Cat’s In The Cradle – Harry Chapin
Tonality, or thinking of a song in terms of a key or tonal center, is an interesting thing. Sometimes you can play a chord and think, “This just doesn’t fit.” This is especially true if you rely on Internet tablature sites!
But sometimes it’s also a matter of preference. I can remember ordering the sheet music for today’s lesson, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” from the music store by my high school shortly after Thanksgiving in 1974. Having just taken up the guitar less than five months before, I was a little dismayed to see that (a) it was in the key of F and (b) had a lot of chords I wasn’t ready to deal with quite yet, such as Ab and Eb.
I was also taking music theory that year in high school, so it wasn’t all that long before I had transposed this song into the key of E, using a capo on the first fret so I could play along with it whenever I put on the album. My arrangement was awkward, but I was pretty happy with the fact that I’d managed to come up with one.
Flash forward a few years and I found myself sitting second row at a Harry Chapin solo performance and watching while he played his “big hit.” I made note of the fact that he placed his capo a lot higher up on the neck and, the next morning, tried working out a new arrangement with the capo on the eighth fret and playing in the key of A. This definitely sounded better.
But it still wasn’t right to my ears. And the more I listened to the recording (and to Chapin’s live recording of the song as well, since he’d recently released his Greatest Stories Live album) the more I realized I didn’t like what I was hearing in either of his versions either.
Flash forward a few more years to a day when, just by chance, I strummed the A chord (now technically an F, since I was capoed up on eight) and missed the B and high A strings, getting an A5 chord instead. And I finally heard what my ears wanted to hear. In this case, playing just the root and fifth of the chord and not playing the third was all that it took for me to say, “Now this sounds right.” Having the modally-neutral A5 chord sounded better to me than either using an A major or an A minor. And that’s what led to the arrangement you’re about to learn.
Suffice it to say, this version of “Cat’s in the Cradle” may not be to everyone’s liking, but I think it definitely works and it certainly sounds close enough to the original than no one should give you any grief. And if you want it to sound more like what you think the original recording sounded like, just replace any A5 chords you see with regular old A and you should be fine.
Anyway, thanks for letting me go on like that. Now let’s get going on playing this song.
Structurally speaking, “Cat’s in the Cradle” consists of an introduction (which is also played before each of the first three verses and additionally serves as the outro for the song), four verses (the third one slightly shorter than the first two and the last one slightly longer from the first three), a chorus that is played after each verse (with some minor lyric changes), and a short instrumental bridge that is played between the third and final verse instead of the “introduction.” How about we tackle each section one at a time?
But first, a couple of more quick notes: this song (or at least this arrangement of it) is more suited for finger style guitar as it switches fairly regularly between picking and strumming. But it’s not particularly hard, despite how you may initially feel upon looking at it! Virtually all the finger patterns are either based on basic open chord shapes, specifically these chords:
Most of the finger picking is done with basic Travis style picking (for more on this topic, check out the latest guitar column Let Your Fingers Do the Talking), or are simple arpeggios (also, sneakily enough, based on chord shapes). You might be tempted to go with just using a pick, as there are a number of places where we’ll be strumming, but there will also be many sections (starting with the Introduction) where you’ll find yourself performing “pinches” – using the thumb on the bass note while simultaneously picking a treble note with your finger. You can read all about those in the second part of our Guitar Noise tutorial on basic Travis style picking.
The other thing I’d like to mention is capo placement. I’m using a capo on the eighth fret for the MP3 examples in order to be in the same key as the original recording. But I know that not everyone is comfortable using their fingers up that high, especially on an acoustic or a classical guitar. Also, some guitars are difficult to play when one is at that end of the fingerboard. So feel free to move down to the seventh, sixth or fifth fret if that’s more comfortable for you. Just remember that you’re not going to sound the same as in the MP3 files.
Alright then, onward! Let’s start with the first two measures of the Introduction:
This, by the bye, is almost note-for-note perfect from the original recording. And it’s also the reason why I think my ears got so determined to hear this as a song without a distinct major or minor tonality. It sounds a bit like a snippet of Celtic music. Fpr the most part, the melody of the Introduction deliberately avoids any use of the third, whether major (which, for our A chord, capo or no, would be the note at the second fret of the B string) or minor (first fret of the B string).
