Bookends – Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel

Last time out we learned some basic fingerpicking with House of the Rising Sun. Today we’re going to do something that is both a little easier and also a little harder with an old Paul Simon song called Bookends. You can find it on the album by the same name or also in many of the Simon and Garfunkel “Greatest Hits” packages and/or boxed sets. It’s a very simple song to learn and it will help us to develop some more coordination in our fingerstyle play. Specifically, it will serve to teach us to use two fingers on two different strings at the same time. Really. And just to keep things even more interesting we’ll get to look at time signature changes within songs as well as what I call “planning ahead” in regards to finger placement.

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Structurally, Bookends is very simple. And if you don’t believe me, do down to the end of the article and follow along as we walk through it. The main body of the song is just fourteen measures long. It is played once through as an instrumental introduction and then once again with a vocal line that pretty much follows the guitar voicing. It is then played only halfway through with an abbreviated ending for the outro.

There are two elements to Bookends on which we will concentrate. The first will be the forming and the fingering of the notes. Secondly will be the timing and our dealing with two different time signatures.


The song is in the key of C and, progression-wise, alternates from Dm or Dm7 to C. And if you look carefully, you will see that eight of the fourteen measures look like this:

Bookends simple fingering

In case you are interested, and you really should be because knowing this will help you immensely as you learn more and more songs, these notes are simple intervals of a third that have been inverted. That is, the “root” note is on the top and the third is being played in harmony underneath. Some people (even classical guitar players) opt to call this interval a “sixth” and that’s okay, too (even though it is opening a whole ‘nother can of worms!). The main thing is to recognize how it sounds. It is an easy harmony to create while doing fingerstyle guitarwork and you will be seeing it a lot in some of the upcoming lessons both here and on the new “Songs For Intermediates” page. If you’re not sure of what I mean by intervals and thirds, do both of us a favor and go read my column The Musical Genome Project and The Power of Three. Then take a look at this:

Thirds and Inverted Thirds in C Major

These voicings of thirds and/or sixths crop up all over the place in fingerstyle and classical music. This is why it is good to become adept at picking out how they sound. Rest assured we shall be seeing them again.

Okay, back to the song. We have two important things to discuss here. First, how to play it with our strumming hand? My advice in this matter would be to always play the lower tone with your thumb, even if it is on the G string. On the higher notes, try to alternate using your fingers if possible. When I’m not concentrating on doing it, I actually find myself playing it like this:

Bookends finger positions

But if you find yourself using only two fingers, whether the ring and middle or the middle and index, that’s okay, too. Just being able to play the two strings, the two separate notes, cleanly and at the same time is such a big step for a novice guitarist. So don’t give yourself too much grief if it takes a little effort. I know some guitarists who have been playing for years and while they do sound good, something as fundamental as this still eludes them.

And what about that hand on the fretboard? Well, if I may, let me interject a quick note. It never hurts to be looking ahead and thinking about things. This is one of the reasons that we are spending so much time with this one measure. Yes, it is painstaking, step by step work, but it’s also pretty much how your brain goes about doing it. Now, your brain is probably much more entertaining and therefore covers up better that you are indeed learning something.

As always start with the simplest thing. Of our three pairs of notes, the obvious choice of “easiest” goes to the middle set. They are, after all, an open E string and an open G string. The final pair also uses those same two strings so I can simply put my fingers on the appropriate notes. Using my index finger (“i”) on the first fret of the E for the F note and my middle finger (“m”) on the second fret of the G string for the A note feels pretty comfortable.

And now here is where we make a little bit of a strategic leap. I notice that the first pair of notes are on two different strings than the last two pairs. So I figure, “Hey, maybe there’s a way to not have to move these fingers so that I won’t have to do all that much moving around.” And since my index and middle fingers are already committed to the last pair of notes, I realize that this first pair has to fall to my ring finger (“r”) and pinkie (“a”). So if I put my ring finger on the third fret of the D string (the low F note) and my pinkie on the third fret of the B string (the D note) and then keep them there in place, like this:

Bookends detailed finger positioning

I can play all three pairs in one position. In other words – I don’t have to move my hand all over the fretboard. This is an example of how planning ahead can simplify your playing and eliminate headaches.

