Buckets Of Rain – Bob Dylan

Since we’ve been doing a lot of finger style guitar work of late here in the Songs for Intermediates pages, and since we’re celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday by having him as Guitar Noise’s featured artist this month, let’s try our hand at Buckets of Rain, the closing song from the classic Blood on the Tracks album. It may seem like it’s going to be a lot of work, but once you’re comfortable with the basic pattern, it’s not all that hard to play. And it also offers us a chance to develop our ability to play syncopated rhythms, not to mention making us sharpen our sliding technique.

If you’ve not been keeping up with your finger picking, it wouldn’t hurt to check out our two lessons on basic Travis finger style guitar, Let Your Fingers Do the Talking and especially Add a Pinch. You could also give yourself some added (and practical) practice by going through the recent lessons on Dust in the Wind or The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) if you so desire.

So if you’re ready, then let’s get to it…

We already have two song lessons here at Guitar Noise from Blood on the Tracks, and I’d like to direct your attention to one of them, Simple Twist of Fate, because Buckets of Rain is also in open tuning. On the album, this song is played in open E tuning (although if memory serves me well, it’s slightly off (perhaps sharp?) on the original recording), but we’re going to use open D and you can find a discussion as to why in the aforementioned lesson. Also, all the MP3 files will be in open D tuning and not in open E.

And just in case you’ve forgotten how to get into open D tuning, we’ll take a minute to refresh your memory. In this tuning the strings are, from low to high, DADF#AD. There are, of course, all sorts of ways to go about changing from standard to open D, but you might find it helpful to use the following steps, provided that your guitar is already tuned in standard (EADGBE) tuning:

  1. Tune the low E (sixth) string down to D by matching it against the D (fourth) string. The newly tuned string will be an octave lower.
  2. Tune the high E (first) string down to D by matching it against the D (fourth) string. The newly tuned string will be an octave higher.
  3. Tune the B (second) string down to A by matching it against the A (fifth) string. The newly tuned string will be an octave higher.
  4. Tune the G (third) string down to F# by matching it against the F# note at the fourth fret of the D (fourth) string.

Okay, you’re all set. Here we go!

Stylistically and structurally, Buckets of Rain is kind of a throwback to those old acoustic blues and folk songs. You could make a good argument for it being “old timey” music. A lot of this comes from the arrangement – the guitar is essentially playing along with the melody line, really more like darting all around it so that the guitar lines and the melody lines resemble two birds playfully chasing each other on a spring morning. All the while the bass just harps away at two notes, both D, creating a solid rhythmic drone that the voice and guitar play over.

In essence, this song is simply three four-measure phrases, one for each line of the verse. There are a few musical interludes, but they are essentially just repeats of the three phrases, although there is one distinct variation of the first phrase, which we’ll run across a little later in this lesson.

Pretty much all the fingering you’re going to be doing will be on the first (high D) and third (F#) strings. There will be a brief use of the high A (second) string, but other than that, you’ll be focusing much of your fretting attention on just two strings.

The Bass Line

It’s that bass part that is actually one of the things that will make this lesson both easy and hard at the same time. You want it to (hopefully) stay steady throughout the entire song. Regardless of what else is going on, you’re going to use your thumb as a metronome, alternating on the beats between the low D (sixth) string and the “standard” or regular D of the open fourth string, like so:

Takedown Notice

As I said, this may seem way too easy right now, but trust me, there’ll be no end of chances to totally blow the bass once you get going on the “finger” part of the song. If you listen closely enough, you’ll even hear me drop the bass part for a beat or two in the final MP3 for this lesson. So take the time to get this into your fingers and practice keeping the beat steady and even. When you can play this smoothly and hold a conversation while keeping the beat, then you’re ready to move on. And this shouldn’t take all that long.

Remember, too, that this is your fallback point. If you totally lose it, then just drop everything else and get back to putting this bass line together. Think of it as your safety net, if you’d like.

The First Phrase

Once you have the bass down solid, the real fun begins. Here is what we’ll call “Phrase 1.” It needs to be four measures long so you have to repeat it twice. In the notation, I’ve tried to indicate all the bass notes (played with the thumb) via notes with downturned stems and the notes for your fingers with notes having upturned stems:

Becoming more adept in playing syncopated guitar pieces, and being able to create swinging, syncopated rhythms on your own, is probably the main point of this entire lesson, so we might as well get right to it. First, get the fingers of your fretting hand in place. You’ll probably want to use your index finger on the first fret of the F# (third) string and your middle finger on the high D (first) string, although you certainly can use other fingerings if this feels uncomfortable.

