Do You Genre Dance? – (or, “Playing An Old Stand-By”)

Have we been confusing you no end these past two months with our genre theme? I certainly hope so. At the very least I hope that it is making you think. It is human nature, I suppose, that makes us believe that placing something into a nicely labeled cubbyhole will makes all life easier. After all, if we can clearly define and delineate something, then we can pride ourselves with putting everything into its proper place.

But, again, of course, we would never apply this same procedure to ourselves. We have depth, we have complexity (did I say “complexity?” How rude of me! My heartfelt apologies – the word should obviously be plural!). We transcend any single label that one might happen to tag us with, don’t we?

Genres fascinate me even more as a songwriter than they intrigue me as a music theorist. Often, when I was just starting out playing and writing with a band, we’d say, “We need a Neil Young type of song…” and someone in the group would proceed to write a song in the style of one of the artists or bands whose songs we covered. But there were other times when I would come to the group with a song that I’d written with one specific style in mind, say a slow moody Neil Young number, in mind only to leave the practice with a supercharged Elvis Costello type of song!

Sometimes we’d find ourselves changing the style of a song (our own as well as covers) depending upon the audience we were expecting. We had a lot of fun coming up with unexpected things, like a ska version of Get Off Of My Cloud or a bossa nova rendition of Message In A Bottle. Truth be told, though, sometimes these inspired arrangements were the result of pure boredom, which was, in turn, the result of us playing something the same way over and over and over and over and over again. And, truth be told again, sometimes these experiments with covers led to writing some incredibly wonderful original songs.

Knowing the little nuances of different musical genres can help you in a lot of ways. Perhaps the most important, though not always obvious, thing it can do is to make you flexible. The more styles you can play, the more music you can play. You’d think that this would be a fairly simple thing to understand, but you know the old saying, “Common sense isn’t…”

Today, I’d like to take one song and run it through hoops, if you will – something that, when I first wrote to Dan Lasley about this idea, he laughed and called it my “circle of genres.” Oh, yes, let’s get this out of the way…

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

The song in question is Stand By Me. I don’t know if you’re more familiar with the Ben E. King version or John Lennon’s remake on his Rock And Roll album, but it really doesn’t matter. I picked it specifically for the purposes of this column because (a) it’s very easy to play and (b) I imagine that everyone knows it. The thing will be to open your minds to all the interesting things that you might do with this song (better stop me now before I get to the “think of the song as a bit of clay that you are shaping into a new form…” routine!).

As I said, this is an easy song to play; the chord progression is just a simple I – VI – IV – V – I pattern which repeats itself throughout the verses and choruses. I usually play this in the key of G, so let’s look at the first verse and chorus, shall we?

Stand By Me lyrics

Nothing to it, right? Okay, then, let’s play!

This is a moderate song in 4 / 4 time. The G and the Em are each two measures of four beats (total of eight beats for both chords). This is followed by one measure (four beats) each of C and D before ending on two more measures of G. Then the whole process starts up once again.

Okay, brief side trip: One of the band’s I was in had an immediate upcoming gig when we learned that our lead singer had been confined to bed rest (it’s a long story…). With only two days in which to put together enough material to cover for her absence, we spent our practices thinking of every single easy song we knew, trying them out. When we came up with one that we were happy with, then we quickly tried to see if there was some way to put a different spin on it so that we didn’t sound like we were just throwing things together! Now, if you listen to either of the aforementioned recordings of this song, especially Lennon’s, you will note the heavy emphasis on the offbeat. This made me think that we should try Stand By Me as a reggae song. So we slowed it down marginally and played around with the offbeat a bit (just like I showed you in the I Shot The Sheriff lesson):


Can you hear the different feel of the song even though this is fairly subtle change? Well, one thing that you will find perhaps not so subtle is how changing the rhythm affects your singing. When the beat is altered, even slightly (and especially if you are both playing and singing), you find yourself changing your vocal to fit the style of the new rhythm. It truly can’t be helped. And it is often to the betterment of your arrangement.

It turned out that, while we like the reggae version, we needed something a little faster because we’d found ourselves with too many mid-tempo range songs. So we (naturally) went overboard by playing it in a very fast ska beat. Because we were really speeding along, the easiest way to play it was by strictly doing single upstrokes on the offbeats. Our bassist pretty much laid the foundation for this one by playing on the beat while the rhythm guitar provided the syncopation, like this:


Notice that we played this with barre chords in order to give it a more trebly sound. This is also something that you have to take into consideration when you play different styles.

