Analyzing the musical structure of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

We’re asking participants in Play With Your Music to create musical structure graphs of their favorite songs. These are diagrams showing the different sections of the song and where its component sounds enter and exit. In order to create these graphs, you have to listen to the song deeply and analytically, probably many times. It’s excellent ear training for the aspiring producer or songwriter. This post will talk you through a structure graph of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Co-produced by Peter and Daniel Lanois, this is an emblematic eighties pop tune.

Here are the video versions of my analysis:

Below is the musical structure graph. Click the image below to see it bigger, and with popup comments.

"Sledgehammer" structure graph

Here’s the perceived space graph:

"Sledgehammer" perceived space

And here’s a chart of the chord progression.

A few technical notes, before we get into the music: The timestamps in the structure graph refer to the version of the song on YouTube, which begins with fourteen seconds of silence. The album version, the one you get from iTunes, skips the silence. If you want to refer to the album version, subtract fourteen seconds from each timestamp. The measures here are shown in cut time, so each measure has a snare hit on beat three. You might also logically count this half as fast, so each measure has snare hits on beats two and four. If that’s how you prefer to count, just divide each section length by two.

The first sound in “Sledgehammer” is a synthesized shakuhachi (bamboo flute) played on the  Fairlight CMI, which back in the eighties represented the cutting edge of digital synthesis and was a staggeringly expensive piece of gear. (Retro synth geeks will want to check out the video of Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones demonstrating a Fairlight, it’ll put a smile on your face.)

Fairlight CMI

The song proper begins at 0:32, when nearly all of the instruments enter. The horns and Prophet-5 synth play the iconic riff as a pickup, and the rhythm section kicks in on the first downbeat. Let’s go through these sounds one at a time.

The horns are trumpet and saxophone, played by members of the Memphis Horns. It sounds like they’re doubled. They have an unearthly feeling, partially because of heavy artificial reverb, and partially because they’re doubled by the synth. The timbres blend together to produce a sound that’s highly evocative of the mid-eighties. The Prophet synth is mostly functioning as a stand-in for rock organ, but every once in a while Peter adds in a wide pitch wobble that’s unmistakably synth-y. This blend between a classic Motown soul feeling and futuristic pop is central to the song’s character.

Prophet-5 analog synth

The drums are played by the great session drummer Manu Katché. Like the horns, they have a synthetic quality, and my first thought was that they’re fake, maybe a drum machine. However, when I ran the song through Ableton Live, I discovered that the tempo varies a bit, between 95 and 97 beats per minute. That means that there’s a human drummer at work — an extremely good one! (You can perform similar tempo analysis with this nifty Echo Nest app.) There’s also a tambourine playing along.

Manu Katché

The big eighties snare sound is achieved through a combination of reverb, compression and noise gate. Normally, adding reverb to a sound makes it diffuse, and makes it sustain longer. But the noise gate cuts the sound off when the amplitude falls below a certain threshold. When you combine the two, you get a big, spacious sound that still snaps as tightly as a dry snare. Peter Gabriel uses this sound quite a bit, but most of us will forever associate it with his former Genesis bandmate Phil Collins.

The bass is played by another legendary session musician, Tony Levin, and it too has an alienated synthetic quality. Commenter Antonio Salieri informs me that Tony is playing a fretless Music Man Sabre bass with a pick through a Boss OC-2 octave pedal. The synth-like sound is the result of fretless slides and the sub-octave effect, and the pick gives the sound its sharp attack. (Tony Levin liked a percussive bass sound so much that he later developed “funk fingers” — miniature drumsticks taped to his right index and middle fingers.) As with the drums, the bassline is so on time that it almost sounds sequenced. But no, Tony Levin is just really, really tight.

Tony Levin

The album credits list two guitarists on the track, David Rhodes and Daniel Lanois. Because they’re both playing with an identical dry, scratchy funk sound, and because they’re panned to the same stereo location, their parts fuse into what sounds like a single very dense guitar line. The guitar is definitely a background element, mixed well behind the horns and synths. That’s what makes this a pop song and not a rock song — in rock, the guitar dominates, and keyboards are a background texture if they’re present at all.