On the first beat, you’re going to pinch the low D (sixth) and F# (third) strings with your thumb and index finger, respectively. On the “and” between the first and second beats, you’ll pick the high D (first) string with your middle finger. Some of you will feel more comfortable using your ring finger and that’s fine. Others will want to use only your index finger, no matter how complicated things get. That’s alright, too, as long as it doesn’t keep you from maintaining a steady beat.

Hang on to those notes that you’re fingering and let them ring, even as you hit the regular D (fourth) string with your thumb on the second beat and then slide both fingers two frets up the neck, coming to rest at the third fret of the F# (third) string and the fourth fret of the high D (first) string on the “and” between the second and third beats. Then finish up the measure with another hit of each of the bass notes – low D (sixth string) on the third beat and “middle” D (fourth string) on the last beat. Congratulations! You’ve gotten through the first measure.

Now get your fingers back to where they were at the start of the first measure to begin the second one. You’ll start out exactly the same for the first beat-and-a-half. This time, though, instead of sliding up the neck on the “and” between the first and second beat, you’ll perform a pull off on both strings, letting the open first and fourth strings ring out while you complete the third and fourth beats of the second measure.

And do yourself a favor – don’t think that this is something so easy that you should pick it up immediately. Most people don’t. Depending on just how far you’ve come in your guitar adventures, it’s probably going to take some concentrated effort and repetition to get this right. But, as with most of the material you’ve learned up to this point, it won’t take a great deal of time before you find yourself in a groove and just playing these two measures over and over again.

Incidentally, this is one of those occasions where playing something slowly may not be as helpful as it usually is. It’s very hard to get good slides and pull-offs at exaggeratedly slow tempos. One thing you can do while you’re getting your fretting fingers used to performing these functions is to pinch the notes in question on that “and” between the second and third beat. There’s no shame in doing so. Some people actually prefer the extra punch you get playing those notes with a bit more attack.

Those familiar with our lessons at Guitar Noise know by now that this is just the tip of the iceberg. When you have this initial pattern down as a template, you can come up with all sorts of other variations for it. Here’s one, for example:

In this variation, I forgo the two-fret slide and try to nail each note along the F# (third) string. This can be done in all sorts of ways – a series of small slides or sliding from the first fret to the second fret and then hammering-on to the third or even hammering on each of the first three frets, which would mean using the pinky to get the note on the fourth fret of the high D (first) string.

There’s also the use of more syncopation – playing the open F# (third) string on the “and” after the fourth beat and then doing a hammer-on to the first fret of that string, landing at the first beat of the next measure.

The point is that you should, once you’re comfortable with the “template,” play around and come up with things on your own. I’ll give you a little tip in this regard – sometimes just trying to work out a few measures like this you end up hitting a “wrong” note or missing a half beat or maybe performing a hammer-on because you didn’t get to a particular note fast enough. You might find you actually like how the “mistake” sounds and presto! It becomes a “variation!” It’s kind of cool how that can work out sometimes.

The Second Phrase

The second measure of what I call “Phrase 2” is probably the trickiest part of the whole lesson. Take a look and listen before we get started:

Starting out with good fingering here will help you immensely with performing the whole phrase. Most of you should feel most comfortable beginning the first measure with your index finger on the first fret of the F# (third) string and your middle finger on the second fret of the high A (second) string, and you certainly already know that these fingerings are simply suggestions. Feel free to do otherwise. However you decide to finger these frets, you should find the first measure of this phrase mostly harmless, as the saying goes.

Using the suggested fingering frees up your ring finger to perform the pull-offs and hammer-ons involving the high D (first) string that take place in the second measure.

Unlike the first phrase, you should probably go at this second one, at least this second measure of it, at a deliberately slow pace in order to get the timing under your belt. You want the combination hammer-on / pull-off on the third beat to be exactly as written – two sixteenth notes and one eighth note – and not play it as a triplet. It’s not that you can’t play it that way, but rather that you will derail your sense of timing if you do play it as a triplet.

You want to make certain that the last note of this second measure, the F# created by the pull-off on the third string at the last half of the fourth beat, rings out through the start of the following measure. That’s why it appears in parenthesis in Measure 3.

On the MP3 example that accompanies “Phrase 2,” you’ll hear this phrase done twice. The second time I added a small variation by playing a hammer-on to the second fret of the high A (second) string. The timing of that would be just like the hammer-on / pull-off combo we just discussed. This would mean hitting the open high D (first) string right on the second beat at the same time your thumb is hitting the middle D (fourth) string for the bass note.

