Old Man – Neil Young
In case you haven’t noticed by now, I learned a lot about playing the guitar from watching, listening to and playing with other musicians. It’s pretty cool to be able to say, “Here’s a little song I learned from Neil Young” even though you’ve never met the man!
Truth be told, though, I learned an awful lot about the guitar, acoustic and electric, from Neil Young. So it’s not by chance that he makes several appearances both here and on the Songs for Intermediates page. And danged if he isn’t back again! And so’s this:
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.
Okay, I think I’m better now…
The lessons to be learned from Mr. Young are numerous, but for today we’re going to focus on one aspect in particular, that of creating new and different chords from chords we already know. Sound complicated? Hopefully you won’t think so after we work our way through Neil’s song Old Man, from the classic album, Harvest.
Old Man is a fairly simple song, believe it or not. You’ll (hopefully) be surprised at how easy this is to pick up. The trickiest part occurs right at the start. Here we have two main things with which to concern ourselves: timing and a strange chord voicing. Let’s tackle those in reverse order.
First off, make your normal open position D major chord. Your middle finger is on the second fret of the first (high E) string, your ring finger occupies the third fret of the B and your index finger plays the second fret of the G string. Is everyone okay with this? Good!
Now, take your middle finger off the first string, letting the open high E string ring free. This, by the way, is the chord Dsus2. Some people call it a D(add9). But that’s none of our concern at present. Maybe we’ll come back to it…
All right, then, keeping your index and ring fingers in their current shape, slide them both up the neck so that your ring finger is now on the sixth fret of the B string and your index finger sits on the fifth fret of the G. Now strum all your strings except the sixth (low E) string. You can also choose to not strike the open A string as well. Sound familiar? That’s our opening chord!
“Cool,” you might say. “But what the heck is it?” Well, let’s figure that out by examining the notes we’re playing. The open first string is (obviously) E, and the open D and A strings, strangely enough, are D and A respectively. The note on the sixth fret of the B string is F and that’s a C you’re playing at the fifth fret of the G string. So we’ve got, low to high, A, D, C, F and E.
As you probably know, any chord can go by several names. Since the tonal center of the song Old Man is D, I’m going to call this particular chord Dm9. It’s a D minor chord (D, F and A) with the addition of both the flatted seventh (C) and the ninth (E), so that makes sense to me. Technically, we probably should be calling it Dm9/A since the A is the bass note, but, as you’ll soon see, I may or may not decide to play it. So let’s just stick with Dm9 to keep things relatively simple.
The opening of the song consists of switching from this chord to your “regular” D major chord. Have a look and listen:
Oh, yes! There’s that matter of the timing…
In this section of the song the timing of the individual measures changes. The first measure is four beats of Dm9, then there is a measure of two beats of the same chord and then we finish with a four-beat measure of D major. Then we repeat the whole process. That measure of D, by the way, is interesting in and of itself and we’ll get to that in just a moment.
If it helps (and I know it helped me when I was learning it), think of the lyrics while playing this section. That will definitely help you with keeping the right timing. The line “old man look at my life” fills the first measure of four beats. “I’m a lot like…” takes up two beats and when we get to the words “you were” we want to be on the D major chord. Or, if you’d like, simply count it out, as I have in the MP3. Whatever works best.
For this strumming pattern, I’ve indicated the strokes (“U” for up or “D” for down) that I use. Notice that on occasion I’ll strike just the open high E (first) string on the upstroke. It’s the tension between the E note and the F note (sixth fret on the B string) that creates the interesting dissonance here, all of which is resolved when we get to the F# (second fret, first string) that’s part of the D major chord. And it’s all done in an incredibly simple way.
Speaking of simple, during that measure of D I use a technique that probably all of you know already just from fooling around with your guitars. Starting again with your normal D chord, add your pinky to the third fret of the high E (first) string. You’ve now made what’s called Dsus4. Take your pinky off again for the D, then totally open up the first string by removing your middle finger for the Dsus2. Then it’s back to the normal D to round things off.
