Babylon – David Gray

David Gray White Ladder

Welcome to the first installment of “Songs for Intermediates.” What we’re (hopefully) going to do one these pages is to take the next logical step in moving from being a strict beginner to being a well-rounded guitarist. This will eventually cover a lot of different topics. And, if you’ve read any of the Easy Songs For Beginners pieces, you already know that I prefer to teach lessons by using specific songs as examples. I have always found songs to be a lot more enjoyable than exercises.

Okay, then. Today we’ll be examining the song Babylon by David Gray. Some of you might think that this is going to be fairly easy and perhaps even wonder why I choose to open the Intermediates’ pages with something that is essential a pop song with four chords (D, G, Em and A). One of the things I tend to stress is that most guitarists and would-be guitarists occasionally (I love ironic understatement) think that their fingers are most important things in the world. Speed and accuracy are all that matters. Makes them sound like a bunch of data entry operators, doesn’t it? But, as we’ve discussed in many previous columns, not everyone is gifted with the same amount of dexterity. Does this mean that those of us who are “nimbly challenged” should give up on trying to play?

I have said this before, too – I am not the world’s greatest guitarist. That doesn’t bother me in the least. It also doesn’t bother me that there are guitarists out there (many who are younger and have (much) more hair!) who can run rings around me. Playing is not and should never be a competition.

If you want to play fast, there is but one course of study – endless repetition of drills involving scales and riffs. Now, don’t think that I don’t think that this is important. The only way to get good is to practice. But in addition to practicing with your fingers, don’t forget that your brain needs practice, too. Getting your mind to think creatively when it comes to music will always bring you much more satisfaction than just playing a part by rote. Coming up with something on your own and learning to use what you came up with in other songs somewhere down the road will bring you no end of enjoyment. You will never find yourself bored with your playing if you learn how to use your brain.

Keeping that in mind, as well as giving a nod to this month’s theme of musical genres, let’s talk a little about pop music in general and David Gray’s Babylon in particular. I know many people who turn up their noses at the term “pop music,” but let me fill you in on a little secret – each and every one of them has a pop song in their heart. No lie. Whether or not you will ever get them to admit that there is this one song (God knows what it might be – I have this one friend who swears she only likes and listens to jazz but you can almost always catch her singing Karma Chameleon to herself) running around in their head is a moot point. Trust me, it is there.

Pop songs are catchy. And they cross all genres, becoming, as Ryan Spencer so aptly put it, a subgenre of sorts. In our lifetime, songs of my youth have become “classic rock” or “dusties” or “old souls.” I made that last term up but I think it’s very appropriate. Pop songs that my parents listened to are now considered “lite” jazz but that is definitely not what they were when they ruled the airwaves.

When I started learning the guitar in the mid-seventies, I learned each and every song I could, whether I liked it or not. Why? Because if I heard it on the radio, then I knew that somebody liked it and if I got a chance to play it then I could be fairly certain that someone would take the time to listen to me play. This really hasn’t changed. When I play out these days, as rare as that might be, my audience will end up hearing songs from the forties through the year 2001. The more songs I know, the more often I get to play. The more styles I know, the more musicians I can sit in with. It is really that simple. If you want to get asked to play a lot, whether as a solo performer or with groups that want more musicians, than learn everything you can. The challenge comes in taking someone else’s song and making it uniquely yours.

To do this, you need to learn to use your brain as well as your hands.

Just what do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at Babylon with an eye for working it into a song for the solo guitarist (either singing or with a vocalist, obviously). Now you may say, “Hey! All I’ve got to do is download the chords and strum. What’s so hard about that?”

True enough. If you were to find the TAB, this is probably what you would find:

Takedown Notice

And there you have it. Very straight forward and nothing to it, right?

Unless you want to get into the song itself. Being a pop song, Babylon is full of hooks, catchy bits of music and words that do precisely what the word says. They reel you in. Some of it is in the song itself (the melody and lyrics) and some is in the arrangement – the little guitar trill, the synthesized strings that serve as a rhythm section, among other things. The question is, how do you as a solo performer take this song and play it so that fans of the songs are happy because they recognize it and you are happy as well, because you’ve claimed it as your own?

When I listen to Babylon, the first thing that draws me in is the little trill that the guitar does. Having listened to and played music for ages, I can readily identify it as a major seventh going up to the root and then back. Now don’t read that and get discouraged. I’ve been playing a while, remember… But seriously, when you learn something for one song, even if you learned it ages ago, you give yourself a music vocabulary. Whether or not you choose to take advantage of it is an entirely different matter. In this case, I am reminded of “Make It With You” by Bread. It also starts with the same kind of trill. The easiest way to do this is to start with a Dmaj7 chord (barring the first three strings on the second fret) and then doing a quick hammer-on and pull-off on the D note, which is the third fret on the B string. This is how it goes:

Do you hear how distinctive that sounds? File it away in your head because you will hear it over and over again.

Another thing I notice about this song is that there are a lot of words. Really. This means that I would like to keep my guitar part on the simple side, after all, if I’m going to be singing this and playing it at the same time, I don’t want to get so complicated that I don’t know what I’m doing!

But the trill hook in Babylon is not the same as this one. For starters, the high E string isn’t sounded at all. But it does have a little bit of a lead-in, that is a few notes come first to set the stage for the trill. Kind of like this:

I like the way that this fills out the measure with relatively few notes. This is the kind of sound that I am looking for to play this song. I also figure that the more ringing open strings I have, the easier it is to create the illusion that there’s more going on than what I’m actually playing. Sometimes it pays to be a bit sneaky. Since I’m essentially dealing with two measures (one in D and one in G), and since the D measure is pretty much taken up by the trill hook, I play around and find this nifty phrase:

Now, where exactly did this come from? Well, I could bore you with all sorts of theory and details, but it mostly came from my trying to follow along in the style of the song.

