Steely Dan Audio Trivia

Sometimes when listening to a familiar song you can suddenly notice a sound you've never noticed before, even if you've listened to the track hundreds of times. Steely Dan recordings are no exception: hidden amongst some songs are effects and notes that are odd or intriguing. You may have already noticed some of the examples on this page, or perhaps others, and asked yourself "What is that sound?".

On this page I've collected a few examples of "Steely Dan Audio Trivia": particular sounds or sections of Steely Dan songs that stand out in some way and provoke questions. The reasons behind these audio effects are not always clear, but it's interesting to share some examples and speculate on how they came about.


Rikki Don't Lose That Aja

Have you ever noticed that there's a section from the chorus of "Rikki don't Lose That Number" that sounds very much like a section from "Aja"?

I first noticed this many years ago, and one thing that struck me is not only that the melodic line and vocal harmonies are very similar (descending then ascending E mixolydian melody using F# E D C#, harmonies in 3rds), but that both the key and the tempo are the same. The harmonies from the rhythm section are also very similar, based around a chord sequence using E7(no 3rd), G and A/G. Even the two-note rhythmic figure played on the drums just before the section starts is the same in both songs.

All this means that you can play the sections from the two tracks together, without any pitch-shifting or time-stretching, and they match up almost perfectly, as the video above shows. A favourite idea of Donald and Walter's that got re-used, or just one of those odd coincidences?

I Got The Clavinet

The Clavinet: it's a funky sounding instrument. Hard to beat for adding a funky edge to a rhythm section, whether it's chords, riffs or bass lines. It worked for Stevie Wonder, Max Middleton and Led Zeppelin and it definitely worked for Steely Dan. It was used by Steely Dan on many tracks, but which track Steely Dan song has the funkiest Clavinet note?

Now this clavinet note from "I Got The News" jumps out at you, and is pretty obvious from the first time you listen to the track. The question that this prompts is: why is that one note so loud? Was it a peculiar accident of the mix that they stuck with? Was it deliberately engineered to stand out in that way? My guess is that in the place where it's played - in the gap between vocal phrases, just after the downbeat where there's not much else happening - it just happened to stand out somewhat in the mix. Then, perhaps, Donald or Walter decided to try making a feature of this happy accident, and boosted the levels a little at this point (that note comes across as louder than the rest of the clavinet part, so either the level was deliberately boosted, or the effect is because of compression easing off for the quieter section).

Black Friday

Occasionally, just very occasionally, you hear something in a Steely Dan song that sounds like... dare I say it... a mistake? That sounds pretty crazy, since Donald and Walter have a very well-established reputation for being perfectionists in every aspect of the writing, arranging and recording process. They're well known for being more than happy to try multiple takes, using different solo players and rhythm sections, and to keep trying alternatives for weeks or even months on end, in the search for the result they have in mind (this is less true for their recent work, but was certainly true in the late 70s and 80s).

So is there a mistake in the keyboard part for the first verse of Black Friday?

It's hard to know why that odd-note was left in, it certainly sounds like a wrong note to me, but it seems hard to believe it would be left in if it was really a mistake. Did they like the odd "grunch" sound it gives the chord? Could it have been a mistake, but one that gave an interesting effect that they chose to leave in? Could it have been written in to the keyboard part from the beginning? Your guess is as good as mine.

All The Notes...

(But not necessarily in the right order)

A long time ago I noticed there was something unusual about a melodic phrase I heard in a Steely Dan song. I realised that the phrase used each of the 12 chromatic notes (C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B) exactly once. Do you know which song this is? The video below looks in detail at this quirky phrase.

I Got The Mus

This short video is a compilation of excerpts from Steely Dan songs that use the mu-major chord. It gives a flavour of what the mu-major chord sounds like and how it is used by Steely Dan.

Last updated: January 2016