To further simplify matters, four of the remaining six measures are played by striking the appropriate strings while fretting a C major chord. Again, I would advise using your thumb on the bass and whichever finger (or (hopefully) fingers) is comfortable. Here are the three variations (not counting the final measure, which is simply the first two note pairings of the third one) you will encounter in Bookends:

Bookends C based chord measures variation 1

Bookends C based chord measures variation 2

Bookends C based chord measures variation 3

The two measures we haven’t yet dealt with are actually one measure that gets repeated twice in the main body of the song (measure 6 and measure 13). In essence, it’s just a variation of Dm or Dm7:

Bookends Dm variation

The easiest way to play it, though, is to think of it as a Fmaj7 chord. Place your fingers as follows:

Bookends Fmaj7 chord chart

As you can see, the F note on the third fret of the D string remains constant. A pedal point, if you will. Meanwhile the melody goes from the D (third fret, B string) to the C (second fret, B string) and the A (second fret, G string). You can hopefully see why I told you to use the fingering for an Fmaj7 chord. This makes for a minimum amount of “messing around.” Again, this is nothing more than planning ahead.


Let me first say that this will at first be confusing. But I’m pretty sure I can walk you through it. First, lets remember (or learn for the first time) the time value of notes. Here are the basic symbols to know:

Bookends Time Notations in 4/4 time - whole note half note
Bookends Time Notations in 4/4 time - quarter note eighth note
Bookends Time Notations in 4/4 time - dotted quarter note dotted half note

You may also want to take a quick look at House Of The Rising Sun at this point to review what we discussed concerning time signatures. Bookends flips from 3/8 to 4/4 time and back again. I am going to try to explain this in as painless a manner as possible. It’s not going to be as theory oriented as it will be math oriented and I apologize in advance for all the purists I am undoubtedly going to offend.

I’ve always found things easier when I work out a common denominator. I tend to count out eighth notes in terms of “ands.” A measure of 4/4 would be “one and two and three and four and.” Now if I am muttering this mantra to myself at a steady tempo, it is easy for me to switch from 4/4 to 8/8, where the eighth note is counted as one. All I have to do is count “one two three four five six seven eight” at the same speed as I would with the “ands.” If I am counting my eighth notes at the same speed, then this will work. So if I were using a metronome, I would start by using one click as an eighth note. In 3/8 time, three clicks would be one measure. In 4/4 time, eight clicks would equal one measure because there would be eight eighth notes to a measure. Do you follow this? Here, “one and two” in 4/4 would be said at the same exact pace as “one two three” would be spoken in 3/8. Let’s take a look at it in notation from the song:

Counting the switch of time signatures in Bookends
Counting the switch of time signatures in Bookends continued

Remember to write it out if you have to. Sometimes (most times) that is the best way to learn. Putting something difficult out on paper allows you to take it apart and to see how it works. And this probably is one of the hardest concepts we’ve attempted on these pages.

In the outro, I added one final “flair,” if you will. If you go back to the very first measure we looked at, you’ll see that this is pretty much the same thing.

Bookends outro flair

This triplet has to replace one beat, so it has to be pretty quick (and that’s why you should start slowly at first!). What we’re going to do is a quick hammer on and pick off with the open E and G strings. Strike them once, then hammer on your fingers onto the F and A notes and then pull them of again. Try to pull them slightly down when you take them off. This will help sound the next set of open string notes. With practice, you will be able to do this triplet of notes with just one pluck of the strumming hand.

Okay, I think we’re ready. As always, remember to take your time. Bookends is a great song on which to practice the smooth flow of notes. It should have a graceful, flowing quality to it.

Takedown Notice

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…


This Lesson’s MP3s were recorded by Alan Green

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.