How many of you have seen (or heard of) those “infomercials” where some guy promises to teach you how to play the guitar in what? Twenty, thirty minutes tops? The first time I saw one I had to stop and watch. Wow! I could do that? But then I thought about it. Hell, anyone could do that!
Really and truly, you can learn to play a song in less time than it takes to talk about doing it. But the problem comes with trying to figure out what you have actually learned and whether or not you will be able to apply that knowledge down the road. In my mind, simply copying something rarely teaches anyone anything. Oh, there will always be exceptions, the geniuses who will take the time to figure things out for themselves, but most of us tend toward the lazy. Better to start in learning the “whys” along with the “hows” than to try to piece it all together later.
This lesson, our very first Guitar Noise “Easy Songs for Beginners” lesson is meant to help you do both – learn a song and learn about the music that goes into it so you can actually play it and use what you learn in other songs you play. After we pick up the basics of the song, then we’ll have some fun “really playing” it by adding some strumming variations (including a very basic bass part) and in the lesson, Adding Some Personal Touches, we’ll also add some rhythm riffs (fills) and some leads (ranging from easy to intermediate). You didn’t think I was going to let you get away and not learn something, did you? It should (hopefully) be harmless…
The Absolute Basic Model
Say you’ve never played the guitar before? Well, step right up here and I’ll make you a guitar god for only $49.99 or my name ain’t…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It gets really crazy sometimes, doesn’t it? Well, in order to proceed, I am going to (gasp) assume that you’ve held a guitar before and that you are somewhat familiar with the terminology. If not, then you need to start out with our Absolute Beginners Chords lesson. Just get to the E minor chord (it’s the first one) and you’ll be all set. No lie!
Because this lesson’s song is Horse With No Name, written by Dewey Bunnell of the group, America. The entire song consists of two chords, one of which (E minor) you know and the other we can argue about almost forever:
The E minor chord is, as you’ve discovered, one of the simplest to learn, but how on earth did Mr. Bunnell come up with the second chord? Well, I certainly wasn’t there when he did it, but I think it’s a pretty fair guess that it was either the result of a mistake or just exploring the fretboard. Either way, I’m sure he looked up and said to himself, “Hey, this sounds pretty cool!”
Both chords are easy enough to do. An Em requires you to use the second fret on both the fourth and fifth (D and A) strings while the Dadd6add9 simply has you move your two fingers to the next outer strings, the third and sixth (or G and low E). It’s not a hard change and it requires little thinking. Use whatever finger is on the second fret of the A string (it will probably be the index or middle) to play the second fret of the low E. Likewise, simply shift whatever finger is on the second fret of the D string to the second fret of the G. It’s kind of like doing jumping jacks with your fingers!
(And yes, we’re going to discuss this “Dadd6add9” later. If you can’t wait, just skip down to the section entitled, “What is that chord really?”)
The rhythm of the song is in 4 / 4 time (four beats per measure) and the chords change each and every measure. For starters, do a simple downstroke, either on all four beats or, if you’d like a little variation, on the first, second and fourth beats. Remember that this song is moderately paced – it’s not really fast and not really slow. When you’re first learning a song, go as slow as you have to in order to make comfortable chord changes while keeping the overall beat smooth and steady. This is where a metronome can come in very handy.
Here’s a cheat sheet of how verses and chorus should shape up:
Nothing to it, right? Okay, let’s move on, then…
Usually the first thing a beginner needs to work on is chord recognition and formation. You need to know the chords you want to play and how to finger them on the fretboard. Your next concern will be about being able to change from one chord to the next smoothly and cleanly. With this particular song, both of those concerns become almost minimal and, because of that, you can work instead on your strumming.
You might think I’m a bit nuts about this, but I really can’t stress enough how important it is to work on your rhythm. Not only the fundamental task of keeping a steady beat, but also creating patterns that make the song better, more fun to play and interesting to hear.
But hey, it’s just hitting the strings, so how hard can it be?
Well, not hard at all if you’re aware of it from the start. This is the suggested rhythm I gave you.
An symbol indicates an upstroke and a denotes a downstroke.
Now this will work but it’s hardly interesting except as a tool for helping us to keep time. A rhythm that would be closer to the original would involve working on our upstroke (coming up the strings, toward your head). It would also involve working on the beats in between the beats. The length of a note can be divided almost infinitely, but we’re going to just work with eighth notes for now. So instead of us counting, “1, 2, 3, 4,” we would want to count, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…” The four beats per measure have not speeded up in the slightest. You will probably think that they have, though, if you’re not familiar with this. Don’t worry. It’s not that hard to catch on.
