Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd

David Gilmour

Last time out, we started with a bit of a discussion on the importance of being flexible as a guitarist. Quoting directly, to be able “to change from strumming to a single-note crosspicking pattern or to change from full chords to partial chords or even to chord melody style in midstream can make a big difference in how a song comes across.” This may seem obvious to most of you, but let’s try to drive the point home with this particular lesson.

Just as important, perhaps more so – developing this flexibility will keep you from falling back on the old “must-not-deviate-from-original-strumming-pattern” mentality, which sounds even more ludicrous, by the way, if you can manage to say it with a bit of a James Shatner impression.

Think about this: Most of us pick up the guitar to play songs. If we go out of our way to learn a single part (the strumming guitar) of a song that is done by a whole band, then our playing isn’t going to sound just like the song to begin with. So why get hung up on that when we can usually come up with something a lot more interesting that still sounds like the song we want to play?

Looking at songs as things you can arrange, pardon the pun, will give you the pluck to try out songs that you might dismiss as “beyond” your capabilities. I can’t even begin to tell you how cool it is when you’re listening to a single guitarist perform and he or she totally stuns you by coming up with a song you’ve never heard done before in a single-guitar arrangement.

So without further ado, let’s get down to the task at hand, shall we?

In case you didn’t read the title, we’re dipping once again into our Pink Floyd catalogue for this lesson and pulling out the classic ballad Comfortably Numb, originally released on their album The Wall. I’m pretty certain most of you are familiar with the tune, so much so in fact that I’m wondering whether or not I should even discuss the song’s structure.

Better safe than sorry, right? Like our last lesson, Play with Fire, Comfortably Numb is made up of two distinct sections – a “verse” section and a “chorus” section. Some people might like to break the chorus down into two subsections: a “pre-chorus” (starting with the line “…there is no pain…”) and a regular “chorus” (just the final line – “…I have become comfortably numb…”). That seems a little like too much work for me, so we’ll settle for two parts, okay? Laying out the song in the style of a “cheat sheet” or “chord sheet,” and going with very basic chords, it would look like this:

Takedown Notice

You can see that the two sections have their own chord progressions. The verses are made up of either two or three sets of a Bm – A – G – Em – Bm progression while the chorus goes from D to A twice, C to G twice, back to D and A (again twice) and then back to C and G again (and again, twice). The last line goes from A to C to G and ends on D.

The chorus, beginning with the repeated line of D to A, serves as the backing progression for the first instrumental solo. The last line of the chorus is still sung, though, which leads us back to the verse section again.

Finally, the chord progression of the verse serves as the backing chords for the extended solo of the outro. And that pretty much covers the structure of our song.

Comfortably Numb is played at a rather languid pace; I think it’s around sixty-five beats per minute. This leaves a lot of space for strumming and, during the first verse, Gilmour does very little of it. You can also hear that when he gets to the second Bm (at the point where the lyrics are “…anyone home…”) that he’s not really playing a Bm chord, but something a little more moody and mysterious. Back to that in a moment…

During the second pass at the Verse Section, the strumming is actually more like it was in the chorus section, a bit busier but still steady. Almost like someone managing to get to his feet, perhaps?

Example 1 lays out these two basic strumming patterns for you:

As you can see and hear, I’ve used the Bm chord for this example but I could have used any of the other chords as well. Speaking of that Bm chord, and we’ve certainly talked about this before, you can use one of three different voicings for it in this song:

B minor chord possibilities

The first one is obviously easiest and those of you who are comfortable with the full barre chord version (the third choice) will probably like the way that sounds. I’m going with the second one for now, because of what we’re going to do next. But before we go on, this would be a good place to point out that you can now play this song. Seriously. You’ve got the basic chords and some simple, yet effective, strumming patterns. What more do you need?

Wants, however, are a totally different matter. And we’re working on a single guitar arrangement of our song, perhaps we want to play Comfortably Numb with a few more interesting touches than simply being locked into a strumming pattern throughout the whole tune.

