As mentioned in numerous lessons, a lot of the “beginner” part of “beginners’ guitar” consists of learning chords and getting to the point of being able to smoothly switch from one chord to another. Doing that, while keeping a steady rhythm (strumming or fingerpicking), often seems a bonus.
One of the bigger challenges early on is the change between G and C chords. It becomes even bigger when you learn just how many songs contain chord progressions involving G and C. Many beginners manage to get the chord shapes and can play G and C by themselves, meaning out the context of a song, but find switching between these two chords frustrating. It’s not easy to get the change in a timely manner, meaning in the context of playing them in a song. What usually happens is that you’re on one of the two chords and you create a bit of a “hiccup” in the rhythm while you switch chords. Being able to change smoothly, let alone quickly, between these two chords seems a bit like asking too much!
Okay, by now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with walking bass lines…
Take a moment and try this following experiment:
Get set up with a G chord. Chances are that you, like most guitarists, finger the G chord with your middle finger on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string, your index finger on the second fret of the A string and your ring finger on the third fret of the high E (first) string. Even if you play your G differently, still try this out. Strum the G chord slowly, in four steady downstrokes, and then change to C. Simple, right?
Now I want you to do it again, but this time I want you to watch your fretting hand as it makes the switch from the G to the C. Which finger do you move first? More often than not, most beginners will lead with their index fingers, planting that firmly on the first fret of the B string before forming the rest of the C chord.
And here’s why it throws you off: Again more often than not, you will find yourself changing chords on a downstroke, meaning you’re strumming from the bass (lower notes) to the treble. But if you form the chord, like the C chord in this example, from the treble to the bass, you usually find yourself waiting to strum until the chord is formed. This is what causes the rhythmic “hiccup” we spoke of earlier.
It’s similar to the situation Josh Urban describes in his latest article, On The Other Hand, and it’s one reason than some people play the G chord more like the C, with the ring finger on the low E string and the middle finger on the A. Changing to C is then simply a matter of shifting those fingers up to the next string. But for most guitarists, playing a G in this fashion is uncomfortable and we learn to live with moving all our fingers when changing from G to C.
What we want to do is to get in the habit of forming our chords, especially ones like C and G that our fingers have to stretch across five or six strings, from bass to treble. And this is where our song, You Are My Sunshine, comes to the rescue.
Sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest places. Back in the spring of 2001 (and even that seems ages ago now), I was visiting some friends and they had the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? playing in the stereo. And when You Are My Sunshine came on, I found myself thinking two things: first, why had I never noticed what an incredibly depressing song this really was? And second, this song would make a great demonstration of a walking bass line.
So I started using it in my private lessons and, after moving here to the Berkshires, in my group adult classes as well. And that’s when I realized that this song not only was great for teaching walking bass lines, but that this particular walking bass line was the perfect way to help people start forming their C chord in a manner that would be both smoother and faster in the long run. And the bonus was that it was so easy and everyone knows the song so it almost teaches itself.
And now that you know what we’re going to be concentrating on, let’s get down to it and work on making smooth chord changes from G to C (and back again) by means of using walking bass lines, shall we?
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
First off, let’s look at the chord chart. You Are My Sunshine uses three chords, G and C plus the D in the last line. The verses and chorus use the same chord progression:
Seriously, now, aren’t those lyrics some of the most depressing that you’ve ever read? Ranks right up there with Comfortably Numb…
Because the verses and chorus have the same structure and chord progression, and because everyone pretty much knows the chorus without thinking twice about, we’ll focus our attention there for the most part of the lesson.
And, as with many of our Easy Songs for Beginners’ Lessons, you’ve already got what you need to get you playing the song. We could do with a strumming pattern, so how about trying one of these on for size:
Just to make certain you’re comfortable, run through the chorus (or a few verses or, what the hey, even the whole song) a few times so that you know the timing. Here’s the first verse and chorus for your listening/learning pleasure:
Another reason for getting familiar with this particular pattern, indeed for choosing a strumming pattern that emphasizes the root notes in the bass like this, is to get used to hearing those root notes. They’re going to be your targets, so it’s a good idea to have them in your ears. You, of course, should feel free to play whatever pattern you feel comfortable with, even if that’s just one downstroke per beat. But I’d like to suggest you try even the simplest of “bass/strum” patterns, if you can, such as playing the root note on the first beat of any measure and then three simple downstrums of chord for the last three beats.
Okay, now the fun starts. We’re going to walk up from G to C on the “you make me happy” line of the chorus, like this:
This bass line follows the melody line directly, so there should be absolutely no problems with the timing. It’s all simple quarter notes.
