on the 1st beat rather than the 2nd to further confuse people who thought they had that part of the song sussed out, but if you tap along with the kick and the snare you’ll hear that the overall meter of the track never changes.

What is in fact happening is the guitar riff is played starting half a beat later on every repetition, but without changing which notes are emphasised, effectively making this a guitar part played in 4.5/4 (or 9/8 if decimalised time signatures make your teeth itch) over a 4/4 drum beat! So on the first repetition we hear the riff being played in a largely similar rhythm to how the verse riff is played. The second repetition sounds the weirdest of all of them as it starts on the 4th beat of the bar. This means that everything that was previously played on an off beat is now played on the beat and vice versa. The third repetition feels like it’s back in the groove somewhat because the notes are back to being on and off beat in the right order. However it also feels like the pace of the song drags a little in this bar because the snare and kick drum placements feel reversed, a similar sensation to when audience members clap on the 1 and 3 rather than the 2 and 4. Finally the fourth repetition is not only back to having the on and off beat note placements shifted, but it’s also cut in half. This allows the original verse riff to be started on the off beat after the 3rd beat, returning the song back to its original meter almost seamlessly.

This is the sort of thing you end up with when ridiculously talented musicians aren’t forced to work split shifts at Nando’s to pay the bills and can focus entirely on tying your ears in knots. As with before try playing this to a metronome at a slower speed to get a feel for it before having a go at jamming to the track or playing with a band. For comments, questions and corrections feel free to use the contact page. If you have any other songs you can't get your head around let me know and I'll see if I can work them out for you.

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