Almost five and a half years ago, I wrote the first “Easy Songs For Beginners” lesson for Guitar Noise. When I wrote it, though, it wasn’t an “Easy Songs” lesson but rather a new guitar column (for those of you who don’t look around the Guitar Noise website, you’d be surprised how much information there is all over it). But that one article (pardon the pun) struck a huge chord with readers and the Easy Songs Lesson page was born.
Trouble was (and still is) that after writing three lessons with songs that only had two chords, it seemed smart to branch out and look at other things that beginners would need to know. After all, who plays only two-chord songs for years at a time? The idea was (and still is) to try to teach various aspects of music theory and guitar technique through the playing of songs that the majority of our readers might be familiar with.
I’m sure you’re ahead of me now (and that’s actually the point), and can already see that there are numerous problems with this approach. Since everyone learns at decidedly different paces, what might seem a beginner’s lesson to one might be a bit advanced for another. As a teacher, I prefer to challenge my students. After learning some basics, no one needs a teacher to strum a few chords. That’s why we have the Easy Song Database.
But we do need to fill in some gaps in our current slate of beginners’ song lessons. And today’s lesson might indeed be a little too basic for some of you. But I’m hoping, as always, to throw in enough extra ideas to make it worth everyone’s while.
So, onward, eh?
Okay, if you’re still with me, here’s our lesson agenda: We’ll be using the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, as a lesson dealing with changing chords for beginners. It technically has only two chords (and notice the word “technically”), so that shouldn’t be too big of a problem. We’ll also look at the “choking” technique of strumming, something that you’ll want to get into, especially if you ever decide to play gypsy jazz style rhythm guitar. And we will throw in an introduction (or reintroduction, depending on which lessons you’ve already covered on your own) to “slash chords.”
If that’s not enough for you, there will be a “bonus section” dealing with a (very) short guitar fill that is a great exercise in alternate picking. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty good deal from a song that lasts a little more than two minutes in its original recording. And we’ll be speaking of that soon enough…
Before we go on, there are two things I’d like to add. First, if you’re wondering just “where” this lesson falls into the current listing of lesson, I’d probably place it “fourth,” meaning that it would come after Horse With No Name, For What It’s Worth, and Feelin Alright and before Three Marlenas and Margaritaville. At least, that’s where it comes when I teach my adult group classes at the Berkshire Community College (they get Big Yellow Taxi instead of Feelin Alright but for very sinister reasons…)
Second, since I’m treating this as an “early beginners'” lesson, be prepared to get a lot of advice on things like changing chords and keeping timing. After all, those are two of the hardest parts of getting going on the guitar.
Okay, then! To play Eleanor Rigby, you’ll need to know two chords, Em and C:
We’re going to start with the C chord. While there are many ways of fingering the Em chord, most people play C with the index finger on the first fret of the B string, the middle finger sitting at the second fret of the D string and the ring finger placed on the third fret of the A string. Get you fingers set with the C chord and we’ll get ready to play the introduction.
I should also mention some good news as far as the strumming goes. The predominant instrumentation on Eleanor Rigby is the string section, which probably makes you wonder why we’re going to do the song on a single guitar! We’ll do our best to emulate the strings and, in this case, it means playing straight quarter notes and using only downstrokes for our strumming. Things can’t get too much easier!
The introduction is two measures (eight beats) of C followed by two measures of Em. Then all four measures are repeated. Let’s do this relatively slowly to start with:
First things first – depending upon how much of a beginner you are (and how much you practice (or have practiced) changing from chord to chord), you probably had little to no problems going from C to Em. Getting back to C might have required a little more attention, right?
If that’s the case, don’t panic! And pay attention because this is probably the most important thing I could ever teach you. Changing chords will come with practice, patience and persistence. Again, depending on how much of a beginner you are, you have to realize that you have spent more of your life not playing guitar. So don’t expect your hands to immediately do things they have to learn. That’s the “patience” part…
But when you are practicing a song that you are intending to play, it’s important to practice timing. For a beginner (and unfortunately a lot of others), this is what usually happens when practicing a song:
Sound at all familiar? I’d like to introduce you to the idea of making your timing more important than your chord changing. Why? As I’ve pointed out (and as anyone who plays guitar will tell you), you will get faster with your chord changes as you practice them. But if you are continually practicing bad timing, then you will indeed get better at keeping time badly.
