America – Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel - Greatest Hits

Some of you may notice that, on occasion, I try to link up my “Easy Songs for Beginners” lessons with these on the Intermediate page. I sincerely hope it doesn’t offend anyone to learn that I don’t consider my Songs for Intermediates lessons are all that much harder than the Beginner lessons, at least from a technical standpoint.

But I do believe the Songs for Intermediates lessons require more skill in that you do have to think. Please understand one thing about me: I’m probably the only teacher you’ll ever have whose primary philosophy is to get you to the point where you don’t need me! Nothing thrills me more than getting an email from someone who tells me, “I took the ideas from your lesson and used them in a song I’ve been playing for a long time. Now I’m finding all sorts of other ways to use them!” That’s my plan.

Today we’re going to carry on a little deeper with developing bass lines, as we did in Simple Twist of Fate, as well as in Fire and (Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay over on the beginners’ side of things. Our lesson is Paul Simon’s America, from the Simon and Garfunkel album, Bookends. You can also find it on many of their greatest hits or boxed sets.

In addition to working on the bass lines, I want to throw in some picking and strumming techniques, not to mention developing your arrangements with a fill or two. What the hey, let’s throw in a little chord progression theory while we’re at it! And did I happen to mention that this song is a waltz? As usual, if it sounds like we’ve bitten off a bit more than we can chew, then we’re in for fun, right?

Before we get involved in the mechanics of the lesson, though, I want to touch upon where this particular arrangement came from. All of the song lessons I bring you come, originally, from the music itself. I’ll hear a song and think, “That would be good to play for people” and I come up with arrangement that (a) I can play and (b) I can play well enough so that people would want me to play.

Nowadays, just as when I just started learning the instrument, I do most of my arranging on my twelve-string guitar. I guess I figure that if I can play it on a twelve I can play it on anything! But also, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, the twelve-string is my first preference when performing. This helps explain why many of my arrangements involve both straight strumming and arpeggios, as well as walking bass lines and chord voicings which highlight the natural qualities of the twelve-string.

America, like Fields of Gold, lends itself nicely to being broken down into specific segments. We’re going to think of the song in terms of verses and a bridge. This is a bit of a misnomer, as you’ll see. “Verse 1” and “verse 2,” while starting the same, finish with different chord progressions. Fortunately, “verse 3” is the same as “verse 1” and “verse 4,” disregarding the outro, is a mirror image of “verse 2.”

I first learned this song from a book (The Songs of Paul Simon), and in that particular sheet music it’s in the key of Bb major. Those of you who’ve been reading my lessons for a while know full well that I’m already reaching for my capo. If I tell you that I intend to play in G, will that help? For the purpose of our lesson, we will put our capo on the third fret and discuss things in the key of G. Yes, this means that we will be playing in Bb (and the MP3s will also be in Bb) but this allows us to discuss things in terms of the incredibly friendly key of G.

And just to confuse you even further, I just listened to this song on my Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits CD (the really old one) and on that recording (which is, I believe, a remixed version of the original) it’s in the key of D!

But, doggone it, we’re going to play it in G and I want to take a moment now to bring up a few things about the key of G. This probably seems like old hat to most of you, but I want to show you where some of the things we’re going to do come from. First, let’s look at the G major scale and how nicely we can fit two of them into the first four frets of the guitar:

G Major Scale on first three strings

G Major Scale on bottom three strings

Pay careful attention to the fact that we can also go down from our G note on the sixth string. There’s an F# on the second fret and, of course, the open sixth string is E. This is important to understand in order to move ahead. You see, we’re going to play this song with a bass line that moves in two directions.

Intro and Verse 1

Takedown Notice

Have I mentioned that I love waltzes? I know that 3/4 time throws off a lot of people, but I think it’s a lot of fun. Songs in this time signature lend themselves very easily to a bass-and-chord strumming approach. You play the bass note on the first beat and then follow up with the chord on the second and third beats, like this:

You might also notice how the lyrics of the song fit right into this pattern:

Comparing these lines to the chord chart, I see (and hear) that I’ve got four measures of G before switching to C. Four measures of C will bring me back to G for the second line. That’s a lot of time in a moderately paced song to be playing the same thing! What to do?

This is where knowing a little about theory and a little more about scales can help you out. In the key of G, C is the fourth. But the important thing you have to always remember about music is that it’s not all in one direction. In our scale, C is the fourth note when we ascend from G, but it is the fifth note when we descend. But let’s suppose for a second that we were in the key of C. Starting and ascending from C, G would be the fifth of the scale. This is a vital relationship to understand, especially when it comes to the guitar, and even more so when we learn the bass.

Tuck this away someplace in your brain and keep it safe forever: If you have two notes (and let’s call them “1” and “2” in order not to confuse them with the names of actual notes) and 1 is the fourth of 2, then 2 will, without fail, be the fifth of 1.

