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Guitar Theory in Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"

"Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan is considered one of the most influential compositions in popular music. Harmonically, it's a great example of using the major scale's sequence of major and minor chords. It's based in the key of C and cycles up and down chords I through V.

The intro starts out with a change from C to F, which is I-IV in C. But it's really at the verse where you begin to see the major scale in action. At the same time that Dylan begins with the words, "Once upon a time you dressed so fine. . . ," the chord progression climbs directly up the C major scale, as shown here:

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
"Like a Rolling Stone" 1.

Notice that you play the C scale in order: I ii iii IV V. You also repeat this four-bar phrase. You can use either open chords or barre chords, whichever you prefer (or try both).

The next section of the song features the words, "You used to laugh about. . . ," and the chord changes F-G, IV-V in the scale:

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
"Like a Rolling Stone" 2.

When Dylan begins with the words, "Now you don't talk so loud. . . ," the chords move backward in the scale from F to C, IV-iii-ii-I:

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
"Like a Rolling Stone" 3.

Next is the "About having to be scrounging for your next meal" section. Here you play Dm-F-G, ii-IV-V, with the goal being to build tension on the dominant chord, V, before releasing the tension on the tonic chord, I, for the upcoming chorus:

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
"Like a Rolling Stone" 4.

And finally, the big chorus. Here the song makes good use of a typical I-IV-V chord progression by beginning on C and following it with F and G:

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
"Like a Rolling Stone" 5.

At the end of the chorus, the V chord, G, is held for an extra measure, creating more of the dominant tension from earlier that, once again, releases on the tonic chord, C, but this time to begin a new verse.

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