As a beginner, it’s easy to overlook a lot of the fun of playing guitar. Let’s face it, you have chords to learn and patterns to strum and there’s a lot going on that requires attention. But this is the best time to be thinking about it as well as working toward using different aspects of your guitar.
Today we’re going to work a little on the bass end of things, but more in a rhythmic way than a riff (as we did in Hey Hey My My). We’ll also have some fun with dynamics. The song we’ll use to demonstrate these lessons is Fire, written by Bruce Springsteen. If I recall correctly, Bruce originally wrote this for rockabilly singer Robert Gordon. A lot of you may be familiar with the version that the Pointer Sisters had a hit with. A select few may also be enamored of Robin Williams’ interpretation of Elmer Fudd singing the song.
Our version, of course, is for the single guitar, so it will certainly be different from any you’ve heard, but it will also be a lot of fun.
We’ll be playing Fire in the key of G major. Our arrangement has eight chords, six of which we’ve used before:
The musical hook of this song is in both the rhythm and the repeating bassline. First, let’s get the rhythm into your head:
It’s pretty simple, right? All you have to do is take off the finger you use to fret the sixth string and then place it back on again. This rhythmic riff, if you will, is the glue that holds Fire together.
When you’ve got the rhythm down, it’s time to add the chords. I prefer to use open position chords. Yes, you can also use power chords to play this. In fact, you’ll see power chords used in a lot of TAB transcriptions of this song. But the open chords will sustain a lot longer, creating the effect of more than one instrument being played. Let’s try it and see:
Here we’re striking the G chord on the first beat and then finishing off the two-measure rhythm pattern on the sixth string while the chord continues to ring out. So, when you’re playing the rhythm part, don’t let go of the rest of the chord! It may be a very simple concept, but you’ll be surprised how long it takes some players to get comfortable doing this!
Since close to 80% of Fire consists of this chord/rhythm pattern (although with different chords, as we’ll soon see), this is a good time to do a little experimenting. “Experimenting?” you ask. Yes, even though there seems to be nothing to this, think of all the things you can try. Do you play the chord on the downstroke? Is it a fast downstroke or do you grandly sweep through the strings? Why not try an upstroke?
Where are you playing the stroke? Here’s yet another way to experiment with your guitar’s sound. If you’re using a pick, try strumming the chord in various places. Normally, you’d probably play directly over the sound hole. Take a strum closer to the bridge or closer to the neck. For this song, I find a downstroke almost on top of the bridge provides a great sound that contrasts nicely with the single bass notes.
You can also experiment with playing the chords throughout or adding a power chord-like tone to the bass by adding a few notes, like this:
Other things you might try (as shown in the last examples) are palm muting the bass notes or using very sharp, staccato notes. Palm muting is done by resting the palm of your picking hand very lightly against the strings while striking the notes. Ryan Spencer has written a good article on this technique that you can read here (Palm Muting). To get a staccato note, you want to cut the note off almost immediately after it sounds. The easiest way to do this is just to touch the string again immediately after striking it. You see that there are lots of ways to get adventurous by trying different combinations of any of these ideas.
Again, all this is just part of experimenting. As I’ve told you in many other lessons, there is no one way of playing things. Enjoy yourself and see what kind of sounds you get. Be sure to note what you like and dislike.
Once you feel that you’ve got a sound you like, move on to the next chord. It’s even easier!
Here we’re playing a standard Am chord and using the open A and E strings as our bass notes in our rhythmic riff. These two chords make up three quarters of the verses.
Near the end of each verse, the chords shift from Am to Em:
I especially like using a long downstroke on this chord. One thing to watch for is your fingering. I would normally play an Em with my ring finger on the second fret of the D string and my middle finger on the second fret of the A. But here, I want to be able to get the third fret of the low E string and I can’t always count on my pinky to do that. So I make certain to play this Em chord with my middle finger on the D string and my index finger on the A, freeing my ring finger to fret the low E. It’s all in the planning!
An appropriate thing to discuss here is volume. This statement may take some of you by surprise, but the guitar can be an incredibly subtle instrument. When playing the verse up to this point, I tend to play it very quietly, the bass notes just loud enough to be heard. But when we get to the next to the last line of the verse, I bring up the volume. It’s all straight, even eighth notes and I play them all as downstrokes to have a good control of the volume I bring up:
After the full measure of C, I strum the D chord even harder, but I stop at the third beat and then slap my hand over the strings on the fourth beat to completely deaden the sound. This allows me to get really quiet again when I go back to the original rhythmic riff to finish the verse.
Second verse, same as the first…
When we finish up the second verse, I use another whole measure of eighth notes (again bringing up the volume) to signal the start of the bridge. I then switch to a simple quarter note/two eighth note strum for this section of the song:
Oops! Did the end catch you by surprise? Well, it’s supposed to! I want to bring this rhythm to a complete stop and totally let the last chord (the D7) ring out to its last breath. Speaking of which, most TABs will show the final chord as either D or D7. I like to use these three different chords, D, Dmaj7 and D7, simply to give a little more punch to the proceedings. If nothings else, you may consider this a quick lesson on the different tonal qualities between the major 7th and dominant 7th chords.
And if you want to have some fun with your listeners, take your time before going back to the third verse. Take a drink, stretch, or simply have a staring contest with someone in the front row.
Okay, that’s pretty much it. There’s an outro, which is just the intro which is just the initial rhythmic riff played once and then cut short after just a single measure. Piece of cake, right? Here we go:
I hope you’ve had fun with this song, if for no other reason than it is a fun song. Yes, it gives us a lot of chances to experiment with dynamics and tone, but also remember to have fun. When you’re enjoying what you’re playing, the audience tends to enjoy themselves as well.
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 next lesson…