Banana Pancakes – Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

We’ll be talking a lot about rhythms in the various lessons and articles coming to Guitar Noise in 2010 and one thing you’re going to read over and over again is that rhythm is aural. Whether it’s the fact that we do everything on computers nowadays or that we feel something is positively ancient because there is no video attached to it, it’s vital to remember that music is audio. And as much as you want to think of various aspects of music in visual terms, you have to develop your ears and even occasionally forget your eyes entirely if you truly want to get better at playing guitar and at making music.

When it comes to learning music, the most important thing that you can use your eyes for is reading. But that’s just the first step of many. Being able to read tablature or music notation (and, ideally, you want to be good at reading both) won’t help you if you don’t apply your brain to your reading.

Hopefully, this lesson on Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes will help you understand the importance of both these points. Plus, it will give you some more work with easy forms of barre chords (something we all need, beginners or not). Don’t worry, though – you’ll also have the choice of playing this song (almost) entirely without barre chords, if you so choose.

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.

Structure and Rhythm

Breaking down Banana Pancakes in terms of musical structure doesn’t take long. The song is in the key of G, it’s in 4 / 4 timing (at a tempo between 112 and 120 beats per minute, if I’m not mistaken) and there is a short introduction that uses (as you’ll soon see) a very simple riff and flits between two chords – Am7 and G7 twice before very briefly using D7 as a “turnaround” chord to get us to the first verse. The verses are made up of a four-chord progression (G7, D7, Am7, and C7) where each chord gets two beats. This progression is played four times and then we have a chorus that is conveniently the same musical structure of the introduction.

Verse and chorus then are repeated, although the second chorus is twice as long as the first one. This extended part of the chorus doesn’t contain the riffs of the first one (or the introduction). Then we have a bridge that has two measures each of Am7, D, Am7, D, and Bm7 followed by single measures of Em, C, G, and D7 and then a measure-and-a- half of G before another two-beat turn around on D7 to take us back to the last verse and chorus. The final chorus, like the second chorus, is twice the length of the first chorus.

As good as all this information is, the first thing you truly need to know about this song is that it is played in swing eighths. Swing rhythm is something that is close to impossible for most people to pick up visually. Why? Because if you are watching the “down and up” strokes of a guitarist, the strumming looks identical to strumming regular eighth notes. Unless you’re listening (and, preferably, counting), you may not catch it.

Even written sheet music doesn’t always tell you that something is in swing rhythm. Usually it will be written out just as regular eighth notes. Here is a simplified version of the opening riff of Banana Pancakes written out for you (I’ve taken out the frills – don’t worry, you’ll get the “real” thing in a moment!) and played in both regular (or “straight”) eighth notes and then again in swing. I’m also counting along so that you can hear the difference:

Takedown Notice

Straight eighths divide a beat evenly. You count them “one and two and three and four and…” In swing eighths, the beat is divided evenly into three parts (a triplet), but you play just the first and the last note of that triplet. In other words, you would count out “one and a two and a three and a four and a” but only play the numbers and the “a”s, not the “and”s.

If you want to get a good primer to swing rhythms, listen to Guitar Noise Podcast # 13. All of the music notation for this lesson will be written like “regular” eighth notes but you want to think of them in terms of swing eighths. One of the reasons that sheet music is written this way is to make the life of whoever’s writing the notation a little easier! Scribbling out all those triplets is a royal pain!

Introduction, Basic Barres and Reading Finger Position Clues

Barre chords are a signature part of Jack Johnson’s sound. You won’t produce the jazz-styled chord voicings and chunky rhythmic sounds he gets without them. And the barre chords involved in Banana Pancakes are, for the most part, very easy. This is one reason why it’s a great song to use for barre chord practice.

The Introduction / Chorus section of Banana Pancakes introduces the Am7 and G7 chords you will run into throughout the song. Both of these chords are what we’d call “E shaped” barre chords. The Am7 is an Em7 (020000) moved up to the fifth and seventh frets (575555) and the G7 is an E7 (020100) moved up to the third, fourth and fifth frets (353433). For both chords, you want to barre the appropriate fret with your index finger, then use your ring finger to get the note on the A string and your middle finger to get the note on the G string. If you’re careful about how you strum, you can get away with not fingering the A string at all. Just miss it when you strum either chord. This is especially easy to do on the upstrokes and, conveniently enough, you’ll be playing these chords mostly on the upstrokes. Here’s the Introduction, except for the very last measure:

If you’re going to go with the barre chords, then it’s important to let the fingering of the barre chord help you determine how to go about fingering the riff. Since the first riff ends with the Am7 barre chord, you want to make the first slide (usually done from the fifth fret, even though it’s not indicated) with the ring finger. Sliding the ring finger up to the seventh fret puts you in great position to use your index finger for the notes at the fifth fret and also lets you use the index finger for the slide from the fifth fret to the third fret later in the measure. Using your index finger for the slide that begins the second measure ensures you are in a good position to make the Am7 barre chord. You hit the A note (fifth fret of the low E (sixth) string on the first beat and strum down on the second beat with your fingers not quite in place, just off the strings enough to mute them, and then set the chord in place and strum it on the following upstroke.

