Before we begin our regularly scheduled lesson, I do have to give you all a warning: reading this Easy Songs For Beginners Lesson will expose you to a small dose of music theory that could be harmful in that you might inadvertently learn something. Also there is a chance, a very good one actually, that you might have to use your pinky to play a riff! Oh! And you might even get a mini-rant from me on the importance of being able to get beyond relying strictly on tablature. Am I missing anything?
There’s also all the usual “riders” to the disclaimer – this isn’t a note-for-note-taken-directly-from-the-original-recording and on and on and on…Maybe I should just ask if we’re all beyond this sort of thing by now? That way we can move straight on to the fun stuff!
And today’s lesson will (hopefully) certainly be fun. We’re going to work on Nowhere Man, a song penned by John Lennon for the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album. This will be one of those lessons where you’ll have several options open to you as far as how you’d like to play it. We’ll start with the very basics, chords and strumming, and then see what we can do to make it more of an actual arrangement.
On the original recording, Nowhere Man is in the key of E. We’re going to play it in the key of D, which means that if you want to play along with the record, CD, radio or whatever (and that includes the MP3s accompanying this lesson), you’ll want to put your capo on the second fret of your guitar.
And this brings up an important point. A reader wrote me an email shortly after the Intermediate lesson on Your Song, asking if it was necessary to play with the capo at all. For that particular lesson, I had advised using the capo on the third fret but the song sounded perfectly fine to him without using one at all.
My suggestions for capo use, just like my suggestions for fingerings and chords, are simply suggestions. Usually I try to play the song in the same key as the original recording. That way if you want to play along, you should be able to. But what key you play a song in has to be your decision. Sometimes I can’t sing a song in the same key as it is on the recording. I imagine that many of you have run into this sort of thing. The capo allows you to find a new key in which to play the song without the added pain of relearning it in another key. Sometimes it’s not your singing, but the singer you’re accompanying who needs a change of key to make the song work. Sometimes, as in a lesson such as Scarborough Fair or Losing My Religion, it’s a matter of being able to get the right sound (or fingering) on the guitar. We’ll explore this more thoroughly over the summer when, fingers crossed, we tackle Hotel California, and then with Sultans of Swing; both songs will get lessons here and on the Intermediates page as well.
Anyway, the point is not to worry about the capo placement. If it sounds perfectly fine to you without a capo and it’s in your (or your vocalist’s) vocal range, then play away by all means!
Getting back to the song at hand, let’s look at a basic strumming pattern that will cover the entire song, should we decide to play it that way:
This is as basic as it gets. I’ve put two strumming patterns here and I’m hoping that by now you might understand why. Pattern One (in measure one) and Pattern Two differ only in that the second pattern has a final upstroke on the last half-beat. What happens is that I start out on Pattern One and then occasionally catch the strings on that last half-beat, creating Pattern Two. So I figured, why not write out both and let you choose which to use? More often than not when strumming this song, I’ll switch between the two patterns without a thought and perhaps you will, too.
Now that you have the strumming, let’s take a look at three chords with which you might not be familiar:
And, guess what? It’s time for a little theory lesson. Say you’re playing a cheat sheet (otherwise called a “chord sheet” as you’ll see almost immediately below – this is what passes for “TAB” on a lot of Internet sites) and you run into a minor chord that you’ve never seen before. Do you panic? No! You simply follow these three easy steps:
1) Find the note of the root of the minor chord on the first (high E) string.
2) Barre the first three strings at that fret.
3) Play only the three strings you’ve barred.
If you’ve read my column Moving On Up, you probably are already aware of this wonderful built-in quirk of the guitar. Here’s another: Say you’re playing the same (or a different) cheat sheet and you see a minor seventh chord you’ve never played before. What do you do? Just slightly change the second and third steps of what you did a moment ago:
1) Find the note of the root of the minor chord on the first (high E) string.
2) Barre the first four strings at that fret.
3) Play only the four strings you’ve barred.