The intro groove is in E-flat minor, which is a dead giveaway that this song was written by a keyboard player and not a guitarist. E-flat funk is a nightmare on guitar, but a breeze on keyboards. You can play the intro riff using  just the black keys. The horn/synth riff repeats over a short chord sequence (E-flat minor, B major, A-flat major) that lands unexpectedly on E-flat major, at 0:52.

Peter’s vocal enters here, singing a little four bar phrase. (I can’t for the life of me understand what he’s saying.) He’s a charismatic and distinctive singer, though not a technically proficient one — his pitch is distinctly imperfect, and had this been recorded today, he would probably have gotten some Auto-tune. I like the shaky pitch, though; it keeps the song from being too glossily perfect.

Brad and Alex, who worked on the song analysis with me, consider Peter’s vocal entrance to be the beginning of verse one. I disagree; I hear that first phrase as part of the intro. Either way, by a minute in, the first verse is definitely underway. The harmony is totally static, just a funk groove on E-flat Mixolydian, with the guitars and synth riffing along. At 1:22, we arrive at a dramatic chord change to D-flat. Brad and Alex consider this to be a new section, the prechorus. I hear it as still being part of the verse, partially because the chorus is still a ways off. Peter’s overdubbed backing vocals enter on this part.

At 1:32, we enter what Brad and Alex consider to be verse two, and what I consider to be the second half of verse one. Sonically, it’s much the same as the first verse. The real change comes at 1:56, when we finally arrive at the first chorus. Almost two minutes is an extremely long time to wait for a hook — a lot of pop songs would practically be over by now. There’s a saying in songwriting: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” Peter can get away with holding off so long because he’s hit you with two killer hooks already: the horn riff in the intro and the verse melody, both of which are stronger than most people’s choruses. The funky, infectious groove helps too. And by the way, the chorus adds a new instrument, a conspicuously digital-sounding sampled piano, played on the Fairlight.

At 2:12, there’s a little four-bar break. The texture becomes sparser due to the keyboards dropping out. There’s also a new sonic arrival, the Motown-esque female backup singers, who give a single harmonized “yeah.” It’s intriguing that Peter both sings his own backup and uses backing vocalists, it makes for a lively vocal texture.

At 2:21, we get the third verse (what I consider to be the second verse.) It has some more intensity to it than the previous ones because the horns play long notes underneath it. At 2:41, there’s a double chorus, which leads us into the second break at 3:12. We get a new timbre here, Peter rapping the words “sledge, sledgehammer” through a vocoder. I love this effect for its robotic, old-school hip-hop vibe; I wouldn’t mind if Peter had sung the whole song through a vocoder.

At 3:22, we move into the second part of the break, and what I think is musically the coolest part of the song. Over a reprise of the E-flat minor progression from the intro, the synth shakuhachi plays its distinctive flourish. This economical use of musical material is great songcraft. It’s always cool to hear familiar stuff in a new context, and here it kicks the intensity up a notch.

At 3:42, we go into the song’s final section, an extended groove on the E-flat minor intro chords. There’s a cool three-way call and response between all the vocal parts.

Peter lead vocal: I kicked the habit

Peter backing vocal: kicked the habit

Female backing vocals: kicked the habit

Peter lead vocal: Shed my skin

Female backing vocals: Shed my skin

And so on. The groove continues until the song fades out a little after the five minute mark. Five minutes is quite long for a radio-friendly pop song, but again, people will never get bored if the groove is this solid. Peter’s musical roots are in artsy prog rock, and isn’t natively funky, but his backing band supplies more than enough funk to go around.

You’ll notice that I haven’t given much attention to the lyrics through all this. In pop music, especially the danceable kind, the lyrics are the least musically significant component. The beat is really what moves you, with some help from the production, melody and harmony, in that order. (In the era of hip-hop and EDM, melody and harmony are optional.) Peter’s lyrics are oblique, self-mocking (“Hey, I’m a white British guy trying to sing a sexy Motown song!”) and were probably chosen more on the basis of their sound than their content. That’s not to say they’re bad lyrics, I like them fine. But this song is a delivery vehicle for rhythm rather than verbal imagery.