So what I’m proposing is that we take a number of ideas from our various Guitar Noise Podcasts, things like combining strumming and crosspicking (from GN Podcast #8) or even the sixteenth note accent from way back in GN Podcast #4 and put them into play. We can even use a little bit of our bass line work. In fact, if you’ve read the very first lesson on walking bass lines, Connecting the Dots, you’ll see that we’ll put Examples 8 and 10 from that lesson to good use in this one.

Before we do, though, let’s go back and look at the “mysterious” sounding Bm chord that Gilmour plays at the end of the verse progressions. It’s a Bm chord where the D note (third fret of the B string) has been replaced with C# (second fret of the B string), giving what us what most guitarists would call a Bsus2 chord and it would look like this, if you were using the “second choice” voicing of Bm as a starting point;

Bsus2 chord chart

Alright, then, I think we’re ready to come up with an interesting “template” for the verse chord progression. After doing a bit of playing around and experimenting, I’ve hit upon this:

That’s certainly a lot more interesting than just strumming around. The first measure starts with a Bm chord, but I’ve left the high E (first) string open so that I can hammer onto the second fret to get the F# note to complete the chord. There’s a bit of sneakiness in that on my part, too. Since that F# note is the note of the start of the melody, I usually find myself trying to find it and often slide up to it from E. So this little hammer-on helps me to find the melody line right from the start. For the third and fourth beats of the measure, I use simple upstroke arpeggios, removing my finger from the high E (first) string again to get a more interesting final arpeggio to contrast with the one of the third beat.

I like the combination of strumming, hammer-ons and arpeggios in the first measure so much that I use it again in the second measure for the A chord. The first beat begins with what some folks call “Asus2,” which is just an A chord with no finger on the B string. I hammer-on the second fret of the B string and also catch the full A chord on the upstroke. And since we’ve been doing okay with the hammer-ons, why not give the pull-offs some equal time? You’ll find one in the last arpeggio that occurs on the fourth beat of this measure.

Since the G to Em transition that occurs in the third measure is dramatic, the easiest thing to do is to emphasize it by keeping the rest of the strumming in this measure relatively sparse. Those of you with sharp ears may hear that I’m sometimes catching a few extra notes on this short descending bass line. This is done by hitting all three of the low strings while playing it:

The thing to watch out for here is that you want to mute the A string when you go for the F# note (second fret of the low E) in the bass. Simply lifting your finger that is already sitting there at the second fret just enough to dampen the A string should do the trick.

Another thing to notice is that we’re what might be a different voicing of the G chord that some of you may not have come across before (although some of you do recognize it, I’m sure, from other lessons here at Guitar Noise). Having the D note (third fret of the B string) allows you to just leave it there when you play your Em. This added D note turns the Em into an Em7, which gives the chord a more interesting feel. You’ll hear on the last MP3 file that I strummed this Em7 chord very close to the bridge of the guitar, giving the strum a little more of a “˜ghostly” effect. Using a technique such as this every now and then can also make a song more interesting to your listeners. Not to mention to yourself!

Because the third measure is practically all strumming, it kind of makes sense to follow that up with a measure that is nothing but single picked notes. In my playing around, I discovered that I liked the arpeggios I could create by leaving the high E (first) string open while playing the Bsus2. This creates another weird chord that I’ve chosen to call “Bsus2sus4” just to keep the “Dadd2add4” used in our Easy Songs for Beginners lesson on Man on the Moon company. If you finger the chord using your ring finger on the fourth fret of the D string, your pinky on the fourth fret of the G string and your index finger on second fret of the B, that will free up your index finger to perform the hammer-on and pull-off at the third fret of the B string.

