Before getting started, since this is my Guitar Noise debut, let me share my musical journey. It’s been a long one, so it might be hard to be brief, but I’ll give it my best shot. In high school I bought my best friend’s Kay hollow bodied electric guitar and amp when he upgraded to a Fender. Part of the deal was that he would teach me enough to get started – a couple of basic barre chord forms – pretty much C, Am, F, and G, which later in life I learned to recognize as a I, vi, IV, V chord progression – if I dropped the Am I had a I, IV, V chord progression. Using barre chords I found that I could play these chord progressions in many different keys just by moving up or down the neck of the guitar. Well that was the 60’s and I could strum the chords and sing along to just about any pop song I heard. By the time I graduated from college, I hadn’t learned anything else, was pretty bored with my playing, and sold my guitar to a pawnshop.
Fast forward to the 80’s… I got into playing harmonica, pretty much by ear, copying licks from every blues album I purchased. I practiced a lot and got real good. So happens I landed a job as an accounting professor at a community college (great job – stayed at it until retiring in 2006) and among the many perks were free classes. So I took an “Introduction to Music Theory” class to help me figure out what the heck I was doing on my harmonica. That class changed my path drastically. Within a few years, I’d taken three theory classes, two ear-training/sight reading classes, two piano classes, and a jazz-improvisation class. I then became dedicated to becoming a pianist and spent the next five years rigorously practicing, but then came face to face with the hard reality that I had no talent for the piano.
A bit dejected at my failure as a pianist in 2001, I decided to revisit the guitar, but this time trying to integrate the musical knowledge I’d picked up along the way. So for about seven years I went through dozens of video lessons and almost as many instructional books. I practiced a lot, but somehow it never all came together. Then early in 2009 I discovered Guitar Noise, a major milestone on my journey. David’s style of teaching and playing fit me like a glove. I started at the beginning and went through every podcast – all of a sudden I really understood and could play rhythm. I could even add simple bass lines and frills here and there to make things more interesting.
As the months went by, I went through all of the easy songs for beginners and most of the songs for intermediates. All those years of practice soon seemed to pay off as everything started to fall in place and my confidence increased. In mid-July 2009 the pianist who does the accompaniment at my church told me that she’d be out of town the following week and asked if I could put on some CD’s for the hymns. Somewhere the courage came for within to suggest that I provide the accompaniment on my guitar. I wasn’t wild about most of the songs in the hymnal, so I chose “Imagine” by John Lennon, knowing that Guitar Noise has a nice arrangement of that, and the old spiritual “Down By The Riverside” from the hymnal. I even decided to play during our quiet time of reflection, a soft arpeggio arrangement of “If” by Bread which I learned years ago. I practiced hard and everything went well. In all honesty, what mostly gave me the courage to do this is what David has said time and time again, something like… “Don’t get hung up on making mistakes. You will make mistakes – the only way not to make them is not to play, and that’s not an option. The important thing is to maintain the tempo.” Anyway, I’ll be filling in for her for three months this winter when she heads south.
So, why did I choose “Smile” as my very first arrangement? Well, in preparation for my church “gig” this winter, I’ve been keeping my ears open for songs that I know and believe most folks in my church will know. I like songs that have a nice message. “Smile” fit the bill. Coincidentally it happens to have been Michael Jackson’s favorite song… it’s always been one of my favorites too. Why a chord melody arrangement? I like the challenge and I like the beauty of a nice chord melody arrangement. I’ve always considered these arrangements as beyond my capabilities, however the lessons here at Guitar Noise have instilled in me a “can-do” attitude that I previously lacked. I’ve learned that if I keep the arrangement within my own playing abilities and don’t worry about sounding exactly like someone else’s recording, with some experimentation, effort, and patience it can be done.
“Smile” was the theme music for Charlie Chaplin’s last silent picture, “Modern Times,” in 1936 composed by Chaplin himself. It became officially “Smile” when John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics. If you go to YouTube and search for “Smile Nat King Cole” you’ll hear his wonderful vocal and orchestral performance.
So if you’re ready, then let’s get to it…
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.
The process started by searching the Internet for the chords and lyrics. Here’s what I initially found:
I know the melody to “Smile” and quickly realized that in the key of A, I would have to play it on the second, third and fourth strings. That seemed way too low, so I strummed a basic C chord and found the melody easily playable on the first, second, and third strings. That sounded much better to me. So my first step was to move all of the chords up three semitones as follows
In case you’re not familiar with the tune, here’s the bare bones melody, written from memory:
Here’s how this rather simple melody sounds:
“Smile” is pretty much a “verse only” song structure that is basically sixteen measures long. And thinking of that verse as being divided into two equal parts makes a lot sense. In my arrangement, the verse is played twice. The first time through it ends with a “turnaround” that gets it back to the beginning of the song. The second time through it ends with a small “coda” or outro that serves as the ending. When Nat King Cole recorded this, the verse was played a third time, all instrumental for the first eight measure part, followed by vocals for the second eight measure part, and ending the tune with the outro.