A song such as Eleanor Rigby gives us an ideal opportunity to practice both keeping time and changing chords. In the introduction you have eight beats of each chord, followed by eight more beats of each chord. If you had no problem switching from C to Em, you probably changed right before the ninth beat, like this:
But coming back from Em to C, you want to give yourself a little extra time to get your fingers set in their place. Let’s say that you know you need at least three beats to do it. So you’re going to want to play the second part of it like this:
The object here is to make the chord change in time with the tempo. Tempo, when playing a song, is usually pretty steady, so if you can’t make the change within a beat’s time, you’re going to want to get ready for your chord change earlier.
Practicing like this helps you in a lot of ways. First, you’re going to be looking for more efficient ways to change chords. If you normally finger the Em chord with your middle finger on the second fret of the D string and your index finger on the second fret of the A string, then you can keep your middle finger in place when changing from Em to C. That’s one less thing to worry about. Those of you who use your ring finger on the D string and your middle finger on the A will need to be a little quicker, and with a little practice you’ll find yourselves making the switch without thinking twice about it.
As you get better at changing chords, you’ll need less time to switch between them. Before you know it, you’ll start your switch on the seventh beat, then on the eighth. And finally you’ll be able to make the switch between the eighth and ninth beat, which is exactly where you want it in this song.
The second thing that concern us with the strumming in Eleanor Rigby is getting a crisp, clipped sound like pizzicato strings. This will involve doing a sort of combination of palm muting and the percussive stroke we covered back in For What It’s Worth. Have a listen:
If there’s any “trick” to this, it’s in keeping your hand close to the strings and making a short, compact stroke with the pick. Because of our experiences watching bands on stage, or worse in music videos, beginners often have a strong misconception as to how much movement is involved in picking and strumming. I like to joke with my students about guitarists having a “lazy” mentality, but in many cases if you remember that you want to do as little work as possible, you’re actually going to be better off! Strumming is done with the wrist, actually a combination of the wrist and forearm. If you’ve ever had a sock puppet and know how to make it say “no,” you’ve got the strumming motion down. It’s that easy.
Keeping your hand close while strumming allows you all sorts of control when it comes to dynamics of your playing. Do me a favor – take your right hand and make a karate chop on your right leg. If you’re left handed, do it with your left hand on your right leg. Notice which part of your hand strikes your leg. It’s the edge along the pinky, right? That’s the part of your hand you want to use to mute the strings of your guitar.
Taking our same rhythm of playing a downstroke on each beat, we’ll now add a “karate chop,” or muting of the strings (conveniently marked “M” in the above example), in between each beat. So now instead of sounding like quarter notes, we sound like we’re playing in eighth notes even though we’re not really playing on the in-between beats. Pretty sneaky, no?
And for all you nitpickers out there, I should point out that on some of the MP3s of this lesson you might hear a stray bass note where I’m indicating a mute. That’s because I’ve accidentally caught the edge of the pick on the low strings, inadvertently sounding a note. And that’s pretty cool because, as long as I’ve got my chord properly fingered, the stray note should fit in well with what’s going on.
One other thing you can do to help yourself mute the chord is to “choke” it. “Choking” is a technique that, like many guitar techniques, has many names. Whatever you decide to call it, it simply involves lifting the fingers of your fretting hand just enough to deaden the strings that you just fretted to play the chord. Combining choking with muting on your strumming hand gives you that “chunk-a” sound you’ve heard in a lot of rhythm guitar parts. This is also something that requires some practice to get down, but it’s worth the effort. And it’s fun, too, because it’s the kind of “practice” that seems more like goofing around!
Now that we’ve got our strumming set, and we’ve managed to play the introduction, let’s tackle a verse. We want to use the same strum/mute pattern here. Each verse starts with three measures (twelve beats) of Em, followed by a measure of C, followed by a measure that has two beats of C and two of Em. Then the whole process repeats itself:
The only thing that you might want to keep in mind while playing this is to remember how long it takes you to get from the Em to the C chord. Plan ahead! If you have to stop on the ninth beat of the twelve beats of Em to get ready, then do so. Again, the whole point is to be on that C chord right on time, namely on the thirteenth beat of the verse.
Technically, you could play the whole song like this and be perfectly fine. But I’d like to use the choruses of Eleanor Rigby as an introduction (or reintroduction to some of you) of “slash chords.” When you play a chord on the guitar, you usually use the lowest root note of the given chord (that’s the note that has the same name as the chord – C is the root note of C while E is the root note of Em) as your bass note. Sometimes, though, you want a note other than the root note to be in the bass. This is where slash chords come in.
A slash chord looks like two chords with a slash (“/”) between them. Something like this:
Whenever you see a slash chord, simply remember that the chord is to the left of the slash and the note on the right side of it indicates a new bass note. So in this example, we want to play an Em chord, but we want to have a note in the bass. In other words we want the D note to be the lowest note of our Em chord.