And just how did I decide on where to put the upstrokes and downstrokes? Well, from listening to Banana Pancakes and from counting out the rhythm while listening to it, I realized that all the strumming was done in either quarter notes (one per beat) or eighth notes (two per beat, done with “swing” as we’ve already discussed). And when dealing with measures of eighth notes, the easiest way to play them is using a downstroke on the beat and an upstroke for the eighth note that falls between the beat, like this:

Again, I can’t stress enough how rhythm is best learned through listening and feel. The temptation is to make it out to be a lot harder than it really is. Read through our lessons on basic strumming, like Getting Past Up and Down and others that you will find on our “Strumming for Beginners” section that you can access through the “Hot Lessons” page. And be on the lookout for a new strumming lesson that will feature a bit of the Jack Johnson song, Taylor. This should be up online before the end of January 2010.

Meanwhile, this particular fingering pattern for the first riff in the “Introduction / Chorus” section, as well as the rhythm pattern itself, repeats for the next riff and the following G7 chord. The third riff, which is followed by another Am7 chord, is a slight variation of the first two, using more notes on the A string, but your fingers should still be in position to get the notes at the fifth fret with your index finger and the notes at the seventh fret with your ring finger. The last riff and the following G7 chord are clones of the second pass through the Introduction.

The last measure of the Introduction involves a chord change from G7 to D7 and also gives a great demonstration of how easy, yet complicated, a simple eighth note strumming pattern can sound:

There are two aspects of this to work on. The first is the fingering and the changing between the chords. This D7 chord is based on the open position C7 shape (x32310), in fact it’s just a C7 chord moved two frets up the neck. We’ve seen it most recently in the Holiday Song Lesson on Away in a Manger. It’s a cool chord because if you hit the open high E (first) string by accident, you’ve got a D9 chord, which usually will work as a substitute, particularly in blues-y and jazz type songs.

More important, moving between the G (or G7) barre chord we’ve been using and this D7 chord is actually something that you’ll run into a lot. Why? Well, in the key of G, G is the “I” or the root chord. D, or D7 in this case, is the “V” chord, and the I – V or V- I chord progressions are some of the most common ones found in songs of all types.

And (almost as if someone planned it that way) making this switch isn’t all that hard, although it will take some concentrated practice to get it smooth. What makes it relatively easy is that your fingers, when in the G or G7 barre chord position, are either where you want them to be for the D7 or close enough that you don’t have to move all that far. Your ring finger, sitting on the fifth fret of the A string, doesn’t move at all. The index finger goes from laying flat on the third fret to standing up in place on the third fret of the B string. Meanwhile your middle finger shifts from the fourth fret of the G string to the fourth fret of the D string. Simply add your pinky to the fifth fret of the G string and you’re there!

Take some time just switching between these two chord shapes. Start slowly at first, making certain that your fingers are ending up exactly where you want them to be. Then work on moving your fingers together as a unit. For some great tips on practicing chord changes, check out Tom Hess’ recent article on this very topic – Teaching Chords.

The second aspect, getting the rhythm right, will also require practice, persistence and patience on your part. The measure starts out with a rest, but you want to make certain you make the downward motion of the strum during that rest (the whole “sock puppet” thing again) so that you’re in place for the upstroke. You’ll hear me counting this all out very slowly on the MP3, so hopefully that will help you to get the timing into your head.

Verses, More Rhythms and Open Chord Substitutions

Believe it or not, you’ve pretty much got the song down at this point. The verses, as detailed earlier, a simple two measure progression that repeats four times:

There are some fun (and slightly sneaky!) things going on here. First, the rhythm is the same one in “Example 3” from the “Sock Puppet” lesson mentioned earlier. You hit the root note of the chord on the first and third beats (the quarter notes) and then strum down and up for the eighth notes that occur during the second and fourth beats. Remember that it’s still in swing rhythm and you’ll be fine!

The upstroke on the chord (on the second half of both the second and fourth beats) is a muted catch of the strings. This is very cool because that’s where you want to be making the chord change anyway, so the string muting actually helps you to cover up getting your fingers set! Told you it was a bit sneaky!

As promised, you can also do this part, not to mention the whole song, almost entirely without barre chords. I say “almost” because I do think you might like the “easy partial barre” voicing of Am7, which it to barre only the four high strings at the fifth fret. You can use the open A string for your root note, since it is, after all, A.

In the MP3 file for the last example, you can hear me playing it both ways. I play a regular G instead of the G7 but I like the voicing of D7 we’ve been using so I’ve kept that. And I also like the Am7 so I use the “easy partial barre” I just described and follow up with a regular open position C7. You can certainly use a regular open position Am7 (x02010) if you’d like. And, as you can hear, there’s not enough difference between the open position chords and the barre chords worth worrying about. Not to mention that if you’re trying to sing the lyrics and play the song at the same time you may find the open chords a little easier.

