Before I forget, I’d like to thank Tim, otherwise known as Musenfreund, the Guitar Noise Forum Page’s resident Beatlephile, for his assistance with this lesson. And not just this one, but the Easy Songs for Beginners’ piece, Nowhere Man, as well.
And I guess that while I’m trying not to forget things that I should get this out of the way:
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.
“Julia” is the only song in the entire Beatles’ catalog where John Lennon sings and plays unaccompanied by another band member. Written for his mother, the song came about during the Beatles 1968 trip to India to visit the Maharishi. During this trip Lennon learned, and uses in this song, the fingerpicking technique known as Travis-picking.
We’ve put the spotlight on Beatles songs many times before in these easy songs for beginners lessons. For a complete list of lessons check out our Beatles music page.
I hope you’ve brought your fingers with you today! We’re going to add another Beatles’ song to our repertoire, the hauntingly beautiful Julia, written by John Lennon and originally released on the group’s self titled album that we all tend to call The White Album.
And I also hope you’ve brought a bit of patience, because, as I’m certain you all know by now, I’m not going to teach you the note-by-note transcription. Far from it, actually! For starters, I don’t think that it’s fair to use this particular song as a lesson in what’s called “Travis picking” (more on that in just a moment), especially as we’ve never truly attempted that in any of our lessons as yet. But I want you to be able to learn that just because a song seems incredibly complex and difficult, it doesn’t mean that you can’t come up with a version of it that not only you can play, but play well enough so that everyone will want to hear you play it, too!
This doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a completely easy go of it, though! After all, this is the “Intermediates” section, so you’re going to have to do a bit of work! But I think that, with some time and energy on your part, you’ll find yourself more than up to the task.
Yet another reason for my choosing this song as a lesson is that Julia is, to put it mildly, a quirky song. The structure, as folks are more than happy to point out, is slightly askew; the chord progressions enchanting in their gentle dissonances and even gentler resolutions.
We’ll also take the time, as we did in Nowhere Man, to look at some basic (and not so basic) chord substitutions and to even throw in a small flourish or two of our own.
So take a deep breath and blow on your fingertips and let’s get started!
As I mentioned a moment ago, Julia doesn’t fit very well into what we tend to think of as a “typical” song structure. People can (and do!) wrangle over what to call the “verse” and “chorus” and I can’t help but wonder what the point is in doing so. To me, it’s far simpler to break the song into “sections” as opposed to the traditional verse/chorus approach. Let’s take a look at a “cheat sheet” for Julia and
I hope it will help better explain things. By the bye, if you’re going to play along with the original recording (or this lesson’s MP3 examples), it’s once again time to get your trusty capo. On the recording, Julia is in the key of D. We’ll be using our capo on the second fret and playing in the key of C. As usual, all of the music notation, TAB and even this cheat sheet are written with that in mind:
What I’ve done here is to break the song down in terms of structure – not a verse/chorus sort of structure, but rather one based on what the song does in terms of chord progressions and measures. The very first part I call “Section A.” It is eight measures long and runs through two cycles of the chord progression C, Am7, Em and G (each chord holds for one measure of four beats). Normally, I would call this an “Introduction,” (you’ll hear me call it the “prologue” in an upcoming MP3) but this identical section repeats later on, about two thirds of the way through the song.
Likewise, Section B, which I consider the main body of this piece, repeats itself several times. It starts with the same two chords (C and Am7) as Section A and then goes wildly off on its own before coming back to the final two chords of Section A, namely Em and G.
There is a Section C, which is totally unlike either of these other two segments. This could truly be called the “bridge” of the song without too much fear of an endless and pointless debate. But, of course, having just said that, I now have to wait and see what kind of debate I’ve stirred up!
And finally, just to make our lives more interesting, there is also an “OUTRO,” Section D, if you’re so inclined. It’s the last of many of the little treasures of this song, and by no means worth slighting.
There’s one other thing in this cheat sheet that might confuse you. Some of the “Section Bs” have an “a” in parentheses underneath the word Julia. This indicates places on the original recording where the vocal part overlaps. While this effect is beautiful on the record, it’s pretty close to impossible for the single singer/guitarist trying to get by on his or her lonesome. Stick a red flag on that as we’re bound to come back to it!