Nothing to it! Now, equipped with this bit of knowledge and a little bit more theory (what notes are used to make a particular chord), let’s tackle two of these new chords, shall we?
First up is the G minor chord. Just to remind you, this chord is made up of the notes G, Bb and D. Most beginners learn to finger this chord thusly:
You can see that this fingering follows what I told you a moment ago – you barre the first three strings of the third fret (go on and guess what note on the third fret of the first (high E) string is!) and play those. Since D is a note of this chord, the open D string is fair game as well.
When you get to the point where you’re playing full barre chords, you learn that you can also play the Gm like this:
Here you’re barring the entire third fret across all six strings with your index finger and then fretting the fifth fret on the A string (usually with your ring finger) and also the fifth fret of the D string (usually with the pinky) to complete the chord. Let me go on record and say that you can play either of these fingerings for the Gm chord when you see it come up in the song. I want to add this new fingering, the first one in Example #1a, to your repertoire. To get this, I barre the first three strings with my ring finger and use my thumb to get the G note in the bass (the third fret of the sixth (low E) string). By reaching around with my thumb, I can also get enough of the A string to deaden it, and that muting of the A string allows me to strum across all six strings.
I do a similar thing with the F#m7 (the second chord in Example #1a), but here the A note is part of the F#m7 chord (F#, A, C# and E), so I can leave the A string open. Again, I find this easiest to play by using my ring finger to barre across the first four strings. You may have better success, on either or both of these chords, with your middle finger or first finger. Play around with different fingerings and see (and hear) which one works best for you.
As for the A7sus4, I think that you should have no trouble playing this at all. And we’ll get into my reasons for using it a little later. Right now, let’s take a look at how Nowhere Man plays out. Here’s a chord chart, cheat sheet, whatever you’d like to call it. Use our basic strumming pattern (Example #1) throughout the song. Each chord is held for one measure (four beats) except for the D chord at the end of each verse, which is played for two measures (eight beats). If you need to hear it, play the MP3 for Example #3 for the verse (playing two measures of D at the end instead of the one measure of the riff that’s on the MP3), and listen to the MP3 accompanying Example #5 for the strumming of the bridge. Then come back and try it out:
Congratulations! You now have this song added to your ever-growing catalog of material. And if you’d like to hang around and work on arranging this a little more, throwing in that little riff I mentioned and even coming up with something to play during the “instrumental verse,” then by all means, please do!
Before we go on, though, I’d like to address two things that may have caught the eagle eyes of those of you who live and die by the Holy TABs. I use an Em instead of a G for the fifth measure of the verses, the line that starts “Making all…” This is indeed at odds with most versions of the song. Since the E note (actually F# when you take the capo into account) is in the melody, I use the Em chord to help me find it when I’m singing. You’ll also see me use this to create a nice effect in our instrumental verse a little later. If my doing so truly offends you, then think of the Em as a G6 and maybe it won’t seem so bad!
Likewise, in the bridge, I take a little liberty with the last line. Most texts will show it like this:
Nowhere (F#m) Man the (G) world is at your command (A7)
The G, in this instance, gets two full measures. When we get to the section on the bridge, I hope to explain my reasoning behind this and I hope you will find it interesting and perhaps even educational.
Adding To The Interest
As we’ve seen in many of our song lessons, once you’ve got the basics of the song down, you can then start on making your arrangement more interesting. The first addition we’ll work on is the “signature riff,” or hook, if you will. At the end of each verse, there’s a little guitar lick that serves almost as a punctuation mark. It fills the first of the final two measures of D and it goes like this:
In and of itself, this probably presents no challenge to you whatsoever. But that’s why we want to work on it. It’s one thing to play a riff out of context. It’s quite another to play it as part of a song, especially if you’re the only one playing! So, think about it – you’re going to be strumming the Gm chord, then you’re going to play this riff and then you’ve got a measure of D to strum again. What are you going to do?
