Acoustic songs can be as heavily layered with guitar parts as those with both electric and acoustic guitars. In this lesson, we’ll create a single-guitar arrangement of America’s “Ventura Highway,” which uses at least four different acoustic guitar parts. And, just as in our last lesson with “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” we’ll use different parts of the original guitar layers to give our arrangement all the flavor of the original recording.
First, though, we have to go over the basics. It’s essential to have the chords and rhythm of any song you want to play down cold before you try adding embellishments, so let’s examine the nuts and bolts of the song’s structure. It consists of an introduction, a verse and a chorus, an interlude (essentially the same as the intro), a second verse and chorus, and the outro, which is the same as the interlude.
For the most part, “Ventura Highway” is a two-chord song. The intro, verses, and the first half of the chorus alternate between two chords – G6 and Dmaj7. The last half of the chorus alternates between F#m and Em and finishes with G6 before going back to the G6 / Dmaj7 progression of the interlude.
That all sounds fine and maybe even relatively easy (and it is!) but we’ve also other considerations to make. For instance, on the original recording, the G6 is played like this:
This is a fine voicing for G6 if you’re only strumming and not worried about adding fills and getting up and down the neck in a hurry. Since you are going to be concerned with that (very soon now), I suggest you might prefer this voicing:
One of the big reasons for using this voicing is that it makes for a much easier switch to the Dmaj7. And this is a good place to point out that Dmaj9 is also a good substitution for Dmaj7 if you’d like to use it:
One of the reasons I think of “Ventura Highway,” much like “Horse With No Name” (which was also written by Dewey Bunnell), as a two-chord song is that the other two chords, F#m and Em (shown below), are musically very similar to Dmaj7 and G6.
F#m is made up of F#, A, and C# while Dmaj7 contains the notes D, F#, A, and C#. In a pinch, you could just play the three high strings with a finger barred on the second fret and it would pass for either chord. Em is made up of E, G, and B and if you add a D note to that you’ve got G6 (or Em7, if you’d prefer). Knowing that these pairs of chords are so similar can give you a lot of options when you want to add some embellishments to a basic arrangement.
In the original recording, the primary rhythm guitar strums, for the most part, in the following manner:
I say “for the most part” because that’s an apt description. You’ll often notice in sheet music transcriptions the instructions “continue rhythm simile” (or “cont. rhy. simile”), which means that you want to keep the basic idea of the rhythm but don’t obsess about playing it exactly as written measure after measure after measure. Seriously, unless you are part of an America tribute band and even then, only if there is some obscenely outrageous cash prize involved, the last thing you want to ever do as a musician is to be so robotic in your playing that a machine can substitute for you without anyone knowing any different.
It’s also important to note here that the original rhythm guitar track on the original recording is just that – one guy playing a rhythm. He’s not singing nor is he adding addition fills and embellishments to the playing. And if you want to ultimately add that to your arrangement (as we’re going to), then you may have to simplify the “basic” strumming to something that will work easily with everything else you choose to do with the song. If not, and if you’re good with singing while playing this rhythm (or you’ve got someone else to sing), then you’re set and can go right to the chord sheet at the end of the lesson.
If you do want to do more, then you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the following rhythm options:
“Option 1″ is the “simple basic.” It’s a very general strum that you’ve heard on more songs than you can possibly name and it suits our purposes here very nicely by (a) being simple and (b) having that percussive stroke (for more on percussive strokes, check out our mini-lesson here) on the second beat in order to help with chord changes when we add the fills.
In “Option 2″ four sixteenth notes are played on the first beat to give the rhythm a bit of a push.
You might decide to go with more accents, especially when you get to the first F#m chord in the chorus:
Additionally, especially in the chorus, it helps to go from a combination of chords to single notes, as in the following example:
If you can get used to this style of playing, then try adding different voicings of the G6 and Dmaj9 chord up the neck. The beauty of it is that both chord voicings use the same shape in almost the same exact place:
Combining these chord voicings with the rhythm in “Example 4″ will enable you to mimic the two main rhythm guitar parts in the chorus at once:
It’s also worth noting, as mentioned earlier, that both the G6 and Dmaj9 chords are similar enough to the Em and F#m chords so you can also incorporate this strumming with that part of the chorus as well.
Filling In Space
Once you have the rhythm and the chords down, you can work on adding the distinctive guitar fill that is played repeatedly throughout the song:
If you haven’t heard “Ventura Highway” recently, you might be surprises at how closely this sounds like the original recording. Truth is, though, there are two guitars playing harmony parts instead of a single guitar as we’re doing. While it is certainly possible to play both parts at the same time, it’s incredibly hard for most guitarists to do at speed, particularly if they are also worried about singing!
(And I should note that it is possible to hint at a second guitar through the strategic use of double stops. We’ll be looking at that, as well as other strumming and fill ideas in an upcoming Guitar Noise podcast in February.)
Back to the main point, which is your main objective is going to be to get from fill to chords, back to the fill and back to the chords again as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. Surprisingly, it’s not all that hard to do with some concentrated practice and repetition. A great way to do that, especially if you’re using the “full open G6″ chord described earlier, is to make certain your ring finger hits the last note of the fill (the F# at the seventh fret of the B string). If you play that note with your ring finger, then you can simply slide it into place for the D note at the third fret of the B string, which is part of that open G6. You can also slide down to the second fret of the B to get the C# of the Dmaj7 or Dmaj9 (and the Dmaj9 is a lot easier to play in this case) and then use the percussive stroke to change to a Dmaj7 played with the index finger. That puts you in perfect shape to slide the index finger back up to the fifth fret to start the fill all over again.
One final note – when you get to the very last chord of the chorus before going back into the fills-and-chords routine, you should be aware of two things. First, at that point the pattern is reversed. Because the last chord of the chorus is G6 (and more on that in a moment), the first chord of the interlude is Dmaj7. It’s not that big of a issue to deal with, but it is worth making note of.
Secondly, as much as every piece of music (professional transcriptions or whatever you may find on the Internet) shows that final chorus chord to be G6, I personally can’t play it without cringing. Why? Because the vocal harmonies are distinctly a Gmaj7. So that’s what I play when I play this song:
And here, along with the chord sheet for the entire song, is an MP3 of the intro, plus the full verse and chorus, and a bit of the interlude to take us out:
I hope you’ve enjoyed this arrangement of “Ventura Highway” and continue to enjoy it well enough to play some new versions of it yourself! As always, feel free to post any and all questions, comments and suggestions either right here or on our Forum Pages (we’ve got one dedicated specifically to Guitar Noise Song Lessons, by the bye!) or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
And, again as always, until our next lesson,
“Ventura Highway” is a song from America’s 1973 album Homecoming. This was the band’s second album and “Ventura Highway” their third top ten hit after “Horse With No Name” and “I Need You.” All Music Guide rates this as “America’s finest album” with a number of the songs exhibiting “a yearning sense of wanderlust and love of the outdoors.”
“Ventura Highway” also contains the first known use of the lyric “Purple Rain”, which is delivered without explanation. It’s another example of America’s frequent use of non-literal lyrics like “alligator lizards in the air” and “there were plants and birds and rocks and things.” A decade later Prince would have a hit album, movie and song with an equally enigmatic title “Purple Rain.”