Sometimes we just hear things and play them. Someone plays a chord or strums a rhythm and we just follow along. And someofne who has just picked up the guitar will ask how you did that and you don’t really have an answer for them other than “I just do it.”
It should be easy to understand that, for a beginner (not to mention for a teacher), “I just do it” is more than mildly frustrating. How does one go about learning if one can’t get instruction?
The purpose of this lesson, a look at Seven Nation Army, from the White Stripes 2003 major label debut album, Elephant, is twofold – first we want to look at the interesting rhythmic pattern that serves as the song’s signature hook. We’re also going to take the song apart as we normally do in these lessons, but for the purpose of latter creating a single acoustic guitar arrangement of this song. That will be in an upcoming lesson. Today, we’re all electric!
Structurally, Seven Nation Army is about as simple as song come. There are three verses, four if you count the guitar solo between the second and third verse as verse. These verses are essentially made up of two parts, one that repeats itself over and over even though it may be played by just the bass guitar at some points and by a dense, multi-layered recording of guitars the next. This part also serves as the introduction, the outro and as a musical interlude between the verses. There is also a second two-measure pattern that “formally” ends each verse and also pops up during the solo and at the end of the interlude between the first and second verse.
It’s this first part that contains the interesting rhythm we want to look at and analyze. Here is the bass guitar part, a line of single notes, which I’ve written out for guitar:
The first two notes, the E notes located at the second fret of the D string, are harmless enough. The first is a dotted quarter note and lasts for a beat and a half in length, while the second is an eighth note and is a half beat in length. And this would probably be a great place to point out that while I’ve written out to play these notes at the second fret of the D string, you can also play them elsewhere on the neck of your guitar, such as the seventh fret of the A string or the twelfth fret of the low E (sixth) string, if you prefer.
I thought it would be good to have them all within easy fingering of one another.
The last three notes, at first glance, are quarter notes, which would be problematic in that we would be looking at a total of five beats in the first measure, a measure that is clearly marked in “4/4” time so it should have only four beats in it. Looking closer, though, you should see a little bracket over these three quarter notes and a number “3” imbedded in that bracket. This indicates that these three notes make up a quarter note triplet, which means that these three notes are supposed to be evenly spread out among these last two beats of the measure.
That may sound simple enough (although I’m certain to many of you it doesn’t sound simple in the least), but how do we go about making this happen? Counting out a triplet over two beats isn’t at all easy, even for seasoned players. So we’re going to “cheat” for a moment and make it simpler to count by pretending the song was written in 2/4 time, like this:
To do this, we’re cutting all the note values in half – half notes become quarter notes, quarter notes become eighth notes and eighth notes become sixteenth notes. A triplet over two beats will become a triplet over a single beat.
The purpose for doing this is to make it easier to count and to get the rhythm into your head. Most people count sixteenth notes like this: “One, ee, and, ah, two, ee, and, ah…” and triplets are counted “one and ah two and ah…” So we’re going to combine these two and make this measure of two beats go “One, ee, and, ah, two and ah.”
The most important part of this is to make the triplet a triplet, spreading the three notes evenly across the beat, and not turning it into a set of three sixteenth notes with a sixteenth note rest attached. If you’ve listened to the first third of Guitar Noise Podcast 3, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
You can help yourself here by tapping out the beats with your foot, slow and steady. When you are comfortable, pick a four syllable word and say it evenly across the beat. “Alligator” works nicely if you’re stuck for one! Say that for a few beats and then start saying a three syllable word (“elephant” might be appropriate, given the song in question), again making sure that the three syllables are evenly spaced in the beat.
When you’re good with the counting, you can put it all back together, first in 2/4 and then back in 4/4, as done in this example:
You’ll notice that when going back to 4/4 timing, I draw out the triplet on the third beat when counting it aloud. It’s not at all easy to count out even beats while playing quarter note triplets, so I think you may find this method a little easier. And, since this rhythm figure is very much the heartbeat of Seven Nation Army, it goes without saying that you want to work it into your head and fingers so that you can play it effortlessly. Don’t skimp on the practice and, whatever way you choose to count out the beats and rhythms, don’t be shy about counting out loud. It can, and does, help quite a bit.