The sanest solution is to figure out how to incorporate this little riff into your switching of the chords. Since we want to end on a D chord, let’s see if we can work out how to play it while holding onto the D chord.
That’s what you’re seeing and hearing in the second half of this example. We start with a partial chord, the open D string and the A note located at the second fret of the G string. I want to finger this just like I would a normal D chord, in other words, with my index finger. By this time, I also have my ring finger on the D note (at the third fret of the B string) and I might also have my middle finger on the second fret of the first (high E) string. Removing the index finger gives me the open G, which is the second note of this riff. Now I want to use my pinky to get the F# at the fourth fret of the D string. This can be a bit of a stretch for some of you! But, what better time to get started on such things, right? Releasing the pinky gives you the open D string and then you finish by playing the open A.
Like everything else, this may take some practice. But once you can handle this fingering, you’ll find it easy to get right back into the basic strumming pattern. More importantly, you’ll be getting your pinky into the action, which is going to be fairly vital to you as you develop more and more skills as a guitarist. It’s important to start somewhere, you know! Anyway, let’s take a look at the second verse and see how this plays out:
Now that’s pretty smooth, right? Can you hear how seamlessly we go from the strumming to the riff and then right back into the strumming again? When you add the vocals, it will be even more striking.
And speaking of vocals, how about we make an introduction for the song? On the original recording, Nowhere Man opens up with a three-part a cappella singing of the first verse. A cappella, in case you didn’t know, is a fancy way of saying “someone forget to plug in the amplifiers.” You can tell I’ve been hanging around Nick too long! Seriously, despite its original meaning, we now use this term to indicate that it will be “voices only” or “unaccompanied singing.” And while I may be willing to try many things, I’m not certain I’d be up to starting a song all on my lonesome! So what I propose to do is something incredibly simple, let my guitar back me up, albeit minimally. Let’s play a whole note chord in each measure and then finish with the signature riff and see how that works:
Simplistic, but effective, I think. Here you can hear how using an Em in the fourth measure instead of the G prescribed in most TABs gives us a lot more oomph for the melody line. Later, I’ll show you another chord substitution that might make your arrangement even more interesting.
But I did promise I’d discuss the bridge, so let’s turn our attention there, shall we? On the surface, there’s really not much to note. We’re going to use our basic strumming pattern throughout and make a minor change in the chords in the last three measures:
And, as promised, let’s discuss the last four measures. In order to show you more clearly, I’ve taken the liberty of writing out the chord changes as whole notes, which you can see here:
Do me a favor and play this as I’ve written it out, taking special care not to hit the first (high E) string on the last two chords. Can you hear how we’ve created a descending harmony line, from F# (F#m7) to E (Em) to D (A7sus4) and finally to C# in the A7 chord?
This is my sneaky way of providing some “back-up vocals” to the song. It may not seem like a lot to you; in fact, it is a pretty subtle thing to do. But it’s these subtle things that will add to your style as you progress.
It’s important to note that I couldn’t do something like this if I were a stickler for playing the TAB “verbatim.” If I’d gone from the F#m to G to another measure of G, I wouldn’t have been able to put the E note in the second measure. The D I could manage by switching to the 32003X fingering of G. I could have used Em7 (02203X) instead of A7sus4, but I find that I prefer the latter chord choice.
Does this make a big difference to the person listening to the song? No, not really. Somewhere in the back of your listener’s brain, something may stir. But before he or she can register what you did, it’s gone and you’re back to the verse of the song again.
I tell you this sort of thing for a very specific reason: if you truly want to get better at the guitar, not to mention music in general, you’re going to want to learn how to come up with things like this. It’s not that hard; by experimenting and listening to how chords play against each other, you’re already taking the big steps towards thinking for yourself.
So let’s think even harder and tackle the third verse. You know, the “instrumental” one!
Say what you will about pop songs, because of their structure and relatively short length, coming up with an instrumental, even when you’re the only instrument playing, isn’t all that hard. The challenging thing is to not lose any momentum or create any obvious gaps when switching from one part of the song to the next.