While there are all sorts of ways to finger this A5 chord, I’d like to suggest going with your index finger on the D string and your middle finger on the G string. This frees up your ring finger for performing the pull-off on the second fret of the high E (first) string at the start of the second measure. You can them choose between using either your ring finger or your pinky to get the D note (third fret of the D string) later that measure.
As with all our Guitar Noise song arrangements, this one is meant to simply be a starting place for your own ideas. So you might, for instance, want to pair the E note located at the second fret of the D string to go along with the fist play of the open high E (first) string. That will definitely add a little bit of body to the melody of the Introduction.
Using the fingering I mentioned will also make the transition from Measure Two to Measure Three (the first measure in the above “Example 2”) quite easy. Again, your ring finger is free to get the C note at the third fret of the A string. This measure is a textbook use of Travis finger picking style.
But don’t get too settled into a groove because there’s a change of time signature in the very next measure. Here in Measure Four, you can either take your fingers in the A5 shape and simply move them to the next lower strings, or you can make a little jump and fret your Em the way most people tend to do, with their middle finger on the A string and the ring finger on the D string.
This brief side trip into 2 /4 timing lasts only a single measure. Measure Five finds us back in 4 /4 timing, and we’ll be here until we again come across the Introduction section when it is played between the first chorus and the second verse. Here we give ourselves a few resounding strums of the A5 chord.
Most transcriptions of this song are content to finish the Introduction with several measures of the A chord (A major, that is) being played until the verse starts up. I’ve opted to add a little “turnaround” (even though, technically, it’s not so much a “turnaround” as a “riff to play while we’re waiting for the beginning of the verse and we’re stuck on the same chord for a while”) that is patterned after the cello part in the original recording. Here we use an Am chord to give us our shape to play the riff. First we get the Am chord set up and then we pinch the open A string while picking the B string (where our index finger is on the first fret) at the same time. After the pinch, pull-off your index finger in order to sound the open B string and then pick the G and D strings to complete the arpeggio.
Having an Am chord may seem a little strange, especially after making such a big deal about the tonality of this song, but I prefer to think of it as foreshadowing for the C chord that’s coming up as a short, condensed reprise of the chords from Measures Three and Four. Indeed, many versions of Cat’s in the Cradle use the open A string for the bass note in those two measures. But if you listen to the original recording, you can hear the bassist playing the C and B notes that we’re playing on the A string. And even though we’re playing without a bass player, that doesn’t mean we should sound like we don’t care about the bass.
The strumming / plucking I chose here at the end of the Introduction is, needless to say, one of one hundred thousand and twenty-eight possible patterns. No, not literally! Well, maybe…
The point is that there are all sorts of ways to strum this, as there will be later on in the chorus and, especially, in the bridge. In the final MP3 (which I’ve not even recorded as I write this part of the lesson) you’ll probably hear numerous variations on the basic strumming patterns I write out. Why? Because I’m not worried about “the” strumming pattern. What I am worried about is not sounding stiff and lifeless. So patterns will definitely vary somewhat throughout a song. That’s what strumming is supposed to be about. And, if you’ve read any of my previous lessons, you know that this is the “obligatory tell the world that you should worry more about keeping a steady rhythm than about copying one particular strumming pattern” speech that I have to have (at least) one of in each lesson.
Since the melody of the verses is derived from the Introduction, it only makes sense to use that melody as a guide for putting together a rhythm/picking pattern for this section of the song. So here a pattern that will work with the first four measures of the verse, which will then be repeated in the next four measures:
You should be able to hear (as well as to see from the notation / tablature) that the first three measures are the same pattern. We obviously changed some of the notes when we changed chords from A5 to C. And we also obviously changed the string of the bass note when we got to the D chord.
In the fourth measure, I change the string of the initial pinch, using the open high E (first) string in order to shadow the melody of this part of the verse. I also drop an eighth note at the end of the pattern in order to give this verse section a little more of a natural breathing space.
As mentioned, we play this “first section” of the verse twice through. Then we move to the “second section, which is just a simple walking bass line / arpeggio combination that you’ve seen in lessons like Friend of the Devil or may have heard in the Guitar Noise Podcast #6 over at the Guitar Noise Blog. In fact, except for this song not being in 3 / 4 timing, the first four measures of the second section of Cat’s in the Cradle is a lot like the first half of that podcast:
The idea here is fairly straightforward. Pick the bass note with your thumb and then play an arpeggio on the D, G and B strings. We’ll make an exception for the last half of the second measure (where we’re playing the Em/D chord – probably the guitarist’s all time favorite chord of all, by the way!) where the bass note is the open D string, so we alter the pattern slightly.
