Learn Guitar Chords for Don McLean’s “American Pie”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Fifty years ago, in 1972, “American Pie” hit the top of the Billboard charts. The song became an instant classic with novice and veteran guitar players flocking to learn the chords. That still holds true today. With that in mind, here is a look at the chords for “American Pie.”

The chords for “American Pie” are in the key of G major with the exception of the A7 chord that occurs in the chorus. Most of the chords are in standard position. But sometimes he plays a D/F# (pronounced D over F#) instead of a D chord, which puts an F# in the bass (the low, 6th string), which walks down nicely from the G to the Em chord. If you’re looking for an easier alternative to the D/F# you can replace it with a D chord. 

When he plays D7 and A7, he does so to create harmonic tension which would then resolve to G and D respectively. It sounds great, but If you prefer an easier alternative, you can play D instead of D7 and A instead of A7. 

“American Pie” is a really long song clocking in at over 8 minutes with an untraditional form of 6 verses and 6 choruses. To keep it interesting, McLean varies the strum pattern and even the tempo (how fast/slow the beat is). For instance, in the first verse, he uses long, slow strums. By the first chorus, he has increased the tempo and his strum pattern is much more steady in an eighth note count. To lock in, think of it as an up and down strum that corresponds with each syllable of “chevy to the levy” – down, up, down, up, etc.

Other than that just pay attention to the recording for when he does the occasional long strums in the verses. 

(Verse 1)

   G     D/F#  Em7

A long, long time ago

Am            C                            Em                  D

I can still remember how that music used to make me smile

       G         D/F#    

And I knew if I 

Em7

had my chance

        Am                          C                            Em                      C            D

That I could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while

       Em          Am                     Em                      Am

But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver

C              G/B     Am             C                                    D

Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step

  G          D/F#      Em                    Am7                 D

I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride

G         D/F#       Em

Something touched me deep inside

       C          D7      G

The day the music died

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die

(Verse 2)

G                          Am

Did you write the book of love

       C                               Am             Em             D

And do you have faith in God above, if the bible tells you so?

G          D/F#        Em

Do you believe in rock and roll

        Am7                   C                       Em                         A7                   D

Can music save your mortal soul and can you teach me how to dance real slow?

          Em                          D                             Em                      D

Well I know that you’re in love with him ‘cuz I saw you dancin’ in the gym

       C                 G/B        Am               C                                 D7

You both kicked off your shoes, man I dig those rhythm and blues

            G        D/F#      Em                               Am                            C

I was a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck

      G         D/F#  Em                  C           D7      G  C  G            D

But I knew I was out of luck the day the music died,  I started singin’

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die

(Verse 3)

              G                                Am

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

       C                               Am                      Em                     D

and moss grows fat on a rolling stone but that’s not how it used to be

                G        D/F#            Em

When the jester sang for the king and queen

       Am7                     C                                  Em             A7                           D

in a coat he borrowed from James Dean in a voice that came from you and me

              Em                         D                           Em                   D

Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown

      C        G/B         A7              C                      D7

The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned

                G         D/F#   Em                          Am        C

And while Lennin read a book on Marx, the quartet practiced in the park

       G            D/F#             Em         C           D7      G  C  G             D

And we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died,   we were singin’

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die

(Verse 4)

G                   Am

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

C                                    Am                 Em                             D

the birds flew off with a fallout shelter, eight miles high and fallin’ fast

   G         D/F#           Em

It landed foul on the grass

      Am7                     C                                   Em               A7                  D

the players tried for a forward pass, with the jester on the sidelines in a cast

              Em                      D                                 Em                          D

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume, while sergeants played a marching tune

C          G/B       A7                    C                   D7

We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance

               G         D/F#     Em                       Am                    C

‘Cuz the players tried to take the field, the marching band refused to yield

G         D/F#           Em                       C           D7      G  C  G                D

Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died,   we started singin’

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die

(Verse 5)

       G                          Am

And there we were all in one place

   C               Am                  Em                         D

a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again

                     G           D/F#    Em                    Am7                        C

So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick ‘cuz

 Em           A7              D

 fire is the devil’s only friend

Em                              D                          Em                                  D

And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fists of rage

      C       G/B      A7            C                            D7

No angel born in Hell could break that Satan’s spell

                  G                       D/F#             Em        Am                        C

And as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial rite

          G        D/F#     Em                     C           D7     G  C  G            D

I saw Satan laughing with delight the day the music died,   he was singin’

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die 

(Verse 6)

  G       D/F#      Em

I met a girl who sang the blues

         Am                           C                   Em                                            D

And I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away

  G                D/F#    Em

I went down to the sacred store

                Am                     C                                Em                          C

Where I’d heard the music years before, but the man there said the music

               D

wouldn’t play

       Em                      Am                                Em                            Am

But in the streets the children screamed, the lovers cried and the poets dreamed

      C       G/B          Am               C                               D

But not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken

             G          D/F#   Em                  Am7     C                   D7

And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost

G                        D/F#                   Em           C         D7      G

They caught the last train for the coast the day the music died,

And they were singin’

(Chorus)

      G    C                G           D

So bye, bye Miss American Pie

                G                  C                  G            D

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

                 G             C                           G                  D

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

            Em                                   A7  Em                                   D7

Singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die

Photo by Olly Curtis/Total Guitar Magazine/Future via Getty Images

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