A Fun Guitar Arrangement Inspired by Bobby Darin’s Swinging Cover of “Mack the Knife”

What really sets this version apart is the use of five half-step modulations that keep raising the tension with each pass through the song.

One of the most popular American pop songs was originally written not in English but in German by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill for their 1928 musical drama, The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). Tangling the roots even further is the fact that Brecht and Weill’s work was adapted from an English-to-German translation of John Gay’s 1728 play, The Beggar’s Opera.

The protagonist in “Mack the Knife,” one Macheath, originates in Gay’s story as a sort of anti-hero, a leader of a band of robbers driven by love. But 200 years later, Brecht’s 1928 Macheath is a much darker, more sinister character. By the time we get to singer Bobby Darin’s swinging big-band version, the ’50s pop culture of film noir and Rat Pack entertainers flirting with organized crime seems to have blunted the shock of Macheath’s murderous activities—to the point where the record approached a sense of joyous celebration of the criminal underworld. Only four years earlier, Louis Armstrong’s 1955 recording was initially met with a radio ban over the crime-positive spirit of the lyric, but it still managed to reach No. 20 on the Billboard Top 100 list. Darin’s 1959 version was a monster hit, spending nine weeks at No. 1 and winning two Grammy awards.


What really sets Darin’s version apart, certainly as much as the swinging, modern groove, is the use of no fewer than five half-step modulations that keep raising the tension with each pass through the song. While that means it can’t be played using basic open cowboy chords throughout, you only need to learn a handful of closed-position shapes, moving them up the fretboard for the key changes in the subsequent verses. And having these voicings in your quiver can be helpful in general for playing any song in the key of your choosing. 

More about those modulations: The first two verses are in the guitar-friendly key of E major. But starting in the last bar of the second verse (the second ending in the notation here), you move the V chord up a half step, to set up the key change at the beginning of the next verse. For instance, instead of the expected B9sus4 in bar 17, you play C9sus4, which is the V of the I chord (F6) in the third verse. When you get to the end of that section, use the same method of moving the last chord up another fret, leading to the key of F# major in the fourth verse. Keep repeating the pattern until the song has traveled all the way up to the key of Ab—and old Macky’s back in town.

"Mack the Knife" guitar music notation
"Mack the Knife" guitar music notation chords and lyrics
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Maurice Tani
Maurice Tani

Maurice Tani is a veteran singer-songwriter and alt-country band leader based in California.


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  1. My left hand is cramping up but I love this song and tempo. And I learned some chords I never thought I would need. Great video, Maurice!