Sometimes, in the heat of playing the song, I may find myself substituting the fifth measure of this section for the third. Does it make that much of a difference? Not in the least!
This is also a good place to make the following important notes concerning the third and fourth verses of our song:
In the third verse, the last line of lyric is dropped, which means that we need to go from Measure Three of this section directly to the last two measures. You can, if you’d rather, go straight from the second measure to the fifth.
In the last verse, the entire second section of the verse is played twice in a row. The second time starts with the line “…and as I hung up the phone…” To add a little variation at this point, you might want to try going with less accompaniment during the repeat, switching from eighth note arpeggios to deliberately pinched half notes, like this:
You could also throw in these half notes for the second section of the verse at your leisure as you’re playing. After all, you’ve got four verses to play! You’ll be able to hear some variations in all the patterns in this lesson’s final MP3 file.
The Chorus and The Bridge
The majority of the chorus is strummed, with the chord progression going from A5 to G to C and to D, and then repeating the A5 to G measures before finishing up just like the second section of the verse:
As mentioned earlier, there’s no end to the ways you could strum this. The main thing is to try to keep to the lower strings. This is the section where many people want to play A major instead of A5. Please feel free to do so. To my ears, as I mentioned at the start of the lesson, the A major chord simply doesn’t sit well and I find I even prefer Aadd9 (x02200) to A major. In the MP3, you’ll hear I try to stick to strumming on the lowest strings to keep things simple.
In the fourth measure, where you play the D chord, and for who knows whatever reason, I got into the habit of throwing that single C note as a way to bring out the bass for a moment, giving it a bit of a edge by bending it around ever so slightly. A little rock ‘n’ roll throwback, perhaps. You’re more than welcome to totally ignore this note and simply keep to the D chord. Or, better still, make up your own little fill to play there.
After the third verse, there is a short instrumental bridge that gets played instead of the Introduction. It’s just four chords played in an over-the-top-can’t-you-tell-the-song’s-coming-to-the-big-hush-before-the-final-chorus manner. When I saw Chapin in concert, he played this part gleefully, laughingly telling the audience he stole it from the movie, Exodus:
You can get away with playing Fmaj7 instead of F here. In fact, using the high E (first) string as a drone (which means playing G6 – 320000 – instead of G) sounds very nice.
Alright, then, here’s our final product:
As always, I hope that you’ve had fun with this lesson and that you’ve picked up some ideas about arrangement that you can use in other songs in your ever-growing repertoire.
Remember the whole point of all these lessons is to discover techniques and tips that will help you with all of your playing. The songs are kind of like candy-coating to make learning taste a little less like learning and more like fun.
So, until our next lesson…
July 11th, 2012 @ 7:34 am
As I have worked on this arrangement of David’s in the capo 8 position, I have found that my left thumb has become so sore as to be unusable. From the more awkward positioning of the left thumb required.
It just doesn’t sound as good down lower on the neck but that is what I am resigned to.
July 11th, 2012 @ 7:12 am
I absolutely love this song. It makes me very sad in a way. Thanks for sharing this. This song has been on my list of songs-to-learn for quite some time! Time to get cracking methinks!
May 4th, 2012 @ 4:28 pm
And you’re welcome, too! Rest assured we’re doing what we can to bring back more of our original Guitar Noise song lessons back to the pages of this website.
We’re also hoping to bring brand new ones, too! With a little luck (not to mention some much needed spare time!) we’re hoping to have one for the first of June. Wish us luck!
Looking forward to chatting with you again.
May 4th, 2012 @ 4:05 pm
Ditto Chris above.
I too, started this piece with your original postings and picked it up again with your latest guitarnoise email.
And so glad I have. The capo 8 position seems to bring the very best from my OM steel string guitar. There is a “shimmering” effect from playing your notes in this arrangement at that position.
Many thanks for your continuing efforts.
May 1st, 2012 @ 11:42 pm
Thanks for this David,
I love this song and you are very generous in sharing your knowledge. I started playing/learning this some years ago ( your orignal post). It lends itself to various strumming and picking patterns and still sound great.
Chris, Brisbane Australia
May 2nd, 2012 @ 1:06 pm
You’re welcome! And thank you, too, for your kind words concerning this lesson. It’s one of my favorites, too, and is still a lot of fun to play after all this time.
Looking forward to chatting with you again.