I think it’s pretty important here to try to catch the D (third fret of the B string) as the final note of this sequence; it makes a great melody line for the guitar. So give a little care to the partial chords I’ve written for this measure. You don’t have to hit them exactly, but I do think you’ll find that careful string striking will produce more interesting lines than just banging your way through the chords.
But you don’t have to even use strummed chords all the way through. Here’s something a little closer to the actual recording:
In this example, we’re playing the Dm9 with arpeggio strumming, all single notes. Almost all, I should say. Start by having your fingers in place for the Dm9 chord and then remove your index finger from the G string, leaving it open. Now strike the open D and G strings (told you we didn’t have to hit the A!) and then hammer-on your index finger at the fifth fret and continue with the rest of the arpeggio. And in case you happen to be wondering, I am using a pick for this. A medium one, if I recall correctly.
The important thing to do here is to experiment and play around. You may find that you prefer a combination of arpeggio and straight strumming, as opposed to all one or all the other. I have to tell you that I had to make a special effort to play it the same way each time!
Which didn’t last when I reached the measure of D! In this example, I hit the bass note on the first beat and immediately follow it up with a downstroke of the full chord, letting it ring a bit before doing the D, Dsus4, D, Dsus2, D thing. This creates an interesting change in the dynamics, since the full chord is coming slightly off the beat. Things like that can sound pretty cool, so it’s a good technique to practice.
By the way, the notes in parentheses (these things, ( ) in case you didn’t know) are notes that I hear myself hitting on the MP3 but didn’t mean to do. This happens sometimes. But, as I’ve made a point of telling you for some time now, it doesn’t really change anything. Feel free to play this note for note, but I’d really prefer you use it as a stepping stone for trying other patterns.
And speaking of other patterns, when I come around to the second pass of this measure on the MP3, I’m playing this:
The only real difference here is playing two single eighth notes to start out the measure. This rhythm is more like the rhythm we’ll be using for the verses.
“And what about that?” you might well ask. And I’m glad you did. Do you remember our rhythms for Heart of Gold or Wild World? This one’s pretty much the same. No lie. So I decided to throw in a bit of a bass line to give you something a tad more challenging:
The same strumming guidelines apply here as apply to Wild World: on the first beat (the two eighth notes), feel free to play a single note, a partial chord, a single palm muted string, multiple palm muted strings, whatever happens to catch your fancy. You’ll notice that I incorporate all of those techniques during the course of playing this.
And do try to work in this bass line in the second measure (the one that goes from C to G), even though you won’t hear it on the record! Why? Because these little things are good to practice and when you’re playing without the backing of a band, it can truly add to your sound and performance.
And it’s pretty easy to do! Starting from the C chord, just move your middle finger from the second fret of the D string to the second fret of the A string to get the B note. Then totally lift your finger off (which you’ll be doing to change to the G chord anyway! Very sneaky!) to get the note of the open A string.
Going from G to D requires even less work. Simply free up the open A string by slightly raising whatever finger you have there to fret the B note at the second fret. After you strike the A string, hammer the finger back down again. Then hit the open D to start the next measure.
A lot of people ask me what the difference is between a beginner and an intermediate and there’s no one good answer for that. But I think that part of it is going from a stage of simply making a chord change to making a chord change sound more interesting. And this is a great way to start doing that!
And just for those of you who like to work at this type of thing, I’ve thrown in an alternate way of going from the C to the F to the D in the last line which also makes use of this sort of bass line. I didn’t make an MP3 of it because I thought that those of you brave enough to take a stab at it will know whether or not you made it!
Believe it or not, that’s just about the whole song! The “intro” part (naturally) starts us out. We play it twice through as an instrumental and then twice more with the “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were” lyric. Then we play through the verse chords once as an instrumental and then repeat them twice more with the lyrics. After that we come to the chorus. Which, coincidentally, is the missing piece of our puzzle.