Now since I wanted this to be a chord melody arrangement, I began playing the above chords and seeing how I could best fit all of the melody notes in. As an example of my first attempt, let’s look at the first four measures:
Initially, that sounded pretty good to me, although a bit busy since it consisted of all eighth notes played in arpeggios. I proceeded onward in this style and after many hours sent a copy of my initial arrangement to David here at Guitar Noise. His response was encouraging, saying it was a very cool arrangement and also pointed out that there were definitely more things that could be added, particular with running the bass notes a little more.
Looking at my “first draft,” I realized that he was certainly right about running the bass lines. I pretty much had stuck with the root note of each chord. So I decided to work on the arrangement some more seeing if I could create some movement in the bass. As I worked on this, I could see plenty of room for bass line movement, however, adding additional bass notes made the arrangement even busier and much harder to play. I found that if I truly wanted to add some bass lines, I had to simplify and pare down a lot of the “busy-ness” in the upper strings. As I did this, the arrangement actually became sparser, but began to sound more interesting. Losing many of the eighth notes seemed to make it “breathe,” which made the arrangement sound more of a natural character and less as a first time exercise. To show you what I mean, let’s look at the final version of the first four measures:
As you can see the eighth note arpeggios are greatly simplified and there is definite descending bass line movement. The descending bass pattern of the first two measures repeats itself in measures 3 and 4. Actually, the entire accompaniment (the part on the lower four strings) follows the same two-measure picking pattern, making it easier to play. Looking at the chord boxes, a big difference is the addition of many more chords. Those additional chords were necessary not only to take into consideration the additional bass notes, but also to help me in placing my fingers on the fret board to play the necessary melody notes and other chord notes which enrich the arrangement.
OK, I’m ready to discuss some of the theory and technical aspects of playing this tune. But before I do, I want to mention a valuable lesson that I learned as I practiced this tune. In the final stages of putting this lesson together, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law about what I had been doing for Guitar Noise. She made a comment to me about putting “feeling” into music. Her comment came serendipitously at just the right moment. The more I had practiced in the previous few days, the less I liked how my arrangement was sounding. As I was practicing “Smile” later the evening of our conversation, I realized that what had been missing was this musical “feeling”. I had previously been concentrating solely on the “mechanics” of the tune. I found that by slowing down and attempting to put into this tune the part of music that tends to stir my spirit, everything sounded so much sweeter. I hope I can convey some of that in the MP3 files that we’ll encounter later on.
First of all, with my right finger picking hand, I generally use my thumb for the bottom three strings and use my index finger on the third, my middle finger on the second, and ring finger on the first string.
I start off the first measure by forming a C chord. On the third beat, I simply lift my middle finger from the second fret of the fourth string and place it on the B at the second fret of the fifth string to form the C/B chord. I then catch the D melody note on the third fret of the second string with my pinky. Since I’ve kept my index finger on the first fret of the second string, I simply go into the second measure by keeping my index and pinky fingers in place, while placing my middle and ring fingers in their normal positions for the Am chord. After lifting my pinky to play the C in the melody, I form a Gadd9 chord with my ring finger on the G at the third fret of the sixth string and my middle finger at the A melody note on the third string, which is the ninth of the Gadd9 – in practicing this I often find myself finger picking the open G string just prior to covering the second fret of that string, rather than picking the open D string as written, but since they’re both chord tones it sounds fine either way. Either way, since I’m not playing the first string, I just leave that open. In measure three the Cmaj7 chord gives me what I need for the first two beats. For the last two beats I shift my middle finger to the B bass note on the second fret of the fifth string. Since I’m not playing the fourth string I don’t worry about covering the second fret. I play the last two melody notes with my index and pinky fingers. In measure four the Am chords works well. I need to lift my index finger to strike the open B melody note. The Gadd9 appears again at the end of the fourth measure and again I don’t concern myself with the unplayed high E string. By lifting my middle finger I’m ready for the final G melody note of the open third string.
Let’s give these first four measures a listen:
Here are measures five through eight:
Again there is a nice descending bass line in the first two measures above, as well as in the last two measures. If you look at Babylon – David Gray (Guitar Noise Songs for Intermediates # 1), you’ll notice a lot of similarity between the last measure above and David’s second measure of the second line in the chorus of Babylon. I borrowed part of that neat lick from him.
Let’s talk about the fret board fingering. The Am in the first measure above is fingered normally and should present no problem. To play the G6, I simply lift all my fingers and catch the G at the third fret of the sixth string with my ring finger. I don’t worry about the B on the fifth string since I don’t play that note. The C melody note on the first fret of the second string is easily fretted with my index finger. Keeping that index finger in place I move on to the Fmaj7 using my thumb to catch the low F. After all that work, I take a brief rest and completely remove my left hand and simultaneously play the open second and sixth strings catching the C melody note on the second string easily with my index finger. After that brief rest, I form a Dm chord moving into the third measure above. After that I give myself a break again and play the Cmaj7 chord by simply lifting my fingers and placing my ring finger on the third fret of the fifth string and again catch the last melody note of that measure with my index finger. Well rested, I’m ready to quickly form an A chord, ending the last measure above with the “Babylon lick,” using my index and middle fingers first, finishing that lick with my middle and ring fingers.