Along with tempo and chord voicing, another thing to think about is which effect or effects to use. If you wanted to play Stand By Me in a punk or metal or grunge style, you could easily do it with one guitar playing a long sustained power chord while the second guitar played straight eighth notes. Here are two possible arrangements:

Heavy 1
Heavy 2

The trick here is to let one guitar ring out while the second provides the drive. You could easily let the bass player do this as well by playing in the same tempo as the second guitarist. In these examples, Variation 1 should be very fast. Variation 2 is more of an up-tempo ballad. For both, Guitar One could just as easily play long, slow, ringing arpeggios instead of one sustained chord. I think you’ll find that you can do a lot of interesting things with the interplay of two guitars.

And we could always go the pretty route. Let’s alter the timing a bit, slow it down a lot and play in triplets. But instead of having to write out all those triplets, I simply put us into 12/8 time. Think of it as “one and a two and a three and a four and a…” if it helps (it helps me!). Now play long rolling arpeggios and listen:

50s 1
50s 2
50s 3
50s 4

Sounds like one of those 1950’s heartbreak songs where the young hero goes off and runs his car off a cliff, doesn’t it? I put the lyrics in this example because sometimes when you change the timing a bit drastically it helps to think about where you’re going to put the melody! There have been occasions when I’ve come up with a great rhythm arrangement and then realized I’d need someone else to sing it!

But suppose you like your pop songs a little more stylish? Let’s add an open high E string to the mix (which will, of course, alter our chords a wee bit), pick it cleanly and throw in a bit of chorus and hey! You’re Andy Summers of the Police:

Pop 1
Pop 2
Pop 3
Pop 4

Playing this with a lot of palm muting (and be sure to read Ryan’s piece on this – Palm Muting) adds a lot of texture to it. One thing that I especially like about this is the Dadd2add4, which is simply your C typical major chord played two frets higher. I also thought that going from the D to Em for a measure before returning to the G added to the Every Breath You Take feel.

Of course, now that you’re picking the song a little more, you might want to try something folky:

Folk 1
Folk 2
Folk 3
Folk 4

Or throw in some fast fills based on sevenths and you’ve got country:

County 1
Country 2
Country 3
Country 4

Now I know what you’re thinking. And as a rhythm guitarist, I can’t help but wonder along with you: “What would Keith Richards do?” My guess would be something along these lines:

Stones 1
Stones 2

Shades of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, no? Here I not only throw in a display of my love of harmonics, but I also borrowed a standard blues/rock turnaround (the Bb to C at the end) in order to give us a bit of an “oomph!”

Well, we’ve gotten kind of far from the simple song we started out with, haven’t we? Imagine the fun I’ve had sitting around playing the same thing over and over again and yet never playing it the same way twice. I had originally figured that this would be more than enough examples but I kept coming up with more! And two of them were too interesting to leave out. Here’s a jazzy version:

Jazz 1
Jazz 2

Okay, “jazz for beginners” perhaps! This is nowhere near as difficult as you might think it is. Give it a try and see.

If you’ve read my recent column on the stylings of Celtic music (A Celtic Air), you’ll know I had a guitar already set up in D modal tuning (DADGAD to those of you ornery people who have acronyms for everything) (that’s OPWHAFE, by the way). So, I figured why not do a Celtic version as well. Remember to put your capo on the fifth fret so that we’re actually in G modal tuning!

Celtic 1
Celtic 2
Celtic 3
Celtic 4

Look at that! Without batting an eye, we’ve come up with ten different ways to play the same song. A song, I might add, that in its original form is still pretty cool. Can you do this with every song? Yes, and more. Should you? Well, that’s very much up to you. There will always be those who feel that you should always strive to be a carbon copy as well as those who live to come up with arrangements that are, to put it nicely, challenging.

Sometimes your interpretation of a song will be a reflection of a genre, of the music you’re familiar with, of the music you like to play, of the music you’re experimenting with. But more often than not it will be a reflection of you.

I hope you’ve had fun with this. We’ll definitely be visiting different genres from time to time in both the guitar columns and song lessons, examining the particulars and exploring the similarities and differences that set them apart.

But never let your lack of familiarity keep you from trying something out. One of the best ways to learn a lot about something is to attempt to copy it. To make a great copy, you have to know what makes it work. I think one of the greatest gifts of music is the joy of creation. And that includes re-creation, if you will. Taking something wonderful and making it even more intense, more personal, more whimsical. There is so, so, so, so, so much out there to learn and play that one can only dream to take in the merest fraction of it during one’s lifetime.

So go out there and make some music, okay? Make it yours and then share it with someone and make it all of ours.

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 time…