And now that we’ve broken things down, shall we tackle them one by one?
Listening to the original recording, Julia is a classic example of what’s called Travis picking. The story goes that Donovan, another sixties pop icon, taught John and Paul this very popular and extremely versatile style of play. Simply put, Travis picking uses an alternating bass pattern, the likes of which we’ve seen in a number of our lessons (the first instance being, I believe, Margaritaville). The thumb plays the bass note on the beat, keeping the tempo steady and true. The fingers, meanwhile, can play either on or off the beat. Quite often they do both. Here is the finger pattern John Lennon used all those years ago:
Okay, if we haven’t gone over this before, now’s a good time to understand a bit of notation. You might be looking at that and saying to yourself, “Poor Dave’s gone off again! There’s no less than seven quarter notes in that first measure and I know there should only be four!”
Let’s approach this by starting with something you already know about playing the guitar: each finger could be playing notes of different lengths during any given measure. A conventional way of dealing with this is to write the “thumb’s” notes (that is the bass notes) with downturned stems and uses notes with upturned stems to indicate the notes meant to be played with the fingers. And indeed, if you count the notes with downturned stems, you’ll find that there are four quarter notes in each measure. So far so good!
Looking at the upturned stems, though, I count only three. That means we’ve dropped a beat somewhere, right? Well, fortunately, there are also two half-beat rests. That would account for the missing beat. If I were to divide this measure into half-beats, this is how we’d play it:
And now I hate to throw cold water over everything, but we’re not even going to deal with this picking pattern in today’s lesson. However, it never hurts to get a head start on something we’ll be using in the future, no?
The reasons we’re going to simplify this are many, and I’ve touched upon a few of them earlier. But if you need one immediately, then try singing the first line of this song while picking this pattern. That’s a bit tough, isn’t it?
As I’ve noted in many of our lessons, most of these arrangements have come from my desire to perform a particular song, and, as you undoubtedly know by now, “perform” is not synonymous with “copy.” When I’m performing, I have to know that there are going to be as few glitches as possible in my playing and I also want my playing to compliment and strengthen my voice wherever and whenever possible.
So the first thing I want to do with our arrangement of Julia is to simplify the basic finger pattern a bit, something along these lines:
The idea here is twofold. First, hold onto the chord as much as possible (one less thing to worry about while singing). Second, let the strings ring as much as possible, again while hanging on to the chord whenever I can. Using this pattern, we can adjust our “chart” to read like this:
You can see by comparing our two charts that we’ve only dropped one note, the one on the third beat, from the pattern. In addition, we’ve changed the last note, played on the fourth beat, from the E on the second fret of the D string to the open G. Why? No real reason, as you’ll see in a minute. And, as you’ll hear in a moment, you don’t lose as much as you think you might.
But before we lock into a pattern, I want to do one more thing. I want to add an additional ringing note on the first beat, like this:
The only difference here, as I mentioned, is in the first beat:
By the way, which finger should you use? As per convention, I try to use my ring finger for striking the high E (first) string, my middle finger to play the B string and my index finger takes on the G string. But, try as I might, that’s not what always happens. Often my ring finger totally misses the boat, leaving the middle and index finger to play the top three strings. Sometimes, too, my thumb will decide to catch the D string on the fourth beat:
The only real reason I’ve included this pattern is that I found myself playing it while getting ready to write and record this piece. But, having listened to the MP3s more times than is probably good for one’s health, I think I pretty much used Pattern #1c throughout. The important thing is to keep the rhythm of the basic pattern going as automatically as possible. What does it sound like? I’m glad you asked! What I’ve done here is play Pattern #1b and Pattern #1c over the chord progression used in Section A:
I can’t stress enough how important it is to take this slowly and to get the pattern into your hands. You’ll see it repeating pretty much throughout this song, so why rush things if it means never getting to the point of being able to play smoothly. Tempo should not be an issue at all at this point.