Let’s see how these four measures sound
The second half of “Smile” is arguably prettier than the first half. Let’s look at measures nine through twelve.
In these four measures there’s a temporary break from the walking bass lines in the first half of the tune. Also for the sake of some variety the first and third measures above have some pretty arpeggios incorporating both the melody and bass notes.
Let’s discuss the fingering. A Dm7 barred chord makes the first measure above a snap. The only additional requirement is to catch the G melody note at the eighth fret of the second string with the pinky. In the second measure above, hold everything momentarily in place as the G melody note is struck and then quickly bring your fretting hand back to the lower register of the fret board. Striking the open D string buys a bit more time to get your index finger on the F for the eighth note at the first fret of the first string. I play the D note at the third fret of the second string with my ring finger. For the third measure above, jump right into an Fm chord played with a partial index finger barre of the first three strings at the first fret while covering the F root note at the third fret of the fourth string with your ring finger. I hold that chord form and use my pinky at the third and then fourth frets of the first string for the last two melody notes of that measure. That same shape also serves me well for the first three notes of the fourth measure above, again using my pinky to go from the G to the F melody notes on the first string. To finish up that last measure I hit the open high E string while moving my middle and ring fingers into position for the last two notes at the third fret.
Here’s how it sounds
We’re at the home stretch with the last four measures and endings
As you can see, we’ve got a nice descending bass line again. For the Cmaj7 chord in the first measure above I try to really let the upper three open strings ring out as this tune draws to a close, carefully placing my index finger on the F melody note at the first fret of the first string while placing my middle finger on the B bass note at the second fret of the fifth string to form what we need of the Cmaj7/B chord. After lifting my index finger to get the open high E string, I play a simple version of an F chord. I do want to strike the open A string for the bass note, so technically this is an F/A chord since the A note is in the bass. As much as I’d like to let the three upper strings ring, I find myself removing all of my fingers in anticipation of the upcoming G6 chord played with my ring finger on the bass note and pinky on the melody note – I don’t worry about fingering the B on the fifth string and therefore avoid striking that open fifth string. Another point, since I am not playing the open E first string, the sixth of a G6 chord, this really ends up being a G chord with a D as the upper melody note. As I lift my pinky, I’ve got my index finger on the C melody note at the first fret of the second string.
The Dm/F in the third measure above takes some practice. For me the best way to form it is by placing my thumb on the F bass note and forming a Dm chord normally with my fingers – actually in practicing it, I’ve found it helpful to forget about struggling to get my index finger onto the first string, since I’m not hitting that high F note anyway. Once I’ve got that it’s not too difficult – all I need to do is lift my middle finger from the second fret of the third string to play the open G melody note.
For the first ending, I just place my ring finger on the G bass note, again not worrying about the unplayed fifth string and simultaneously strike the open high E melody note, the sixth of a G6 chord. My guess is that most of you recognize what comes next as part of the Beatles’ Blackbird (Guitar Noise Songs for Intermediates # 2), although you can certainly hear it in many other songs as well. This “Blackbird lick” leads us nicely into a repeat of the entire tune.
In the second ending (or third ending depending on whether you’ve played this through three times as Nat King Cole did) that same G6 chord is fingered and for the necessity of playing the open high E melody note twice, played as an arpeggio. The tune is ended with a C chord. I try not to strike the high open E string since the melody is at the C at the first fret of the second string. I sometimes play this last C chord for two measures. I’ll either play the first measure with arpeggios and the second by strumming the C chord. I’ve also strummed the C chord for a measure and then let a pair of harmonics ring out on the first and third strings since they are C chord tones. The choice is yours.
Let’s have a listen to these last measures. By the way these last measures with the first “Blackbird” ending can be used as an excellent introduction at the beginning of the tune.
Here’s the entire tune:
In preparing this lesson’s final MP3, the complete arrangement of “Smile”, I learned two valuable lessons that I’d like to share. I had never recorded my playing before and I learned how helpful it is to truly listen and hear where more work or practice needs to be done. The other valuable lesson that I learned as I listened to my MP3 attempts was the importance of emphasizing and keeping the melody flowing in a chord melody arrangement. As I made the many chord changes in the tune, I was able to hear short and slightly unpleasant hesitations in the melody. I really had to work on that, so much so that in the F and Dm/F chords near the end of the tune, I found it helpful to strike the melody notes on the beat and delay the bass notes for a half beat in order to keep the melody flowing. I haven’t mastered “Smile” yet, but I hope you’ll find it pleasing nonetheless. So without further ado, here’s my rendition of this song:
In closing, I just want to say that arranging this tune has taken a lot of time and effort, however, the journey and end result has been very personally satisfying and rewarding. I’m ready for a break for a while, but I’m sure that I’ve got more arrangements inside of me… I’ve been thinking about “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, another one of my favorites.
Making a lesson out of this arrangement has been a lot of work also, and really makes me appreciate how blessed we all are to have Guitar Noise and all the writers here who take the time to help make all of us better players. Thank you for that, Paul, David, and everyone! And thank you as well for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful organization.
And, as always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email David directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure that David will forward any comments that you may want to make directly to me.
Until next time,