So here is an alternative strumming pattern, complete with the appropriate chords:
Again, start out very slowly if this is new to you. As slowly as you need to in order to count out each beat and to get each stroke in its proper place. You’ll be surprised how easily it will come to you, even if you’ve never tried an upstroke before.
Filling In The Bottom (and sides!)
Once you’re feeling up to speed we can tinker a bit more and add a bass part. Granted, it will not be the most exciting bass line in the world, but if you’re a beginner, it should impress you with how easy it is to add a lot more texture to your playing with such a simple technique.
Here’s how we’ll do it. Whenever we hit the first beat of any given measure, we will strike only the sixth string (which will be the lowest tone on either chord). Just that string and nothing more. When you add in the chords (upstrokes and downstrokes), it should be something like the following example. With this Finale software notation, I indicated downstrokes with “D” and upstrokes with “U” just to make things a little easier:
Using this pattern as a starting point, you can then start to really have fun. One thing I like to do is to play an upstroke on the second beat of the E minor as close to the bridge (as far from the neck as the strings allow) as possible and let it ring through the remaining three beats of the measure, like this:
You can also pick out individual strings instead of strumming. In the following example, the three highest strings are all picked as upstrokes on the last beat and a half of the measure:
Once you have a couple of patterns that you like and can do without thinking, you’ll find yourself playing “mix and match,” throwing “E minor pattern 1” with “Dadd6add9 pattern 4” and what have you. It can become a lot of fun as well as a challenge to see what you can come up with next.
You see, even the simplest of songs can provide you with a lot of interesting opportunities if you are willing to put the time and effort into finding what can be done with it. Or you can simply learn the chords and then move on to your next song. As always, the choice is yours.
What Is That Chord Really?
Okay, let’s look at that second chord. If we examine the notes on each string, this is what we would find:
Last time out (Building Additions and Suspensions) we learned that we could, if we so desired, call this chord by a lot of different names. Who wants to start? Bm7 (add 4)? D6 (add 9)? Hey, how about E9 (sus4)? Those are all viable answers, given the notes of the chord.
We also touched on the fact that the context of the chord (how it is used in a progression) can be vital in helping to determine which chord name we will give it. An important factor in determining the context is the voicing of the chord, meaning not only which notes of a chord we use but where we play them on the guitar. Let’s take another look at both of our chords in this song:
Okay, first let’s establish the key of the song. Now we could do this the easy way: “Gee, David, it starts with an E minor chord and it ends with an E minor chord. Why don’t we just say it’s in E minor?” And I could live with this approach. But take a listen to both chords. Another reason for coming up with the same answer is simply by hearing how much more at ease the Em chord makes us feel. In contrast, the Dadd6add9 sounds unsettled, like it’s got to be going somewhere. Play the chords in reverse order and the Dadd6add9 still doesn’t sound like a resting point, like “home.” It’s just begging for a resolution.
Now, having just played the song to death, one thing that I can tell you is that I like the F# in the bass. It fits well, much better than having a D or E or even an A serving as the root. This, more than anything else, is what makes me decide that F# is going to be the root note on which to build my chord. So if I build a stack of thirds on top of my F# and fill in the notes I have from the chord (using a “-” to indicate a missing note), this is what I get:
You can see that the fifth (C#) and the ninth (G#) are not among the six notes in the chord. Instead, we get a second A. So we can call it F#m13 if we want to stay reasonably simple. Or F#m7 (no 5)(add 4)(add 6) if we want to be absolutely looney about it. But there is a lot to be said for simplicity when trying to write something out. As I mentioned earlier, people can (and do) argue about this sort of thing for ages.
But it does bring up an interesting thought – if you’ve got a chord that has seven notes what do you do? After all, you can only get six notes out of your guitar at a time, which one goes?
Traditionally, the fifth would be the note left out but, believe it or not, there are instances when the root is the “missing” note (and we’ll be examining chords like this in other Guitar Noise song lessons). But the real determining factor is what notes you are able to finger (or not finger) on your fretboard. For instance, if you strum your guitar (standard tuning) without putting any fingers on the fretboard at all you would have an A11. The notes, from low to high, would be E (fifth), A (root), D (eleventh), G (seventh), B (ninth) and E (fifth again). Here the third (C#) is the missing note. You could always add this by playing it on the 1st (or 6th) string but it sounds perfectly fine as it is. Generally a good rule of thumb with 9th, 11th, and 13th chords is to really try to include the seventh along with the root in order to give it some sense of identity.
Is any of this really that important? Like any knowledge, it all depends on what you want to do with it, and that’s what next week’s topic is all about. You’ll see that by giving our second chord an identity of Dadd6add9, we are helping to determine the modal centers of our harmonies. This is ultimately where our fills and leads will come from. And no, it’s nowhere near as complicated as it sounds!
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next week…