Update: I just learned from Michael Bird that Daniel Lanois talks about the song in his memoir. He says Sledgehammer “busted into a long fun jam once the planned arrangement had run its course. Peter conjured up the most incredible spontaneous vocal ad-lib, some of it non-lyrical or nonsensical, pure fun, jump-up-and-dance lines. It was a shock to all of us. Were we not meant to be making a profound, mystical, West Country record? The unexpected jam-out became my favorite part of the song. I chopped the front part down so that we could fit in the crazy party ending. This has happened to me many times, where the unexpected becomes the thing I’m most excited about.”

Update: a MOOC participant named Michael Greenspan takes issue with some of our analysis.

I hear horns in places not marked: Verse 1C, Chorus 1.

The first part of Break 2 sounds to me like four additional measures of Chorus 2B.

I hear double-tracked lead vox in verse 1B, on “steam train,” “lay down,” “flying,” and “sky back,” but not in Verse 1C. Should those count as Peter backing vox? Or maybe I misunderstand what qualifies as backing vox?

I’m not hearing the Prophet-5 in Verse 3. (Unless the keyboard panned hard left is the Prophet-5; see next item.)

There’s a little keyboard squiggle in the left speaker near the end of Break 1. (There are a lot of licks like that throughout the track, e.g. one at the end of Verse 1A and another at the start of Verse 1B.) Does that count toward the Prophet-5 part, in which case the chart should be marked there? Or is that the Fairlight CMI, in which case, does it deserve its own row?

Why is it Verse 2B rather than Verse 2?

And here are my responses:

Break 2 could certainly be interpreted as an extension of Chorus 2B. These things are highly subjective. The definition of “backing vox” is another one of those subjective things. Frankly, it’s hard to tell when he’s actually double-tracked and when it’s just a chorus effect. I’ll take another hard listen and make corrections.

I’m guessing that the keyboard squiggles you’re referring to are all Prophet-5, maybe overdubbed separately from the main “organ” part. I couldn’t find any reference to any keyboards being used in this song aside from the Prophet and the Fairlight, and the Fairlight doesn’t do wobbly pitch bends.

It’s Verse 2B rather than Verse 2 because we thought it more closely resembled verse 1B. But again, it’s highly open to interpretation.

12 thoughts on “Analyzing the musical structure of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

  1. Nice article! Regarding the intro vocals, I hear it as something along the lines of “Hey hey, hey hallelujah.”

  2. Pingback: Peter Gabriel resources | Play with Your Music

  3. Hey Jeremy — I think Ethan said Peter Gabriel “would have had” autotune had he recorded that song today. He didn’t mean to imply that it was tampered with! I agree with you — overuse is a bad thing. Sounds so canned and unauathentic.

    Great post, though — it sounds like a fun project for the long winter nights to analyze your favorite songs. Learn from the masters!! Thanks – GBGC

  4. Great analysis….BUT you obviously don’t know Peter Gabriel that well (I don’t know him personally but have read much)…I sincerely doubt he would have let Autotune anywhere near that song. That’s just not his way. BUT, this is a great resource which I’ll no doubt pinch for a lesson or two. Thanks. OK…just did a bit of research and PG uses Melodyne which is a similar program but would only use it for effect and to correct individual notes in the extremes of his vocal range…unlike the popsters on the rdio who plaster it on everything.

      • It’s pretty common, actually, and not hard, especially in the context of a single song in the recording studio. For a concert the guitarist would probably bring multiple instruments and have them pre-tuned. Dropping everything half a step is also and old blues style trick.

  5. Thanks for a very good analysis. Tony Levin’s bass sound is not due to his sticks, but fretless Music Man Sabre bass, Boss OC-2 octaver and a pick. Fretless slides + sub-octave produce the synth-type sound, and pick gives the sharp attack.

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