The G in the bass came from G being the next chord. The open D and B strings are also part of the G chord. The A note (second fret on the G string) is a sustained tone from the Dmaj7 in the first measure and I like the jazzy feel it gives to the phrase. The open high E string gives me the best of both worlds; it provides me yet another open ringing string as well as adding to the mysterious and moody tone. I decide I’m so happy with it that I make a mental note to play the Dmaj7 with an open E string as well so that in case I hit it by accident it will sound like part of the progression. So putting the two together, this is now my pattern for the verses (shown here as the first verse):

Take a moment and compare what we’ve just done to simply strumming the chords that we took from the TAB page. If you want to, go and use Dmaj7s and G6add9s. I’m still willing to bet that you’ll prefer this arrangement we’ve come up with to a straight rhythmic strumming of chords. More important is that it’s as much fun to play as it is to listen to. This is what arrangement is all about. Making something fun and challenging for both performer and audience at the same time.

Okay, before we move on to the chorus, let’s discuss the strumming of this song. I’ve tabbed this out so that you can play it with or without a pick, whichever your preference. I’ve performed it both ways and find myself partial to fingerstyle. Especially when playing the chorus. I use a kind of Jose Feliciano approach – I use my thumb to pluck the bass note while using my ring, middle and index fingers to pluck the first three strings at the same time. In addition, I keep my hand close to the strings so that I can slap my fingers back onto the strings, just hard enough to effectively deaden them for a moment before I pluck them all again. If you practice this a few times, you can hear why I name this after Jose – it sounds like his (and yes, a lot of other people’s) rhythm style. The slaps (palm mutes, percussive strokes, whatever you want to call them) are designated by the “x” symbols in our chart:

Jose Feliciano strumming pattern
If you’ve read last week’s Easy Song For Beginners, I Shot The Sheriff, you’ll recognize that we are playing the last three (non-muted) chords of each measure on the offbeat. Take your time with this. Going from the “and” of the fourth beat straight into the first beat of the next measure takes a bit of practice. Now I don’t play this throughout the chorus (although I could very easily and you might want to try it out that way first). This is just to give you a feel for what I am doing rhythm-wise.

What I play is actually a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs, the odd suspended note here and there using this rhythm as a base. Since the chorus has a lot of spaces in the melody line, I feel free to put more ornamentation in the accompaniment. These are, as I said mostly simple hammer-ons and pull-offs that are based on the fingerings of the four chords of the chorus (D, A, Em and G).

But there are three “tricks,” if you will that I want to take the time to show you. The first is what I call an “A7 turnaround.” This turnaround is is another example of the use of inverted thirds that we used in the “Easy Songs For Beginners” piece, Bookends. And don’t worry, I’ll be doing a column on it sometime in September so we’ll have a chance to explore it in depth. For right now, though, here’s what I’m talking about:

A7 turnaround with inverted thirds

The beauty of this is that you can choose to use the entire turnaround or just parts of it. Sometimes, for example, I will use the first chord (step 1), go to the second (step 2) and then go back to the first again. In essence, I am creating an A7sus2sus4 and then going back to the A7. Again, all this does is bring more interest to both the listener and performer.

The second thing I do is to give the G chord, in it’s only appearance in the chorus, a bit of a fanfare. First I use a G chord with the D note on the B string (third fret). I play a very deliberate downstroke on the first beat, letting all the string ring out. But then I start an upstroke, pulling off my fingers on the first two strings as I come back. It gives a nice cascading effect that breaks up the sound of the rhythm without actually breaking up the rhythm at all (you can see that it’s still all in eighth notes):

Finally, on the last bit of the chorus, I start in an another A7 turnaround but then end it with a second measure of A major. In order to continue my upward spiral of notes, I use an A major chord that some of you may not be familiar with even though it’s really not that different from a first position chord:

Believe it or not, I picked up this from classical guitar. Simply barre the first four strings of the second fret (being sure to leave the A string open for your bass note) and get the hogh A on the fifth fret of the first string with your pinky. Pete Townsend uses this fingering to play the A chord quite often, the only thing is that he uses his pinky to play the fifth fret of both the E and B strings in order to give him the A5 sound (no third).

Okay, then, let’s do a full chorus here:

Please note that while I may start a measure on one chord, technically, that chord will often change as a result of my added notes. This is particularly true of the Em, which I often turn into an Em7 in order to get a nice voicing of the D note (3rd fret on the B string) that will resolve to the C# note (2nd fret on the B string) of the A7 chord.

Well, you can pretty much take it from here. The only thing that I’ll add is that I tend to follow the second version of Babylon found on David Gray’s White Ladder CD. I can’t believe how many people don’t know that the song not only has a third verse, but it’s the most important part of the song, story-wise! Anyway, I put a two measure of Em break between the first and second verses. Usually I let the mood dictate what I decide to play in this space. Sometimes I just let a singe chord ring out and tap on the body of the guitar to count out the time. But quite often I will throw in some harmonics or something like this:

Here then is the whole song. I must tell you that I may indeed have some of the words wrong as I am going by memory and anyone who knows me knows that it’s not what it used to be! Feel free to use the various things we worked out today but also try out some variations of your own.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed our initial Intermediates’ lesson and I hope that you remember that it’s just as important to practice using your head as you do your fingers and hands.

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.