As a guitar teacher, I am wary of absolutes. Anytime I catch myself wanting to say “always,” I know that there’s going to be an exception to that. Likewise with “either / or” choices, as I’ve mentioned on occasion here at Guitar Noise. Should you play with a pick or with your fingers? Should you start on electric or acoustic guitar? Do you begin by reading tablature or notation? The answer to any of these, should you happen to ask me, will always (hah!) be a resounding “yes.”
As a guitarist, as a musician, I know that the ability to be flexible, to change from strumming to a single-note crosspicking pattern or to change from full chords to partial chords or even to chord melody style in midstream can make a big difference in how a song comes across. So even when I’m learning a specific technique, part of me is thinking about how to be able to turn that new technique on and off at will and how to be able to integrate it into what I already can do.
None of that, by the way, is supposed to make you wonder whether or not this particular lesson is going to be harder than the usual “Easy Songs for Beginners” Lessons here at Guitar Noise. Far from it! Rather, I just want to prepare you for doing something you’ve not tried before and while it is something fairly simple and easy, it may take a little getting used to!
So onward then, shall we?
Today’s selected lesson is Play With Fire, originally the “B” side of The Last Time, released almost exactly forty-four years ago (don’t get me started about where the time goes!). It’s a spare, acoustic song that will lend itself well to some interesting arranging work, using an interesting technique that essentially reverses the way you’re probably most used to playing guitar as yet. Hang in there and I’ll hopefully explain along the way.
In terms of structure, Play With Fire is about as simple as they come. There’s a verse section and a chorus. The chorus also serves as the introduction and as an interlude between the second and third verse. And you repeat the chorus a second time at the end, so I guess you could also think of it as the outro. It’s in 4 / 4 timing at a moderate pace of, say, one hundred and twelve beats per minute. And there are only four chords – Em, G, D and C.
To make matters easier, the entire verse, all eight measures of it, is sung over an Em chord. So you could take a simple strumming pattern, like this one I conveniently have here:
With this we can do the whole song. Remember that the verse is eight measures (four beats each) of Em. The chorus starts out with two beats of G, then two beats of D, then two more beats of G, two beats of C and finally eight beats (two measures) of Em:
Not much of a lesson, is it?
So where shall we start? This may seem like old hat to some of you, and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say it, but the melody of a song is almost always a great place to find ideas and inspiration. And this song is, probably not surprisingly, not an exception. In fact, if we look at the melody line and see how it fits on the guitar, we may make an interesting discovery:
Guess what? There are only four melody notes and two of them are open strings! And here’s another gift – the two non-open-string notes, D (third fret of the B string) and G (third fret of the high E (first) string) are easily reached when playing an E minor chord. So let’s try and go about fitting them into our chord pattern. We could choose many ways to do this, such as in the following examples. By the way, these snippets only use the first two lines (four measures) of the verse in order to give you a taste:
Our “first idea” is a typical beginner chord melody approach, pretty much going with a full chord strum with each melody note. A little heavy handed, but it works.
The “second idea” actually borrows from the original recording, using the Travis picking / pinch technique we’ve discussed in several relatively recent articles. It’s actually a lot sparser than even the original recording, but should be easy enough for you to get a handle on. First just use your thumb to get used to alternating between the open low E (sixth) string and the E note at the second fret of the D string every beat. Then add in the melody, using either your index or middle finger. Or you can use both fingers to play the melody notes, playing any note on the high E (first) string with your middle finger and any note on the B string with your index.
And if the style of the “third idea: seems familiar, it’s because we’ve used that in our After the Gold Rush lesson (and good for you, by the way, for venturing into the Intermediate Song Lessons page! Some of them are not as hard as you think they might be). We’re going to go with this one for today’s lesson because while it may sound easy, it’s going to take a little bit getting used to.
There are two main reasons I want to use this technique. First, it’s even and steady. You probably heard in the last example that it takes a few liberties with the timing of the melody line and that’s okay here because we’re not strictly playing a chord melody style. We’re actually the accompaniment and someone should be singing. Shadowing the melody in this fashion allows a bit of tension between the voice and the accompaniment, letting the voice weave in and out between the beats while we’re keeping things smooth and steady on the guitar.
The second reason is that we can use some of the pauses of the melody to play short arpeggio fills, especially at the end of the fourth and eighth measures. We’ll also tack on a short walking bass line at the very end of the verse, leading from E to F# on the low E (sixth) string, which will take us to the G note that will start the chorus.
