Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young

Neil Young Ragged Glory

So I’m sitting and thinking to myself, “Self, it’s been ages it seems since we’ve had an intermediate song lesson. It also seems like it’s been ages since we’ve done something with an alternate tuning. And when was the last time we did a Neil Young song?”

So guess what?

Yes, I know that I want to do some songs that involve more complicated bass lines, especially since that’s what we’ve been covering recently in the Guitar Columns here at Guitar Noise. But for now, let’s take a little break and have some fun. Besides, we’ll still be using a few tricks from our study of bass lines to make some cool riffs.

And I should mention early, particularly since it’s been a while since we’ve done an intermediate lesson, this level of lesson is not necessarily beyond the grasp of beginners. True, we’ll be discussing some more theory than usual and also be doing some techniques that will seem tricky at first, but do feel free to have a go at it. With a little bit of concerted practice, you might surprise yourself!

One of those intermediate ideas we’re going to be looking at is the age-old problem of arrangement. On most Neil Young songs, especially the electric ones, there are layers of different guitar parts. And since most of us don’t have a band living with us, we’re going to try to come up with an arrangement for a single guitar that will give us the flavor of the song, not to mention keeping as many of the cool riffs as possible. Sacrilege, you say? Hardly! Just think of how cool you’ll be at your next open mike night!

Oh, one quick note concerning the notation / tab files: For whatever reason (and after more failed attempts than I’ll ever admit to…) I had to write the music examples for this lesson with the guitar tablature on the top and the notation on the bottom, instead of the “usual” way (with the notation on top). I hope this doesn’t confuse anyone too much…

Double Drop D

Okay, first things first. Cinnamon Girl is one of Neil Young’s songs where the sound is dependent on an alternate tuning. In this case, we want what’s known as Double Drop D tuning. If you’ve read On The Tuning Awry, one of our old Guitar Columns from way back when, you know that Double Drop D involves tuning both E strings down a whole step to D. Neil Young uses this tuning on a number of his songs, such as No More from the Freedom album. It’s also used by many other artists. Two examples that spring immediately to mind are Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and Black Water by the Doobie Brothers.

Notes on double dropped D tuning for guitar

To get Double Drop D, as mentioned, you want to tune both E strings down a whole step. If you don’t have a tuner, start with your high E (first) string and match it to the D note at the third fret of the B string. Then lower the low E (sixth) string until the note at the seventh fret of the newly tuned sixth string matches the open A string.

Double Drop D is a very interesting tuning, combining aspects of regular Drop D tuning and open G tuning. From low to high, your strings are now DADGBD. If you play just the three lowest strings (DAD), you get a D power chord, which is also called D5 (and for more on forming any kind of chord, check out our old Guitar Columns The Power of Three and Building Additions (and Suspensions) – the latter explains power chords pretty well). In Double Drop D tuning, any Root Six power chord (which is a power chord with its root note on the sixth (low E) string) is now a one-finger affair. This is why a lot of bands that specialize in songs primarily made up of fast power chords use Drop D tuning. Root Five power chords (power chords with the root note on the fifth (A) string) are still the same, as we’ll see.

Looking at Double Drop D again, you may notice that playing only the three highest strings (GBD) gives you a G chord. Adding the D string and playing the four highest strings open also gives you a G chord (and that’s going to be very important a little later). Using our brains, we realize that if we barre the first three strings (or four strings) at any fret, we’ll have a major chord with the root on the G string.

Since the D note is at the seventh fret of the G string, you get a D chord by laying a finger across the three or four highest strings at the seventh fret. Now, taking into account that D is the root note of the D chord and A is the fifth, you can make use of the low “power chord” strings and strum across all six strings with this 000777 fingering to get a resounding D major chord. And that’s where we’re going to start…

“Riff A”

Structurally speaking, Cinnamon Girl has an introduction, a verse, a repeat of the introduction as a break between the verses, a second verse, a bridge, an instrumental verse, and finally a free-style outro. The introduction is also what we might call one of the two signature riffs – musical hooks that pretty much identify the song simply by playing them. The second signature riff occurs twice in each verse.