In Nowhere Man, each verse is only eight measures long. At tempo, this amounts to not quite twenty seconds in length. No time at all, really, even though it might seem like forever when you’re in the middle of playing it!
Since we’re beginners and since this is an “Easy Songs for Beginners” lesson, let’s take the easiest possible approach: the melody. And in case you’re not sure what the melody of the verse sounds like, I’ll write it out for you:
Our objective is to strum in such a way so that we bring out as much of the melody to the foreground as we possibly can. And yes, this is one of those sneaky things I do to show you why things like chord melodies, such as we’ve been learning in articles like Birth of a Chord Melody, Arranging Things and Something To Sleep On can be important for you to know regardless of what type of music you play! Here’s what I’ve come up with for us with this particular song:
You should have no problem picking out the melody in the first three measures. It’s merely a matter of being careful what strings you’re emphasizing with your strumming. But in the fourth measure, I pull a bit of a conjuring act. For the first grouping of notes, the melody is right there on the A note (second fret of the G string). Then, I lose it for an instant by playing a Dsus2sus4, which is essentially a D chord played with only the note on the B string. The open G is the melody note but it gets drowned out by the open high E of the first string. But by playing a D chord immediately after this, I get the melody line back, albeit an octave higher than where I originally started. And being an octave higher, as you can readily hear, really makes the melody stand out!
Now we’re set to do a little bit of magic with the chords. You probably have already had enough of my going on and on and on about the Em, but I should warn you purists that you’re in for an even wilder ride! Look what we can do with this by simply following the melody line:
Starting with our normal garden variety Em chord, I add my pinky (yes, more work for the poor little digit!) to the third fret of the high E (first) string in order to get the G note in the melody.
And then things get even more interesting! The melody note is F#, but it’s played over a Gm chord. So we’re going to manage both of these feats by playing what’s called a G minor major seventh!. I kid you not! Check out the column Building Additions (and Suspensions) if you want to learn more about this, but for now use your index finger on the second fret of the high E (first) string to get the F# note. Your ring finger should fret the D note (third fret of the B string) and your middle finger will be on the Bb, located on the third fret of the G string. Use the open D string as your bass note unless you feel comfortable wrapping your thumb around to get the G note on the third fret of the sixth (low E) string and to mute the A string. That’s not easy, but it can become easy with practice.
Once you have this chord and you’ve played the it to get the F# melody note on the top, remove your index finger to get the open E note (first string) to continue the melody line and then hit the B and G strings for the next partial chord. Strike the open first string again and you’re almost home!
When we get to the last two measures of the verse, I feel that the signature riff is more important than the melody at this point, so I go back to that. And now we’ve finished our “instrumental” and are ready to continue on with the song. Not bad for twenty seconds, eh?
In the last MP3, you may also hear some “extraneous” strumming. Basically, my hand is keeping the rhythm throughout, constantly moving up and down. Sometimes you hit a string or two. That’s why, to me anyway, it’s important to have the chords in place. That way anything I hit will sound like it belongs there.
My trouble is, having come up with this cool instrumental section, I find it hard to not play aspects of it during the regular verses, which is what I’m trying to get you to hear in the second twenty seconds of that last MP3. Sometimes I’ll even use the Em to Gm-maj7 progression in my introduction because I like really the way it sounds and can’t get enough of it!
But, very fortunately, the last four measures are what also make up the outro, so I do get a chance to play them twice more. On the final pass we’ll play a resounding, ringing D chord to end the song.
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you forgive the little liberties I tend to take with arrangements. As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, it’s important to let the music dictate what happens in a song. Sometimes a slight chord substitution can make all the difference in a piece, particularly if you’re going it solo.
And remember that in order to experiment, it helps to know a few basic things, or at least to take down notes so that you don’t have to learn it all from scratch later! Don’t be afraid of knowledge, no matter how you come by it. The more you learn, the more you’ll have at your beck and call when it counts.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.