Basically the “third idea” takes the familiar “bass note / chord” style of playing that we’ve used in lessons like Folsom Prison Blues and turns it around. We play the chord or partial chord on the higher strings first right on the beat and then add our bass note, which is usually the root note of the chord on the offbeat. Now here’s the tricky part: the easiest way to play this is to start with an upstroke. Instead of the typical down-up-down-up pattern that we play without thinking, we’re going to have to reverse our stroke. So do yourself a favor and start out slowly. Here we go:
Again, I can’t stress enough to take things slowly. Only work the first two measures for starters. Once you’re comfortable with playing in this manner, then add the third measure (which should be a snap since it’s a repeat of the first one) and then tackle the fourth measure. It’s a very simple Em arpeggio, you don’t even have to lift your fingers, just go straight down the strings one at a time and then back to the B string. The last two notes again mirror the melody at that point of the song.
This may seem like a very minor thing, almost an afterthought really, but here you’re learning to snap out of your pattern, to take a (very) short deviation before getting back to it. This is the flexibility I was talking about at the very beginning of this lesson. At first it will seem weird but you’ll get better at it with each pass.
Speaking of mirroring the melody, we’re going to do the same thing in the chorus, but this time we’ll place the melody all the way down in the bass notes of the guitar and add some basic straight arpeggios:
Using the melody line as our bass puts us in a sort of “good news / bad news” scenario. The good news is that the initial G chord, as well at the G/B at the start of the second measure, are essentially one-fingered chords. If we’re careful with our picking, we can play both these chords using only one finger. The C chord at the last half of the second measure also poses no problems.
That means the bad news is the D chord at the end of the first measure. Technically, it’s got the A note of the open A string as our combination melody-and-bass note and we could make this easier on ourselves by using D5/A, which is fingered exactly like your regular open position D only you don’t play either E string (X0023X).
But this is a lesson and you’re supposed to be learning new things and taking on new challenges, so I’ve made the decision of playing a D chord with the F# note at the fourth fret of the D string. Probably the easiest way to finger this for most of you will be to use your ring finger for this F# note while your index finger gets the A (second fret of the G string) and your middle finger plays the D (third fret of the B string). And there’s a nice little arpeggio at the end that uses a pull-off from that D note on the B string to the open B string itself.
As mentioned earlier, the chorus, besides just being the chorus, is also used as the introduction and as an interlude, a (very) short instrumental break between the second and third verses. Plus the chorus is done twice after the fourth verse.
I have no qualms about using the chorus as the introduction; it’s distinctive and anyone who knows the song will be able to figure out what I’m playing. But playing it a total of seven times (four times with each of the four verses, plus as an introduction, an interlude and an outro) seems a bit much. We only do the verses four times, and that’s a lot!
So why not come up with a different arrangement for the chorus that can be used for the interlude and outro? And why not use the same style of “chord / bass note” playing that we’ve been doing so well with so far in the verses? Maybe something like this:
The first line here you should recognize as the end of the chorus. It’s there because, at least according to the song structure we’re using, we’ll be playing this after the second verse and chorus and then again after the fourth verse and chorus. So it makes sense to see how it ties into the song. The F# note (fourth fret of the D string) is the pick-up note; if we were singing it would be the syllable “don’t” right before the “play” that starts the chorus.
Normally making the stretch to the fourth fret of the D string might be a tad worrisome, but remember that the note immediately before it is the open low E (sixth) string. That gives us plenty of time to move our fingers to be in place.
We’ll use the same chords that we did for the first chorus, but this time we’ll pick them in the same style that we use for the majority of the verses. Because the initial melody notes are on the G string, we’ll have to be a bit careful with our upstroke, making certain we miss the high E (first) and B strings. As I said, this is a lesson, so where would we be without techniques to practice?
And speaking of new things, there’s that pesky D/A again. Use the same fingering that you did on the regular chorus. It should work nicely. And if you truly are having a hard time, remember that the D5/A chord discussed earlier (X0023X) is still an option.
Finally, it’s no secret to anyone who’s heard me play that I am a big fan of using harmonics. So getting in a couple of natural harmonics, found at the twelfth fret of the B and high E (first) string, at the very end of this phrase sounds good to me. You can, as always, feel free to omit them if you’d like.
Alright, then, you’re good to go! Don’t forget that, as with all our song lessons here at Guitar Noise, this is meant to be a template, a starting point from which you can play around and experiment with different variations of your own choosing. You’ll soon get to the point where you’ll want to incorporate more of the syncopation from the verses, which means making some appropriate adjustments in the rest of your strumming pattern. You’ll hear a little bit of that in this final MP3:
I hope you’ve had fun with this lesson. Coming right on the heels of Hey There Delilah, it’s almost like taking two steps forward, then taking two exact steps in reverse yet still ending up four steps ahead of where you started!
As always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until our next lesson…