For the sake of giving it a name, let’s call the introduction “Riff A.” Essentially it’s just about two measures long and, to make it even easier, let’s split it into two parts. We’ll begin not with the D chord, but rather with a C/D chord formed by laying a finger across the first three strings at the fifth fret and then sliding the finger up to the seventh fret to get the D chord, like this:

I’ve taken the liberty of adding a suggested strum pattern to this particular example. You, of course, can also play it with all downstrokes or whatever combination of ups and downs that pleases you.

Right away, you begin to see both the fun and the problems. First, this riff definitely sounds like Cinnamon Girl. And yet, it’s not totally spot on. In the original recording, there are two guitars, one playing the top four strings while the second plays the middle four. While we’re playing more of the first guitar part in terms of voicing, we’re using the second guitar’s rhythm (in the original recording the first guitar plays eight eighth notes in the first measure).

This is what I meant earlier with the incredibly bad pun about getting the “flavor” of the song. No one who knows Cinnamon Girl is going to not know what you’re playing. If anyone does give you grief, you can always say “this is how Neil played it at a private invitation-only acoustic show he did in Williamstown in 1973” and see what happens…

But back to the point, we’re trying to cover two guitar parts with a single guitar, so we’ll obviously be taking some liberties along the way. As always, what I’ve written out here is just one way of playing this. You could hit all six strings on the first downstroke. You could decide you want to cover the D string with your mini-barre as well and it will sound a little different, perhaps a little more to the original to your liking. Experiment – play around with it and see what you like.

Remember that since we are putting together a single guitar arrangement, it doesn’t hurt to flesh out our sound a bit whenever we can. This is something to think about when we look at the second half of the opening riff just for this reason. On the original recording, the first guitar is playing a few double-stops while the second guitar provides a descending walking bass line moving from C to B to A. By playing a full C chord (actually Cadd9, since our high string is now tuned to D), we can make a blend of the two original guitar parts like this:

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is a template for you to tinker with. Just because I personally prefer all the ringing strings from the first stroke of the Cadd9 chord (and more on that chord in just a moment), it doesn’t mean you can’t do otherwise. Many books and tabs on the internet, in fact, will switch from C to G (just playing the open D and G strings) to C instead of what I’ve written out.

Another thing to note is that, as a single guitar arrangement, allowing the open strings to ring out whenever you can, along with hanging on to a chord (or as much of it as possible) for as long as you can will also help give depth to your sound. When you play the second half of Riff A, try to keep your index finger on the C note (second fret of the B string) while you play the descending bass line. The ringing of the top three strings will make you almost sound like you’re playing two guitars at once.

And with the last two chords, F5 and G5, it’s not absolutely essential to play all three low strings. If you just get the lowest two, it will still sound fine. Whatever you decide to do, take a moment and think about your finger position in regard to the chord progression. Since you’re coming to the F5 (333xxx) off of the C chord, it’s not that big of a deal to use your ring finger, which is hanging around the third fret anyway because of the C chord, to finger the F5. You can then not only slide it up two frets to get the G5 (555xxx), you can also simply adjust your finger to get the C (xx5555) or C/D (xx0555) that starts the riff all over again. So even though there’s a lot going on here, it requires very little finger movement.

In the last half of this MP3, you also heard both parts of Riff A pieced together. We’re sounding pretty good so far, no? This riff is repeated many times throughout this song; in fact it’s played four times as the introduction, so take some time to get comfortable with it before moving on to…

The Verses

You might be surprised to find that it’s here in the verses where you’ll probably have your biggest challenge. Not because the verses are the most difficult part, but rather because you’ve got more choices than you know what to do with. Basically, the verses run through the following chord progression:

One measure of D

One measure of Am7

One measure of C

One measure of G

And these four measures are followed by the second signature riff, which we’ll conveniently call “Riff B.” All that – the four measures along with Riff B – gets repeated to complete the verse.

On the original recording, the two guitars play single note arpeggios, with a bit of crosspicking and the occasional double-stop sneaking their way into the mix. In putting together a single-guitar arrangement, we’ve got a lot of options to choose from. We can play our own arpeggios. We can strum the chords with a similar rhythm to the introduction. We can combine the strumming of chords with some arpeggios and some picking.