While you’re working on this finger pattern, take the time to listen to it and appreciate the little things about it that make it interesting. First off, there’s that almost hypnotic quality of the repeated G and E notes on the first string. Some people like to play the Am7 with the open G string, but I like the sound of the subtle change in the arpeggio when I use the A note on the second fret. Likewise, you’ll find a lot of TABs will say to play two full measures of Em (or Em7) instead of the Em and G that I use, but again, to me at least, it’s a matter of the sound. I use a full measure of Em instead of Em7 because I like the subtle change of sound in using the E note (second fret of the D string) in the Em chord to the open D string for the pattern of the G chord. You should feel free to use these chords as substitutes for each other. Play around and hear which sounds best to you.
When you’re ready, take another deep breath and remember that we’ve got one last thing with which to deal before moving on to Section B. You might recall my mentioning that some of the Section Bs, at least on the original recording, begin with an overdubbed vocal part. Lennon finishes the last syllable of “Julia” on the C chord and magically sings the first syllable of “Julia” at the same moment. I don’t know about you, but I’m not capable of that when playing live.
So what shall we do? In cases like this, I tend to opt for the easiest solution. We’re going to finish the “a” of “Julia” on the first beat of the first measure of Section B and then follow that up with the “Ju” in the second half of the second beat. We’ll even throw in the “li” as well, in the next half beat. To make this work, I feel I need to stress the melody in this part of the song, to think of as a turnaround of sorts, getting us smoothly from the G chord to the C. So in that last measure of G, I need to bring the melody to the fore. Let’s give it a try, shall we, starting with the measure of Em:
As you can see and hear, the measure of Em is the same as we played it earlier. The measure of G starts out the same, but when we go for the open high E (first) string, I take the finger that was on the G note (third fret of the first string), usually my ring finger as that’s how I play a G chord, and place it on the D note at the third fret of the B string. This note is played immediately after the open E note and you should be able to hear how it follows the melody line (the “-li-” of “Julia”). Occasionally my thumb will then catch the open G string, which is why that note is in parentheses. Since that open G is part of the G chord, there’s no harm in it.
The real fancy footwork (I should probably say “fingerwork”) occurs in the following measure, the one with the C chord. When I first learned this song, I couldn’t always change from the G to the C quickly enough to make the transition sound smooth. But I knew that I had to get the bass note in on time. After all sorts of trials, I ended up playing the bass note (C at the third fret of the A string) and the open B string and the open G string on the first beat and then hammering-on to the C note (first fret of the B string) on the second half-beat of the first measure as I got the rest of my C chord in place with my fingers. After doing that, I went back to the original G to E notes of the pattern, but, of course, I had to get them to fit into the rest of the measure.
When confronted by something that looks tough, it never hurts to sit and work it out measure by measure and beat by beat. Here’s how we’d chart out this measure of C, which starts Section B:
After that, we’re back to our normal measure of Am7 and we’re ready to tackle the rest of Section B. But before going on, I again advise you to take whatever time you need to practice this until you’ve got it down fairly smoothly. When playing any sort of finger style guitar pattern, holding the tempo has to be your priority. You can’t be speeding up at the parts you know well and then slowing down when you reach a place you need work. Keep things at the slowest pace possible in order to play everything evenly. Once you’ve done this for a while, and often it’s simply a matter of a (relatively) few repetitions, then you’ll find the speed will come to you.
This, to me, is the heart of the song and where a lot of the challenge lies. Let’s give it a look and listen first and then break it down measure by measure. By the bye, on the MP3 I start with Section A (I call it the “prologue”) and then play through Section B twice. I know on the recording I say I’m only going to start it, but you know how that goes!
We don’t have to cover the first two measures of Section B, as we just did that in Example #2. So, having played one measure of C and one of Am7, we move on to the third measure. And please don’t freak out by looking at the Gm7 and Gm9 chords! This is actually going to be very simple, in no small part thanks to the picking pattern I’ve chosen to use. Imagine that! Here, in the measure of Gm7, just barre your index finger across all six strings of the third fret. This will actually be a good exercise to see how well you’re barring the fret. All the notes of the pattern should still ring out clearly. If you’re getting some “tunks,” then you might want to examine which strings you’re not getting on the barre.
After playing the series of notes on the third fret, I add my pinky to the sixth fret of the B string to get the F note. When I’m done with that note I then move my pinky to the fifth fret of the high E (first) string for the A note (that’s the ninth of the Gm9) that starts the next measure. Note that we’re simply following along the melody line with our pinky here. And that’s all that we have to do for to change between these two measures. The index finger stays in place, fully barring the third fret. And it might be good news to you that this is the only full barre chord we’ll do in this song. Amazingly true!