But the barre chords are not all that hard, either. You’ve already been practicing the G7 to

D7 shift, so you should be okay with that one. If you make use of the “easy partial barre” form of Am7 and use your ring finger to barre the strings at the fifth fret, then you never have to shift your index finger from the third fret for the entire chord progression since the C7 barre uses the open position A7 shape with a barre at the third fret. You probably never thought barre chords could be so much fun!

Choruses, Extended Choruses, Bridge and Bonus Riff

The final C7 of the verse goes to Am7 instead of G, signaling the start of the chorus. The first chorus is pretty much like the Introduction but without the first riff (because we begin at the Am7) and a slightly different rhythm:

Here the rhythm is still all eighth notes (and by this point I don’t have to say “swing,” do I?) and the root note is still played on the first and third beat, but the chords themselves are on the offbeat, so they are played with upstrokes while the string muting takes place on the second and fourth beats. Keep your upstrokes short and don’t forget to keep your strumming in motion during the muting and you’ll find this isn’t at all difficult. It’s when you start thinking about it, when you try to visualize it, that the rhythm tends to falter. Try it with your eyes closed – that often helps!

The last measure of the first chorus is exactly like the last measure of the Introduction, but with a G note in the bass (played at the third fret of the low E (sixth) string) instead of an eighth rest. And yes, you can use open position chords just as well here, as you can in the Introduction.

This latest rhythm, with the chords on the offbeat (upstrokes) is also used to extend the second (and third) chorus, and the bridge as well. The extended choruses are just two extra sets of chord changes – two measures of Am7, two measures of G7, two more measures of Am7 and two of G (355433 for a full barre).

The bridge starts out by switching between Am7 and an A-shaped barre of the D chord (x5777x), played with a bit of an alternating bass line:

A-shaped barre chords, especially straight major ones (no 7’s, 9’s, etc.,) can be a real pain. Many people tend to cheat on them a little – barring the first set of strings across the first five strings with the index finger and barring the second set (two frets higher) across the first four strings with the ring finger. The thing to remember when playing these this way is to not strum the high E (first) string.

Things get more interesting starting at the fifth line of the bridge with the Bm7 chord. This is an open position Am7 chord that’s been moved up two frets and barred across the second fret with the index finger. Your middle finger gets the third fret of the B string and your ring finger sits at the fourth fret of the D string.

You then slide this entire shape up the neck so that your index finger barres the seventh fret (your middle finger with be on the eighth fret of the B string and your ring finger on the ninth fret of the D string) and add your pinky to the ninth fret of the G string. This is the Em chord that starts the sixth line of the bridge. To get the Em/D# (and for more on slash chords, check out the Easy Songs for Beginners’ Lesson on Eleanor Rigby), keep your middle, ring and pinky fingers in place and slide the index down a fret so it sits at the sixth fret of the A string. You then reform another A major-shaped barre chord at the third and fifth frets to make C (x3555x).

This is a good place to mention that open position chords work very well on the bridge section of Banana Pancakes. Because Jack Johnson doesn’t strike his high E string for the D, Em and C chords, his chord voicings are very similar to the open position chords you know and love. So if you have decided to play totally without barre chords or would simply just like a bit of a respite from them, feel free to use these substitutes:

Possible open position chord substitutions for bridge

You’ve probably already noticed that the bridge ends with the exact same G to D7 turnaround that you’ve encountered twice already in this song.

Okay, one last thing: In the original recording, Johnson occasionally plays a very short riff (lick, flourish, whatever you’d like to call it) in place of the C7 chord during the verses. He uses it in place of the fourth C7 in the first verse, doesn’t use it at all in the second and then uses it in place of the second C7 in the last verse. It goes like this:

This is one of those instances where your brain can help you out a lot. Even though the riff takes the place of the C7 chord, it is still based on the Am barre chord, so don’t lose your fingering! Slide your ring finger from the fifth fret of the A string to the seventh fret, then pick both the D and G strings, where your index finger is still barring the fifth fret. Then hammer onto the seventh fret of the D string with your ring finger and pull it off again to sound the note at the fifth fret. As long as you keep your index finger on the fifth fret (after the initial slide on the A string), you should be fine.

You can almost do this verbatim with open position chords, but instead of sliding on the A string, you need to hammer onto the second fret of the D string after initially striking it as an open string.

And there you have all the parts! Here’s the layout for you and you’ll have to forgive my not giving you the usual final MP3 file. I’m pretty sure that after all the explaining, not to mention all the MP3 examples, you can handle this without problems.

I hope that you have enjoyed this song lesson and I also hope that you find it a great way to get going on refining your playing of barre chords, not to mention working on some simple rhythm skills.

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…


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.