So far, so good? As always, it’s important to note here that this “template” is merely a suggestion. There is no end to the ideas that you can come up with and while you’re playing you may certainly come across more than one or two that sound good. It also goes without saying that there’s no reason to make things more complicated than you have to. If you can only sing while strumming simply, and if you’re the only one singing and playing, then you have to go with what you’re capable of. But do yourself a favor and keep trying out adding little touches here and there. As you gain more confidence in your abilities, you’ll find yourself able to put your practice into your performance.

And this is important to remember when we get to the chorus. If I’m not handling the singing duties when playing, I like to use the guitar to add the wonderful keyboard arpeggios that are part of the hook of the chorus. When singing, though, that makes thing a bit difficult. Sometimes a compromise is in order.

For instance, the notes of the D arpeggio in the first measure of the chorus, along with the tablature you’ll often find both online and in “guitar tablature edition” books of Pink Floyd music are:

This certainly sounds fine. But if you’re more partial to the sound of ringing strings, you might find this interpretation of the same notes more up your alley:

You might recognize this particular voicing of the D chord from many of our other song lessons and articles here at Guitar Noise. For more about figuring out how to come up with a different chord voicing yourself, check out Moving On Up or Multiple Personality Disorders; both articles are certainly worthy of your attention. The easiest way to finger this, by the way, is to use your index finger for the fifth fret of the high E (first) string, your pinky on the seventh fret of the B string and your ring finger on seventh fret of the G string.

And we’ve not mentioned it yet, but if you decide to play Comfortably Numb on a twelve-string guitar (no reason not to!), this particular technique will sound very cool.

Back to the point – borrowing the lines from the keyboard is a great idea, but if you’re not able to handle it and sing, there’s no reason to abandon it all together. After all, during each of the measures of A, you’re only singing on the first beat. Likewise the first two measures of G in the chorus section. So, strumming the D’s and C’s while playing arpeggios on the A’s and G’s should work out fine. In the following example, I’ve written out each of the chord changes as arpeggios, but on the MP3 you’ll hear the example played twice – once with all arpeggios and once with alternating strumming and arpeggios:

The A and G arpeggios vary slightly from the original recording. Actually the A is an exact copy of the second pass on the recording while the G is different in that I’ve changed the notes used in order to take the best advantage of the guitar’s two open high strings. If you’re playing with someone who’s got that part covered, then you obviously don’t have to worry about it. If you’re on your own, might as well make things easier on you. Chances are likely that if I hadn’t told you it was different, you might not have even noticed. You’re still using the flavor of the song and that will often carry you through.

For the second pass through the D, A, D, A, C, G, C, G of the chorus, I want to give the music more of a push, so I go for all strumming (and these are all just slight variations of the “possible chorus” strumming from Example 1) but I punch things up by adding a sixteenth note accent at the last half of the fourth beat of the previous measure, like this:

Again, and you’re undoubtedly tired of hearing this by now, this is also just a suggestion. You can use these sixteenth note accents in combination with arpeggios or with different strumming patterns or not use them at all. This is, after all, your call as arranger. You are the one who knows what you can (or can’t) play at this point in your guitar playing adventure.

You might also hear in the last MP3 example that I manage to find the melody notes of the very last phrase of lyric (“…have become comfortably numb…”) in much the same way we found the melody line of Play with Fire. To accomplish this, I need to change the last C to Cadd9, which means adding the pinky to the third fret of the B string in order to get the D note of the melody. And then, after a bit of careful picking with the G chord, I finished things off with first a partial D chord, using just the A, D and G strings, and then a full D, strummed as close to the bridge of the guitar as possible in order to quiet things down a bit for the second verse.

And that’s pretty much everything. You’re good to go! I hope you’ve had fun with this lesson. The main thing to remember is that Comfortably Numb is a song where your playing carries a lot of emotional weight, so why sit on a robotic strumming pattern that displays none?

And for those who noticed that I totally ignored the solo between the first chorus and the second verse, don’t worry. Time permitting (although that might mean sometime after August), I will write out a single guitar arrangement for that to help you out.

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…