Okay, enough of this particular digression. Thinking about the first line of the song, and thinking about the fact that I have four measures of G to deal with and remembering that I want to end up on C, the following idea takes shape in my brain: I’m going to play a descending bass line under the G chord, going from G to C. G for one measure, F# on measure two and E in measure three. Measure four will have the D note in the bass and voila! We are at C for the start of measure five.

It sounds feasible, but when you take into account that if I start with the G on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string, I’m going to run out of space. However, I’m a flexible person and the guitar is a flexible instrument. Let me come up with a couple of ways of working this out.

The first one (example #3A), if played in 4/4 time, would sound a little like the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil, no? Note to self: there’s a possible Easy Song for Beginners lesson! By starting my descending bass line an octave higher, I get all the notes in a smooth, uninterrupted sequence. Example #3B isn’t bad, either! We get this by following the notes of the scale, even though the scale gets interrupted by our running out of notes at the open E string. We simply jump from the E (open sixth string) to the closest D note, which happens to be the open D string. Tell you what, let’s save this one for later!

But for now, guess what? I’ve decided that both of these ideas are too easy for my intermediates! As I mentioned earlier, we want a bass line that moves in two directions. And I want to add to your lesson by mixing up single notes and strumming, so I’ve decided to try a bass line like this:

Before we go any further, I want to both point out and stress something. I have deliberately written this example out in two different styles. 4A shows you what I’ve been calling, for obvious reasons, “bass and chord” style. The first beat belongs to our chosen bass note while beats two and three are filled with strummed chords. In example 4B I use arpeggios, all in eighth notes, based on our full chords. The particular arpeggio pattern I use works well for me but you can use many others.

I guess I should also point out that I usually use a pick for both of these examples. You can use your fingers and fingerpick if you’d like, but if you’d like to work a little on your picking technique, grab a pick to play this. It will allow you a chance to both strum and work on arpeggios. When I play this song myself, as you’ll soon hear, I’m more likely to use a combination of these two styles, like this:

When picking the arpeggios, especially using a pick (by the way, I’m using a medium one in these examples), there are all sorts of options. You might want to try to use alternating picking – that is, alternating your downstrokes and upstrokes. I have a tendency, when playing in this style, to wield the pick as I would my fingers. I’ll play the lower three strings (D, A and E) with downstrokes and use upstrokes on the first three strings (E, B and G). We could discuss the pros and cons of both ways from now to New Year’s.

My point here, and always, is that these examples are simply guidelines. I’ve been playing so long that I just play and trust what happens (and it’s not always pretty!). Believe me, you will get to this stage of playing as well. Don’t get yourself all worked up about not sounding exactly like the MP3 or even about the MP3 not matching the transcription note per note. I could play this (and just about every other song) a hundred times and you’ll get a hundred different (albeit slightly) versions. Play around and have fun. If you’re more comfortable with hitting a different sequence of strings for arpeggios, then by all means do so. If you just want to slug out a bass-and-chord arrangement, that’s your call as well.

Back to the score: You’ll also note that I do something very interesting in the third measure. I catch the full Em chord on the upstroke (on the last half of the first beat), let it ring for a beat and a half, and then ascend from E to G before making the final move from G to C. This gives a little rhythmic variation that I can use to keep people from falling asleep while listening to me!

Once we reach the C chord, we’ve another four measures to fill. Using our earlier logic, I’m going to play our C chord like this:

Again, you can do this with “bass and chords” (6A), arpeggios (6B) or a combination of the two (6C). Man, this is a lot of work for just two lines, isn’t it? I hate to tell you, but we’re not done yet! However, just to make you feel you’ve accomplished some more, I’ll take this time to note that this G to C sequence of eight measures, played twice, serves as the introduction to the song.

We’re going to come back to these four measures of C in a moment. Right now, though, I want to finish off the last two lines of this section. Here is the entire first verse with the intro. The notation is pretty much in bass and chord fashion in order to simply give you a guideline (and to spare me from having to write it all out), but you will hear me doing arpeggios as well:

Whoa! Yes, there were some things in there that we haven’t covered yet! For starters, there’s a riff/fill right before the switch from Em to Bm. And then there’s the whole thing at the end with those four measures of C. I did warn you! Let’s look at them both:

You can see that this starts simply enough. We’re playing an Em chord and using an alternating bass line. The first measure we play the open low E string, the next we use the B note on the second fret of the A and finally we use the E on the second fret of the D. Well, all that has gotten me a little bored; I’m itching to do something different. So for the final measure of Em, I throw in a little fill. Nothing at all fancy, it’s just playing around, moving my fingers on and off the A and D strings.

Where did this riff come from? Well, depending on your philosophy of things, we can answer that in several ways. We can say it is derived from the G major scale. But perhaps a more important way to look at it is that this fill is made possible by the E minor chord.

Pencils out, readers, because this is a major thing to remember from this song lesson: More times than not, a chord will give you ready-made fills if you’re willing to hunt for them. How does one look for them? By being fidgety. And by having an awareness of the scales involved and where the notes of those scales are in relation to your chord.