But we will, however, do some interesting partial barre chord, starting right with the next measure. Here we have two measures of A (some TABs use A7 here; that’s ultimately your call) and this fingering is a very easy move from the Gm9 of the last measure. I keep my pinky in place and then slide my index finger down from the third fret to the second, but only barring across the first four strings. This sets up a partial barre chord of A, using the open A string as our initial bass note.
For the next-to-last note of the first measure, I merely re-grip the fifth fret with my pinky, getting the first two strings instead only the first. When I first started playing this song, I would totally ignore the C# note at the second fret of the B string and play it like this:
This is actually an interesting A power chord voicing. There’s no third at all. Pete Townsend uses it a lot, particularly in the classic Who anthem, Won’t Get Fooled Again.
As I got better at playing, I found I liked having the C# note in the mix in order to get the full tone of the A major chord. Again, I can’t stress enough that it’s simply a matter of personal taste combined with playing within the skills I have.
And it’s personal taste that makes me want to stress the melody line, especially in the next two measures. In most TABs you’ll see this written out as Fm7add9. That’s an F minor chord (F, Ab, C) with an Eb (the seventh) and G (the ninth) thrown in. This would be the best way of doing that:
This, however, involves the use of another fully barred chord and I seem to recall promising that I wouldn’t do that to you again in this song. After playing around a little bit I’ve also decided that I want to use the sixth (D) instead of the seventh (Eb) as part of a descending bass line to the C that starts the next measure. In addition to that, I also like the dramatic change of going from a measure of F to a measure of Fm, instead of the two measures of Fm. And, to top things off, I want something simple to reward myself for getting through the last four measures! So, this is what I’ve come up with:
Here we’re using Fadd9 for the first measure. This is simply your ordinary Fmaj7 chord (XX3210) with the G note added to the third fret of the high E (first) string. From this chord we go to Fm6, technically “Fm6/D” since the D note is in the bass. If you want to, or need to, impress your friends, call it Dm7b5 instead. It still works. To get this chord we partial barre the first fret, using our index finger to cover the first three strings. That, to me anyway, is easier than barring across all six. To this partial barre we add our pinky on the fourth fret of the high E (first) string. These two notes on the first string, G in the first measure and Ab in the second, are the melody and you should let them ring out long and true.
Another advantages of playing these two particular chords, besides allowing myself a respite from full barre chords, is that I can throw in a short descending bass line, from F to E to D, as I’ve shown in the second half of this example. It’s not much, but it is a small break from the possible monotony of being locked into a particular picking pattern. It gives the audience something new to listen to as well.
And now we’re almost done with Section B. We go back to the C, Am7, Em and G chord progression but we’re once again going to use our melody line as an inspiration to change the Am7 to Am9:
You may ask why do something like this and the only answer I can give you is because you can. To me, it’s an aid for the vocal. Also it just sounds more interesting than playing another measure of the Am7 pattern that we’ve used throughout Julia thus far. And, even though it sounds impressive, it’s very easy to do! This is another partial barre, using the index finger across the first four strings of the fifth fret and leaving the A string open to serve as your bass note. Use whatever finger is comfortable to get the B at the seventh fret of the high E (first) string and then release it for the A note that’s already covered by your index finger.
Of course, feel free to substitute our “regular” measure of Am7 here. That’s totally your call.
Even though I made a big deal of breaking down this song into “sections,” I still tend to call this the “bridge.” Here we’re going to make a pretty drastic change in terms of chords, going immediately from C to Bm. Believe it or not, in order to make this less abrupt, I’m going to throw in a short but flashy riff to get us from the C to the Bm, and I’m also going to use Bm7 (X20202) because I want to have that B in the bass without breaking my promise of using another full barre chord! We’ll pick things up with the last “Julia” in Section B(2):
Let’s start with the little riff in measure four. If you keep hold of the C chord from measure three, it’s simply a matter of a couple of pull-offs and one hammer-on thrown in for good measure.