You start with your G chord (and I’m assuming here that you’re using the typical way of playing, that is, with your middle finger on the third fret of your low E (sixth) string) and proceed with the basic strumming pattern for three measures (twelve beats). Notice I’m using the “alternating bass” pattern here in the example.
On the fourth measure, right with the first beat, which has no sung note on it, we’re going to switch to all single notes for our bass line. We start out with the G on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string and hit it for both of the first two beats (the aforementioned rest and “you”). Then we hit the open A string for the third beat (“make”) and then finger the B note at the second fret of the A string for the fourth beat (“me”). This will lead us to the C (third fret of the A string), which starts off the next measure (the “hap” of “happy”).
It’s important to note here that you might want to totally disengage your fretting hand when hitting the open A string. We’re going to use that beat to reset ourselves so that we can get the C note (third fret of the A string) with our ring finger. That is the ultimate goal of this entire lesson, remember? So when you’re playing this, start with the G chord played your normal way, then use whatever finger’s on that G note, then free up your hand when hitting the open A string, then use your middle finger to play the B note (second fret on the A string) and then your ring finger to fret the C. When you do this, your hand should then fall into the rest of the C chord as you’re hitting the root note in the bass.
And here’s the very cool thing: if you practice making the G to C chord change in this manner, deliberately and purposefully using the alternating bass line during the switch, you’ll soon find yourself leading with your ring finger when you switch between these two chords even when you choose not to use the walking bass line! Now you’re on your way to having much more speed and ease with this chord progression.
And it will work in the opposite direction as well, as you can see and hear in the following line:
Play through the strumming pattern on C in the second measure. Then begin the third measure by playing only the C note twice, then playing B (you might find it easiest to use your middle finger) and then the open A. Again, you’re using the open A string to buy yourselves a moment to get your fingers in place to form the G chord. Taking advantage of open strings like this is an easy way to smooth out and quicken your chord changes.
You can repeat both of these walking bass lines in the next two lines of the chorus, going up from G to C on “…you’ll never know dear…” and then coming down from C to G on “…how much I love you…”
And again I can’t stress enough that some concerted practice with these bass lines will also help you get into the habit of leading off your C and G chord changes with the finger for the bass note, which in turn will help you make this transition in a more timely fashion.
But wait! There’s more!
Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher or maybe I simply can’t leave well enough alone, but I always try to give my students a little more to both strengthen what they already know and to expand on that knowledge (or the new knowledge) a little more.
So when we come to that third line of the chorus, let’s have a little fun, and even extend that fun into the fourth line:
Here, since we’ve got a little time to kill sitting on the G chord, we’re creating a G to Em and back to G progression where there technically isn’t one. Is that allowed? Well, it sounds perfectly fine, so why not? And as you know from reading Part 1 of Connecting the Dots, going from G to Em simply involves hitting the F# note at the second fret of the low E (sixth) string at the right time. So doing this short little bass run reinforces that learning.
But I’d also like to extrapolate on what we’ve already worked on in this lesson, so let’s do that in the G to D and back to G of the last line (“…please don’t take my sunshine away…”). After coming back up to G from Em in the third measure, I start out the fourth measure with two beats of the basic strum for G. Then I hit the open A string again and the B note (second fret of the A string), just as if I was going to do a G to C bass walk. But instead of landing on C, I skip up to the open D string to start the fifth measure. And voila! Here we are at D.
Going from D to G is a little trickier. I could continue up the scale, going from the open D to E (second fret) to F# (fourth fret) and then to G (either open G string or fifth fret of the D string), kind of like a backwards Friend of the Devil. I could also use the “go down the same way you came up” method we’ve been employing for our G to C (and consequent C to G) changes throughout the song.
Instead, I’ll opt for something a little more interesting. Since the notes going up from D are E and F#, I’ll play them on the low E (sixth) string, just as I did in the Em to G change. Any of these possibilities will sound fine; this one just sounds best to me.
Okay, if you’re with me so far, then it’s time for a little reward. Here’s a very easy flourish with which to end this song:
When you come to the next to last measure of You Are My Sunshine, start out with a strum of your G chord and quickly pull off your finger on the high E (first) string to let the open E note ring out. Then simply perform a single pull off on the third fret of the B string for the second beat, and again on the third fret of the G string for the third beat and finally on the third fret of the D string for the fourth beat before playing one resounding, final G chord. Isn’t it fun that such a complicated-sounding riff can be so easy to perform?
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing around with this song. It’s a crowd favorite with older and younger people (no one knows how depressing it is!) and can be a great number to use if you find yourself needing to lead a group session for the first time. You might even find yourself liking it!
More important, use the walking bass line from G to C wherever and whenever you can. This will help you get into the habit of forming your C chord from the bass up and that will improve your chord changing.
And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until our next lesson…