Slash chords can cause confusion. In the above example we are technically creating a new chord, an Em7, when we add the D note to the Em chord. So if we were being sticklers for protocol, we’d call it “Em7/D.” But slash chords don’t always create new chords. Suppose we wanted an Em chord with B as our bass note. B is part of the Em chord, so writing it as “Em/B” is perfectly correct. Many times, these notes are thought of as “passing tones” – they are simply meant to highlight our moving from one chord to another. So don’t worry too much about what they are called. Worry instead about how to play the original chord and the new bass note.
Take a minute and strum four measures of Em while singing the chorus of Eleanor Rigby. That’s the “…all the lonely people where do they all come from…” part. Sounds a bit drab, no? We’ll eliminate that drabness with a moving bass line, courtesy of four slash chords:
If you looked only at the chord names, you might be tempted to give up! Look instead at the TAB. All you’re doing is playing a single note, your new bass note from the slash chord, on the first beat of each measure and following that bass note with three downstrokes of the top three strings, which conveniently happen to be an Em chord!
Let’s cover this in a little more detail: We want to play an Em/D chord, which means that we want an Em chord but one using D (instead of E) as its bass note. The lowest D we can find on our guitar, without retuning it (!) is the D note of the open D string. So that becomes our new bass note and the three open strings above it are the rest of the Em chord. The next chord, Em/C# is an Em chord (again, the open first three strings) with C# (fourth fret of the A string) in the bass. Our third slash chord is Em/C, which means that C (third fret of the A string) is our bass note and we’re still using the first three strings for the Em chord. On Em/B, the final slash chord of the chorus, we’ll revert back to a “normal” Em fingering, but we’ll be certain to use the B note (second fret of the A string) for the new bass note.
Those of you who tune your guitars manually (without a tuner) and those of you who already have a grasp of where various notes are on the guitar’s fingerboard may ask, “Why not use the fifth fret of the A string for the D note?” And you’d be perfectly correct to do so:
In the various MP3 examples that involve the chorus, this is precisely what I do. The main reason is that I like keeping the various bass notes all on the same string as I feel it gives a nicer tone overall. But it’s strictly up to you. Either method works fine.
You can also use arpeggios to play the chorus instead of this “bass/strum” method:
This is simply one of many examples of an arpeggio pattern. You should, as always, feel free to experiment and come up with some of your own.
And now that you have the introduction, verses and choruses set, you can pretty much play all of Eleanor Rigby. As promised, though, I’d like to give you a few “bonus” touches – little fills that aren’t that hard to learn and can spice up your arrangement a little.
The first “optional riff” appears in the introduction, during the two measures of Em:
This is imitating the prominent string line (I believe on the violin) at this part of the song. You begin with the A note at the second fret of the G string and then play the open B string. Every other note is the open B string, and this technique of using a repeated note in this fashion is called a “pedal point.” You’ll run into it in all types of music from Mozart to Metallica. After hitting the open B the first time, you strike the open G string, then the open B again, then the F# note at the fourth fret of the D string followed again by the open B string. One more strike of the open G string, a hit of the open B, a strike of the E note (second fret of the D string) and a final open B completes the riff.
This may seem a little complicated. But with a surprisingly little amount of concentrated practice, you will find it falls easily into your fingertips. The main concern, once more, is timing. By not playing any rhythm on the third beat, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to get your fingers set for this riff.
Our second optional riff is the string line that ends the song:
To play this, start out with your regular Em chord but add your pinky to the third fret of the high E (first) string to sound the G note when you make the first strum. Then remove your pinky and play the open first string. Then strike the open B string. Now play the A note on the second fret of the G string. Depending on how you play your Em, you can use whatever finger happens to be free and comfortable. I tend to use my ring finger.
Finally, reform your Em chord and strum down only as far as the open G string. Et voila! You’ve finished the song in fine form!
Here’s a breakdown of how Eleanor Rigby is structured and in the MP3 we’ll go from the interlude (a repeat of the introduction) on through to the end:
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing around with this song. There are a lot of things here for a beginner to digest, and that’s simply part of the learning process. Concentrate on one aspect at a time – first working on the chord changes, then on getting the timing correct and then perhaps working on the strumming. It won’t be long before you’re working on various combinations of all the ideas we’ve covered here.
And before you know it, you’ll have another song for your repertoire.
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 Forum page or email me directly at email@example.com.
Until our next lesson…
Where Did The Guitar Tab Go?
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.