Beginning with the C chord in place (index finger on the first fret of the B string, middle finger on the second fret of the D and ring finger on the third fret of the A) from measure three, simultaneously pick the C in the bass (third fret, A string) with your thumb and the C note on the first fret of the B string with a finger. Then pull off your index finger to get the open B string. Now sound the open G with a finger (usually index) while removing your middle finger from the D string. Using your thumb, pluck the open D string and then hammer-on the middle finger back in place. Hit the open G string again with the finger and finally strike string with your thumb and then pull off your ring finger to sound the note of the open A.
Needless to say, on the MP3 I’ve played this with deliberate slowness for clarity. You should take your time practicing it. This is one of those “fancy” things that you admire in other guitarists, but it’s certainly within your capabilities. In other words, it’s just an elaborate way of getting from one chord to another while not breaking up your playing. The secret, as in many of these we’ve learned, is in keeping the C chord form in place as much as possible. Your fingers are already where you need them to be; it’s now simply a matter of picking them on and off the strings at the right time.
You’ll be relieved to know that this is about as hard as things are going to get here in Section C. The rest of the bridge is straightforward, but there are, naturally, a couple of things to point out.
First, beginning with the Bm7, I start off each measure with the striking of three strings of the chord in addition to the bass note. Usually I’ll do this by using my ring finger on the first (high E) string, my middle finger on the B and index finger on the G. This is to give a little more punch to the chord.
And, yet again, I make a point of incorporating the melody into my picking pattern. This is particularly true of the lines “shimmering” and “glimmering” which are sung over the C and Am7 in measures three through six of the bridge:
Again, if there’s any secret to making this sound smooth, it’s in keeping most of the C and Am7 chord intact and just using your pinky to create the melody line. You’ll also note that in the second measure of each of these pair I switch to a single-note arpeggio of the chord. That is again to recreate the resting of the melody in those measures. And as we’ve seen in other lessons, it’s important to let your playing breathe. It can’t be busy all the time or you’ll tire out both your listeners and yourself!
We continue to ride the melody (“…in the sun…”) in the next two measures and then we drop back into single note arpeggios. The focal point here is the series of descending notes along the first two strings. Essentially, we’re playing Em under all of these notes. But there are interesting, if not dramatic, changes in the tonal quality of that Em depending on which note is getting the “featured treatment” of the highest voicing of the chord.
For example, the word “in” is F# (second fret of the high E (first) string) which creates an Em(add9). We add our pinky to get the G note (for the word “the”) and totally open the high E string for word “sun.” Then we create Em7 by stressing the D note at the thrd fret of the B string and continue down that string fret by fret. The second fret gives us C#, which makes an Em6 and the C natural at the first fret leads us to Em(b6). This is a lazy, languid would actually be a better word, progression that reflects the song’s prevailing mood of listlessness.
Finally, almost gratefully, we arrive at the C chord that signals the start of Section B(3) and we can move on ahead. I’ve taken the liberty of recording an MP3, which puts these different sections together, pretty much at tempo. Here are Section A followed by Section B followed by Section C and then back to Section B again. As always, I appreciate your forgiveness for the (more than) occasional flub:
What else to go over? Well, don’t forget that after Section B(3) you go back to Section A again. That can be a bit confusing, but just remember to stick an extra measure of C in there and you should have no problems with that.
The only thing left to point out is the coda at the very end. Here Lennon decides to drop the Em from the final sequence of chords, only to return to the original Am7 to Em to G progression for the finale:
Again, there’s nothing there that you can’t handle. You’ve probably already picked up on the fact that my little ending in the last two measures is simply a slight redoing of the “riff” we used to introduce the bridge.
It’s important to approach songs like Julia, which can truly seem very complicated, much in the same manner we’ve approached all of the songs in our lessons. Break it down into parts. Then don’t be afraid to break those down into even smaller parts. Most guitarists and teachers will tell you that there’s no harm in practicing a sequence as small as two notes over and over again until you’re ready to move on. After all, what is a song but a bunch of parts pieced together?
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you get to enjoy playing Julia as often as possible. This is a great song for any guitar, whether acoustic, electric, classical or twelve-string. Since most of you know that I mainly play the twelve-string, you probably understand why I went out of my way to create an arrangement that dealt with as few full barre chords as possible!
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 email@example.com.
Until our next lesson…
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.