Welcome to another installment of “Songs For Beginners!” Today we’re going to look at another song that, just like Horse With No Name, is made up of just two chords. These two chords in question are E and A major. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at them, shall we?
If you’re truly starting from scratch and have never even tried these (or any) chords before, please take a minute or two and read The Simplest Song. In that piece, you’ll see that we use the Em (E minor) chord. The E chord (which stands for E “major” – it’s a musical convention that we always assume that a chord is major unless told otherwise) is very similar to the Em chord. The only difference is that we are now playing the first fret of the G string instead of leaving it open. This gives us the G# note, which, in addition to the E and B notes being sounded by the other strings, gives us the E major chord.
And it’s always good to point out that if you’d like to learn more about chords and how they are formed, then at some point you might want to read through our latest series concerning (very) basic theory. You can find these three articles (The Musical Genome Project, The Power of Three and Building Additions (and Suspensions)) via these links or take a visit to the guitar column page.
For the E chord, you might want to try this fingering to fret the notes:
Now the A chord is another matter. Some guitarists actually have a lot of trouble with this chord. It looks like it should be easy enough, simply press the second fret of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. But that’s exactly where the problem lies. Most people (and a lot of teachers) will tell you to use this fingering:
Personally, I find this very uncomfortable. By some happy accident, I learned the A chord after the E chord. At the time, I was trying like crazy to make as few changes with my fingers on the fretboard as possible and I managed to come up with this:
I just find it easier to get a better sounding A major chord this way. Not only is it more comfortable for my fingers, but I can switch quickly and easily back and forth between the A, E and D chords (which are the three most common chords when playing songs in the key of A major). I should mention, though, that I know a number of people (mostly guys with big fingers) who can’t get all three fingers on the second fret no matter what combination they try. Sometimes they resort to playing the A chord by barring the second fret (to “barre” means to lay a finger across all the strings of a fret). In this case, you wouldn’t barre the entire fret, just the first four strings. But here you have to make certain NOT to play the first string.
The point of all this is to show you that there are different ways to play chords. Ultimately, you should use whichever fingering gives you the greatest comfort and ability to switch from one to the next. You may often find yourself learning to play the same chord with different fingerings depending upon the context of the chord progression in which it is used.
So here’s our song for today. It’s by the group Buffalo Springfield (and if you don’t know the group, I’m certain that you may know one or two of its members. Both Stephen Stills and Neil Young were part of this ’60’s band) and it’s called For What It’s Worth. This is another moderately paced song in 4/4 time. Each measure is four beats and you change chords with the first beat of each measure. In other words, you start with the E for a count of four and then go to A for a count of four and then back to E for another count of four and so on. Ready?
Okay, now that we’ve got it, what are we going to do with it? Well, for starters, this is a good song to use to work on your strumming. And one aspect of strumming that I’d like to show you today is what I call “percussive strumming.” First, let’s come up with a simple pattern, shall we?
As always, take this slow and steady until you feel you’ve got a good handle on it. Ready? Alright, then. We’re going to concentrate on the second beat. It’s currently a downstroke, right? What we want to do is replace that second beat with a percussive stroke. A “percussive” stroke is a way of getting rhythmic beat out of your guitar without sounding a chord or a note. There are many ways to do this but we’ll start with just two. The easiest way to do this is to simply slap your strumming hand across all the strings at once. You do this with the palm of your hand flat against the strings. You don’t have to do it very hard, simply hard enough to deaden the strings. You will note that you actually produce two distinct sounds. Okay, the first might actually be called a non-sound, since what you’ve done is dampened the strings and stopped them from ringing. But you also create a “snap” or a “pop” from your fingers hitting the body of the guitar below the strings (away from your head). Obviously, how hard you slap the strings will dictate how much “pop” you get. Please, don’t go slamming your hand against the guitar and then writing me that you’ve broken the poor thing! Use your head and experiment a little. You can get different sounds depending on where you make contact with the guitar. When you feel confident that you can do this, try incorporating the percussive stroke into your rhythm pattern. Here I’ve used the symbol to designate the percussive stroke:
That’s not too hard, is it?
Now while this “slapping” technique works well on acoustic and classical guitars, I find two problems with it. You can’t really use it on an electric (well you can, but that’s a whole other matter best covered at some later point…). Worse, it can be fairly disruptive of the rhythmic pattern, especially when you get to working on faster songs. What does work very well is what I call a “heel stroke” (and I should note that these are names that I use because people ask me “How do you do that thing with your strumming hand?” I have no idea as to whether or not there are universal names for these techniques (although I suspect that there must be) and since I picked them up myself by watching and listening to other people and then experimenting on my own. I have tried to name them as simply as possible because, truth be told, I’m not really interested in what they’re called as much as I’m interested in what they do). This is going to sound more complicated than it is and I hope that I explain it well enough for you to get on the first try. If not, please feel free to write me and ask me to re-explain it.
Essentially, what you want to do is to make a downstroke with your normal picking motion while dampening the strings with the heel of your hand at the same time. The “heel” of your hand is the “outer” edge, from the side of your pinky to the wrist. It is the part of your hand that is in contact with the paper (even though I was told it shouldn’t be) when you’re writing something. To hear what this should sound like, place the heel of your hand against the strings and keep it there while making a downstroke. Even if you’re fingering a chord at the other end of the fretboard, you’re still only going to get a percussive sound from the guitar.
Now that you know what it should sound like, try to make the percussive stroke by doing both the downstroke and the hitting your strings with the heel of your hand at the same time. The best analogy I can come up with is that when you bring the heel of your strumming hand down against the strings, snap your wrist into a downstroke, kind of like as if you were throwing a frisbee. The dampening action and the striking of the strings should be almost simultaneous. And yes, I know this is not as easy as it sounds! But, like (almost) anything, it becomes much easier, almost second nature in fact, with practice. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey! I sound sort of like Dave Matthews!” then you are indeed on the right track. Let’s go back to our strumming pattern and now use the “heel stroke” wherever you see the symbol. remember to take things as slowly as you need to in order to get the timing right:
If you feel comfortable doing this, then this next step shows you why the “heel stroke” works so well. In addition to using it on the 2nd beat of each measure, let’s try it out on the 4th beat as well, shall we?
You can hear how smoothly this percussive stroke fits in with the rhythmic pattern. And since it’s essentially a downstroke as well, it makes it a lot easier to keep your upstrokes in line. This is a technique that is used constantly by guitarists. Chances are you’ve heard it over and over and just didn’t know what it was. But now that you do, and now that you know what it sounds like, you can go back and try it out with other songs that you know. This is what learning should be about.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson. Next time out (hopefully next week), we’ll look at another two chord song (also A and E) but we’ll examine ways to play it on different points on the fretboard. We’ll also go over yet another strumming technique, this time targeting individual notes as well as chords. Hope to see you there.
As always, please feel free to write me with any questions, concerns or comments. You can reach me at my new email @ddress, email@example.com or you can still reach me at the old one as well. I realize that it’s hard enough to explain some of this stuff even when you’re face to face with guitars in hand, so I really want to thank you for the effort that you obviously put into reading these articles.
Until next time…
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.