And it goes without saying that you can come up with any number of variations for this phrase, too.

The Third Phrase

The third phrase, “Phrase 3” in the notation / tablature examples, sounds like it came straight from any number of blues or old folk tunes. And it’s a great lick to have at your beck and call:

And while it’s a little on the tricky side, this isn’t anything you can’t handle, especially after what you’ve managed to do so far! The real trick is in making the slides very deliberate.

For starters, take advantage of the fact that the second phrase ended with a complete measure of not needing to have any fretted notes (isn’t it great how some things just work out this way? It’s almost as if it was planned or something!), which gives you more than enough time to move your fingers up the neck and in position.

Probably the simplest way to finger this is to have your index finger set at the seventh fret of the F# (third) string and your middle finger on the seventh fret of the high D (first) string. On the first beat, you’ll again pinch the low D (sixth) and F# strings and then pluck the high D (first) string on the “and” between the first and second beat. Again, keep your fingers on the strings and let them ring.

You’ll begin the second beat in the usual way, hitting the middle D (fourth) string with your thumb and then use a finger (probably the index) to pick the F# string on the “and” between the second and third beat. After you’ve picked that note, slide your index finger down to the fifth fret of the same string. This slide has to be in time with the picking of your thumb so that you land on that fifth fret at the same moment (or as close to it as humanly possible) that your thumb picks the low D (sixth) string at the start of the third beat.

Also, be sure your index finger comes along with you and is sitting at the fifth fret of the high D (first) string. You don’t have to, and probably don’t want to, slide hard enough to make a note. Just kind of have the middle finger come along for the ride. Because then, on the “and” between the third and fourth beat, you want to play that note on the fifth fret of the high D, right where your middle finger should be sitting.

You’ll repeat this process two more times. The next slide occurs right after striking the fifth fret of the F# string again on the “and” after the fourth beat of the first measure. You want to get to the third fret of that string at the first beat of the second measure (and my apologies that the music notation does not seem to want to do this for me and I had to put it in the second measure instead of “between” them!). Here, during this particular slide, some of you might find it easier to switch off of your middle finger and let the ring finger take over fretting duties on the high D (first) string, handling the fourth fret in this instance.

There’s one last slide, from the third fret of the F# (third) string to the first fret of that same string that occurs on the “and” between the second and third beat of the second measure. And since the note being played on the high D (first) string is on the second fret, keeping the ring finger in position seems the easiest way to handle this. On the last half of the fourth beat, you’ll do another double pull-off to sound the open first and third strings and let those two notes run over into the following measure (again, that’s why they’re in parentheses).

Making sure that your slides are more like eighth notes and less like grace notes is important, so it won’t hurt (and never does) to count out loud in order to help yourself be in the right place at the right time.

As far as variations go, you probably aren’t going to want to mess too much with this particular phrase, especially if you’re singing and playing at the same time! But you’ve ample space during the last two measures to add a personal touch or two.

The “Interlude” Phrase

As mentioned earlier, Buckets of Rain is pretty much these twelve measures repeated over and over and over and over again. They are played, just the way we’ve done, first as an introduction and then they serve as the structure of the verses. And they are played as an interlude between the five verses of the song. And they also serve as an outro, played after the fifth verse.

Obviously, one could very easily be bored with this arrangement. Dylan solved this by coming up with an “interlude verse” that begins with a different take on “Phrase 1” and it goes like this:

This is played much like the first phrase, only the fingered notes and sliding are much further up the neck and, owing to the use of the C note at the tenth fret of the high D (first) string, give the phrase a strong blues-y feel.

Sliding this high up on the neck, particularly on an acoustic guitar, offers plenty of challenges. Many of you may prefer plucking the note at the twelfth fret of the high D (first) string with your middle or ring finger to give it a bit more of an attack. You’ll definitely hear me do that in the MP3 files – maybe a little overboard, in fact!

Speaking of which, let’s put the whole thing together, shall we? On the original recording the outro consists of a “regular verse” followed by the “interlude verse.” I like to add one last repetition of Phrase 3 for good measure.

I hope you enjoyed this truly fun song and managed to work out a little more concerning syncopation in fingerstyle guitar work. Remember that if you want to be closer to the actual recording, you want to play this with a capo on the second fret, which will move you up from open D to open E tuning.

And, 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 [email protected]

Until our next lesson…

Peace