Hall and Oates’ most complicated hit song might surprise you: ‘Very unusual, more sophisticated chord changes’

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One of the more difficult Hall and Oates songs, from a guitar player’s technical standpoint, is also one of the duo’s most hummable, biggest hits.

“There are a few,” John Oates tells Guitar Player, “but if I had to pick just one, I would say ‘Private Eyes.’ It’s a heavy pop song, with very unusual, more sophisticated chord changes — with major sevenths and four over fives, chords that aren’t usually associated with heavy pop or rock.”

Hall and Oates’ third No. 1 hit (out of a total of six), “Private Eyes” was the lead single from the 1981 album of the same name. Daryl Hall shifted the chords around on a song that the late co-writer Janna Allen had been working on, giving it an entirely different complexity. Warren Pash had an early hand in constructing the track, and Sara Allen — Jana’s sister, and the inspiration for “Sara Smile” — helped with the lyric.

Of course, the clap-driven feel of the original studio version of “Private Eyes,” and its detective-themed video, remain very much of their time. But a more recent, guitar-focused approach on stage (as heard on Hall and Oates’ well-received new concert recording Live at Dublin, for instance) brings out nuances that even every-day listeners might not have noticed at first.

Much of Hall and Oates’ catalog is like that, John Oates adds. “The most difficult thing for the average person to tackle with Hall and Oates songs,” he says, “is the unique chord progressions. Daryl has a very interesting way of putting chords together, and putting melodies over chords.”

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