And once you’re good with this snippet of rhythm, the rest of the song is going to be a breeze! The second part, which we’ll conveniently call “Example 2,” is two measures of power chords (G5 and A5) played in straight eighth notes, like this:
There are, of course, many ways to play this. On the original recording, there are at least two different guitars playing the part, one using two string power chords and one using two-string power chords for the G5 and then switching to the open position A chord (the A chord shown in the “Alternate” example here). In these examples, I’m using three-string power chords instead of two-string power chords simply because I like the fuller sound. After all, I’m using one guitar instead of overdubbing a second one. You should try out different variations of these chords and see which you like best.
The next section of Seven Nation Army is actually a repeat of the first section, only it’s fleshed out with full chords, using the single note bass line as the root notes for the chords. Again, on the original recording there are at least two different guitar parts. One guitar plays Root 5 position three-string power chords, like this (this example isn’t played in the MP3 files, by the way):
In case you don’t know what “Root 5 Power Chords” or simply what “Power Chords” are, you can address that by taking a quick look at two of our lessons here at Guitar Noise. The first, The Power of Three, shows you how the four basic types of chords (major, minor, augmented and diminished) are formed. The second, Building Additions (and Suspensions) goes on to detail the creation of other chords, with power chords being the first example in the lesson.
“Root 5” power chords are simply power chords whose root note is played on the fifth (A) string. And you can see that all the power chords in this example have their root note on the A string.
There is another guitar playing full major chords on the D, G and B strings. This guitar is also being played with a slide. I decided not to use a slide for the MP3 in order to keep things simple:
Hopefully, one of the reasons for using the open position A chord in Example 2 becomes clear here. Your fingers are already in this shape and now you can just slide them up and down the neck of your guitar at will. If you’re careful about your strumming and can avoiding hitting the first (high E string), then you can use a single finger to barre across the second fret for the open position A and then be about your merry way for Example 3.
Another thing to point out here is that in the original recording, the slide guitar uses a single quarter note of the final B chord (which I have here as a half note) and follows that up with a quarter note of A (X0222X). Either way works fine.
When you’re comfortable moving around on Example 3, the only thing left to do is to be able to switch between the sections, from Example 1 to Example 2 to Example 3 and then back again from Example 3 to Example 2 to Example 1, as demonstrated in this MP3:
That’s essential the whole song, once you put it all together. Feeling very much at ease with this particular rhythm is going to be essential if you’re going to sing and play it at the same time, so be sure to practice it as much as you may have to. Then practice it even more!
Here’s a lay out of how the song goes:
As I mentioned, there is a guitar solo between the second and third verses. It’s done on slide, but can be easily done without it as well and still sound okay. Well, you might want to make a few alterations and we’ll discuss that in a moment.
The solo itself is fairly simple, using just single notes taken, for the most part, from the E minor pentatonic scale in the following positions:
I’ve taken the liberty of adding the two notes taken from outside of the Em pentatonic scale (C at the thirteenth fret of the B string and F# at the fourteenth fret of the high E (first) string) in parenthesis so that you can add them to your practice warm up of the scale.
The solo is played over four repetitions of “Example 3” and ends by going back to “Example 2.” Since you’re up that high on the neck for the solo, you’ll probably find it easier to play the G5 in the same three-string manner that the slide guitar uses, that is laying your finger across the twelfth fret (X X 12 12 12 X) and playing just the D, G and B strings, as indicated. For the A5, just slide it up two frets (X X 14 14 14 X).
Okay, then, here’s the solo. You will note that there are three places in the first half (the first eight measures) where there’s a double stop on the seventh fret of the D and A strings. These notes are A and E, respectively, so you’re basically playing an inversion of A5 in the solo while the rhythm is playing an E chord. It will sound slightly dissonant. That’s what goes on in the original recording, most probably from using the slide.
Also, this is not exactly “note for note,” but it’s certainly close enough for anyone but the nittiest of nitpickers.
Anyway, I also hope that you had fun with this song. We’ll be coming back to it later this fall and examining how to turn it into a single acoustic guitar arrangement. That should prove fairly interesting, no?
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…