Let’s take a listen to some possibilities, and also look at the shapes of the chords we want to use in Double Drop D tuning:

As you see (and hear), I’m making a few chord substitutions in order to make the most of being in Double Drop D tuning. D5 is played like our normal open position D chord, only leaving the high string open. This D5 will come into play in a big way when we see it again in the outro.

I could easily use Dadd9, which is fingered exactly like the regular D in standard tuning only here we can also play the lowest string, since it’s tuned down to D. We can also make a regular sounding D chord with the fingering 000234, although that takes a bit of practice to get comfortable with.

Later on in the “solo verse” section, we’ll find ourselves using Am(add4) instead of Am7(add4) in order to play a bit of chord melody. I like the sound of this so much I often find myself using it in the verses.

So, which, if any, of these ideas should you go with? To answer this honestly, you also have to decide just what you’re going to do with the song. If you’re going to be singing it and you have a hard time picking individual notes while singing, then you might want to go for the straight strumming approach. If you feel comfortable picking individual strings, then try either all arpeggios or a combination of the two. Remember that because you’re doing this song on one guitar, you don’t have to worry about which arrangement is the “right” one. What you need to worry about is what you’re capable of playing without thinking too hard about it.

The other thing to remember is that you’re going to have to go straight from whatever you do in the verses to:

“Riff B”

Now that you’ve given your brain some work to do with the verses, it’s time to get your fingers working overtime again with Riff B. Believe it or not, it’s possible to play this riff with just two fingers. And, pardon the pun, your brain should have already given you a bit of a heads up, because it knows that you’re going into Riff B from a G chord in the verse. So you can make sure you’re playing just the four high strings when you finish the G, since they are all open strings. That makes life a little easier, doesn’t it?

Riff B is really nothing more than playing a few power chords in Drop D tuning and, as we mentioned earlier, power chords in Drop D are pretty easy:

Takedown Notice

Let’s tackle this methodically. As just mentioned, we’re coming to Riff B from a G chord, so it totally makes sense to play the last beat or so of that G chord with just the first four open strings of the guitar. Doing so frees up our fretting fingers for a moment to get them set to play this riff. Position your index finger over the third fret. Your ring finger should be hovering over the fifth fret as you do so.

Lay your index finger across the third fret. You’re only worried about covering the two (or three) lowest strings, so you don’t have to be concerned about barring all six strings. You’re going to play the two low strings at the third fret (the G5 chord in Example 5) and then shift over to your ring finger to play the F5, which is done on the two low strings at the fifth fret. Even if you have small hands, this shouldn’t be all that big of a stretch.

And this is where you get a gift. When you’re done playing the first two pairs of notes, you simply lift your fingers off the strings to play the D5. Don’t let those fingers stray too far, though! You want to use this “break” to simply reposition yourself slightly so that you can play a more traditional power chord shape for the C5 (x355xx). Hit the C5 and then slide your fingers up two fret to play the D5 (x577xx) that finishes up the first measure of Riff B. Because you’ve gotten the hang of using just your index and ring fingers, you might find it easier to form these last two power chords with only those fingers. The index finger will get the root note on A string (third fret for the C5 and fifth fret for the D5) while you can flatten your ring finger out slightly to get both the D and G strings (fifth fret for the C5 and seventh fret for the D5).

Don’t congratulate yourself yet! The timing of this riff gives you a slight pause at the end of the measure to reposition your fingers into a normal open C chord (x32010). Yes, there’s still the D note at the high string, but try not to hit it when you strum. Even if you do, though, it won’t sound bad. After playing the C, keep your ring finger in place and remove the middle and index fingers and strum down only from the D string. That’s your G chord. Put your fingers back where they were for the next C chord and then just lay a finger across four strings at the second fret (keeping the A string open) to get the final A chord.

This A chord is another place where you can experiment a bit with the sound. Some folks like to play all five strings from the open A downward. Some like to stop the strum at the B string where the C# note is being played at the second fret. Others enjoy making a power chord (A5) out of it by only playing the A, D and G strings. And there are those who play it a bit differently each time they play the song!

However you play it, you want to be ready to either go to a D chord for the second half of the verse or to slide your mini-barre at the second fret up to the fifth fret to begin Riff A again.