I want you to really look at the notes that we’re playing in the fourth measure of 8A and listen to what a nice little phrase we’ve got. Now pay attention to how little work it actually involves. Open A string, add finger, open D string, add finger. Nothing to it. Take your time to get the timing down. This is a place where I would definitely use alternate picking.

After playing around with some more “bass and chords” we get another interesting little run in the last measure of Bm7. Again, this is taken from the G major scale as well as simply being notes close to the chords in question. Since my index finger is on the B note to start with, I usually just hammer my middle finger on the C at the third fret and then pull off to get the B again and then pull off the index finger to get the open A. With my fingers in that position, I just move them up to the low E string and they are all set to get the final three notes.

In example 8B, you can hear that even doing something as simple as pulling off your index finger on a C chord, in essence changing it from C to Cmaj7, can be very elegant. This is what we do in the first two measures. This will work with both straight strumming and arpeggios, as you will hear in the upcoming examples.

For the second half of the riff, all you’re doing is moving your middle finger around on the second fret of the D and G strings. As we’ve done in all our lessons, take the time to get this clean. Play it as slowly as you have to. The speed will come, trust me. And for most fills, speed is not anywhere near as important as flow. You want your fills to be seamless parts of your accompaniment to a song.

By the way, I use Bm7 as a substitute for Bm, which is something I do a lot. For me, this comes from learning on a twelve string long before I learned barre chords. As always, you should feel free to use your favorite voicing. Remember to take into account that your bass note, depending on that voicing, might be different than mine. Also, you might not be able to do that Bm7 to E bass run if you’re using a different chord voicing, so feel free to come up with one of your own.

Notice that throughout the end of this verse I am letting the chord decide my bass notes. It doesn’t always have to be the root, even though it often is. Going from A to G, I decide to use the B note in order to continue up to the following D chord. On that D chord, just to keep you on your toes, I use a similar offbeat pattern to the one I described to you earlier.

The final G chord starts us back out on our initial pattern, which will take the song into the second verse. That was a bit of a ride, no? Are we still all here? Great! Let’s go on, then.

Verse 2

As in Henry VIII, “second verse, same as the first…” Well, it starts out the same, anyway.

All right, then. Let’s play the entire second verse, not forgetting to throw in our new C riff:

Notice the dramatic change to strumming during the last two lines (“…it took me four days…”). This, along with the very end of verse four, is one of the emotional centers of the song, so I tend to punch it up with straight strumming, pounding on the chords for all I’m worth. I also use different voicings of the D chord to both support the melody line and add to the dynamics.

Likewise, the final cadence of Gmaj7 to G may seem like (terrible pun warning!) a minor thing, but as it follows the melody line, it adds quite a bit to your playing, particularly with the switch from the F# (the seventh of the Gmaj7) to G being so prominent on the first string.


Speaking of dramatic changes, here at the bridge we go from G to Fmaj7. There are many ways to look at this in terms of theory. I would normally think of it as a momentary modulation into the key of C. But since the tonality is still firmly rooted in G, it’s good to think that, again simply for the duration of these two lines, you’ve briefly shifted from G major to the mode of G Mixolydian. Remember that G Mixolydian is essentially a C major scale (no sharps and no flats) that starts and ends on G.

Or you could just as easily not think of it at all and simply play a little riff off the Fmaj7 chord, like in the first four measures of this transcription of the bridge:

You can again see that our riff is made by having the chord in place and playing around with the notes within our reach. It’s hardly that technical at all but it adds a lot. This particular idea is, once again, suggested by the song’s melody.

Going from the G back to the Fmaj7, let’s use the full G scale, obviously substituting F for F#. Then we’ll settle back into the intro pattern for a little bit and mix it up with playing around between the C and Cmaj7.

When we hit the final G (on “camera”), I want to tone the song down a little, so I play arpeggios again with our ever-descending bass line. When I get to the E, I decide to continue to the D, which means shifting the bass to the open D string. At this point, the song takes a little detour of two measures. Instead of going from D to C in the bass, we go to C#. For the longest time, I fiddled around with different chords and voicings before I settled on this one. I call it A9/C# but you can think of it as C#dim with the added seventh if you’d like. Lingering on this chord for two measures before landing back on C definitely helps you to hear a downshift in tone.

Here is our last MP3, which contains the entire bridge, plus the last two verses and the outro:

The outro involves repeating the last line of the final verse (the final line in “verse 2”) two additional times before ending with a couple of passes of the intro phrase. I like to close with the little fill on the C chord, slightly slowing in speed, and a final stroke of the G.

So, let’s see if we can’t put all this into a nice linear package!


– Simon

INTRO (G and C)

Play “verse 1”

Play “verse 2”

Play “Bridge”

Play “verse 1”

Play “verse 2” (with outro)

Well, that was some trip, eh? I hope you had fun with this lesson and playing (and playing with) this song. America has been interpreted in many different ways, and I think that you should add your own arrangement to that list. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be sitting at some coffeehouse or small venue and hear you play it!

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected]

Until next lesson…


Where Did The Guitar Tab Go?On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.