The chorus also gets the “once through as instrumental” treatment that the other two sections have received. On the original recording, this is where the banjo got a moment to shine through the mix. But, as the man on the MP3 says (and I’m soooo tempted to say something like “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…” in my best Wizard of Oz impression) (trust me – it’s not pretty!), “We don’t have a banjo, so we’re just going to have to fend for ourselves!” Shall we?
Okay, so it’s a pretty tame banjo! Russ Sprouse, I’m certainly not! The main thing I want to do here is to break up the full strumming I’ve been doing in the verses with a little arpeggio work. It’s just a change of pace, or of dynamics, whatever you’d like to call it. The point is to give the song some living, breathing room. You’ve probably heard me mention this in other lessons, but it’s important to remember that a song should be organic. Definitely so here in the chorus.
Kudos to those of you astute enough to see (and/or hear) that this measure of D arpeggios incorporates the D, Dsus4, D, Dsus2, D routine we’ve been using like fiends throughout the song. By the way, if you’re wondering just what makes a chord a “sus” (short for “suspended”), take a moment to check out an old column of mine, Building Additions (and Suspensions).
A tip of the hat as well to those who hear (and/or see) that we’re using most of our C to G to D bass line from the verse in the “pre-chorus” section. In the “prelude” to the chorus, as well as later in the chorus itself, I’ve also switched to a different voicing of both the C and G chords. This is primarily for getting the melody line in my head, as you’ll see in a moment. The C is a normal C chord, but we add our pinky to the third fret of the high E (first) string to make the G note the leading tone of the chord. On the G, we add the D note, which is at the third fret of the B string. Usually I’ll play this with my pinky on the third fret of the first string (that way I don’t have to move it!), my ring finger on the third fret of the B, my index finger on the second fret of the A and my middle finger on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string.
As I mentioned, this isn’t the most imaginative instrumental break ever. So you should feel free to tinker with it. Make it more complex, make it simpler. Have some fun playing around with it.
The rest of the chorus I play mostly straight strumming, with a few partial chords (and the occasional single note) thrown in here and there. Again, the D measure should look pretty familiar by now even though this is yet another different way of playing it. Sometimes that’s what rhythm is all about!
The C and G measure, though, is a bit tricky in terms of timing. Here I use full chords and try to follow the song’s melody (we’re on the “…lot like you…” section), which is slightly ahead of the beat. You might remember this phenomenon, from our past lessons, being called “anticipation.” I start out with the C chord (G note on the high E (first) string); this is on the word “lot.” When I get to “like,” I shift my ring finger from the third fret of the A string to the second fret of the high E (first) string. This is what the melody of the song is doing. You can simply play two C chords in a row if you prefer.
By the way, and this is purely just to be a pain, you could call this chord D9add4/A. I prefer to think of it as a passing tone and leave it at that!
Finally, on “you,” I play the G chord with the D note on the B string. Take care to avoid playing the first (high E) string no your initial strum – make that D note the last note of the chord. If you do this, you’ll be able to clearly hear the melody line If you’re like me and your singing voice needs all the help it can get, then you’ll find playing the chorus like this to be a big help to you.
After nailing that D note of the G chord in the melody, feel free to strum merrily away on that same G chord. You can hear that’s what I did.
You’ll note on the last MP3 I went through the whole chorus, back to the “intro” section and then finished off with a run through the verse’s chord progression. That’s pretty much how Old Man finishes up. On that final D chord, I like to play it with my thumb grabbing the F# note on the second fret of the low E (sixth) string. So the fingering would be like this: 200232. There’s no real reason for this; I simply like the way it sounds.
Well, then, let’s put all the pieces together. Again, I make no claims that I’ve got all the words correct!
I hope you had fun with this lesson. To me, when I was starting out, just learning the intro was a revelation because it led me to experiment with different chord voicings which, in all probability, ended up making me a better guitarist in the long run.
Remember to play around with this once you’ve got the basics of the song down. Old ManÂ¸ like most of Neil Young’s songs, can be played in so many different ways and yet you’ll still have the heart of the song shining through. I think that’s what Neil would like.
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 page or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.