The Bridge

Like the verses, the bridge offers you the choice of strumming or picking arpeggios and broken chords. The determining factor here, more likely than not, will be how comfortable you feel with the chords. The bridge starts with three measures of the C chord and, listening to the original recording, it sounds like both guitars are using the x35555 voicing of the chord. There’s a good reason for this, as the following chord is Gm7 (xx3333), with both guitars playing the same voicing and strumming in unison for two measures. This leads to two measures of A (x02222) where both guitars are again playing the same voicing.

Playing this fingering of C as a barre chord (using your index finger on the third fret and your ring finger to get the notes on the fifth), makes the most sense because it allows a fairly simple transition to the rest of the bridge chords. All you need to do is to slide down two frets to get the Gm7 and then down one more to play the A.

If you want to have a little more “oomph” in your Gm7 chord, then you might want to consider barring that as well, using a fingering of 553333, which again is not too difficult to get to from the barred C shape we’ve been discussing.

Still, I can’t make up my mind whether or not I prefer this C chord to the Cadd9 we used in the verse. So sometime I play one and sometimes the other. Sometimes I’ll use both, starting with two measures of the Cadd9 and then switching to the x35555 fingering for the last two measures. Play around and see what strikes your fancy.

Likewise, occasionally I find myself playing a standard tuning A (x02220), which in Double Drop D tuning is Aadd4. It adds a bit of tension before starting the instrumental verse. And speaking of which…

An Easy Solo Verse

Okay, it’s not so much a “solo” as an instrumental. Better yet, think of this as an exercise on strumming, using a particular strumming pattern to emphasize certain notes, which will in turn sound a bit like a solo.

This isn’t even as involved as you might think it would have to be. Basically, we want to wail on the D note of the open D string, using it as a kind of drone. And knowing that I would have this empty verse to fill is part of the reason I chose the chord voicings I did earlier for the verses. All we have to do now is to vary our strumming pattern very slightly:

I’ve taken the liberty of writing out a suggested strumming pattern here in order to help you create a bit of an accent with the playing. You can do yourself a huge favor by counting along out loud and stressing the down strokes, like this: “ONE and two AND three and FOUR and…” This slight change of strumming, combined with the accented beats helps you create an “instrumental solo” without changing what you’ve been doing all along in the verses. Sneaky, huh?

A Chord Melody Solo Verse

And by being even pickier about your strumming, it’s fairly easy to come up with a bit of chord melody. Like the “Easy Solo” we just did, this chord melody approach isn’t all that complicated to play either, and it sounds very cool:

Just as in the “easy solo” verse, the chord melody approach is all about strumming. You want to nail the melody note with each strum and, conveniently enough, the melody note is almost always part of the chord serving as the accompaniment.

The easiest way to get this totally into your head is to take it slowly and don’t be afraid to sing along! You’ll note that we want to change the Am7 we previously used in the verses to an Am, and this is because the A note (second fret of the G string) is part of the melody.

The Big Finish

After we’ve played our choice of instrumental verse, finishing with Riff B, you get to reward yourself with a bit of fun. Cinnamon Girl closes with a big crashing C to D chord. You can use the same C and D fingering that you play for the introduction or you can also opt for the Cadd9 and D5 chords, as shown here:

You let this last D (or D5) chord ring out for a while and then you go wild with what we’ll call the “hammer-on ad-lib.” This ad-lib is a great reason to close with the D5 chord, by the bye, because the D5 fingering totally sets you up for all the hammer-ons and pull-offs you could possibly need.

When you play the D5 chord, your index finger is on the second fret of the G string while your ring finger is sitting on the third fret of the B string. This leaves your middle finger free to perform hammer-ons and pull-off on any of the third frets of the lowest four strings. Do your best to hold on to the D5 while you do so and let all the notes ring out. It’s all done in free style, so you shouldn’t feel obligated to strictly follow the original recording. In fact, you should be able to come up with a lot more fun riffs than the original with very little work.

Okay, let’s put it all together, shall we?

As always, I hope that you’ve had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing this song. Just as (if not more!) important, I hope that you have learned a few things about arranging, about working in a different tuning and how it’s good to let the tuning give you some chord voicings and variations that you might not normally think about.

Until our next lesson…