I Shot the Sheriff – Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Sometimes I look at these “Easy Songs for Beginners” and I have to wonder if I’m going to get tarred and feathered. Oh, it’s not that they are hard (they aren’t) or that even the theory involved is too difficult (I truly hope it hasn’t been), but I just hope that everyone is having fun with them. And is patient with me. You may have noticed I have this tendency to try to cram a lot into these lessons. It’s not always easy explaining some of the things we’ve covered purely with words and diagrams and I am not always certain I’ve gotten things across in the best possible way. But you can always write me for more details. Ah well, enough digression…

August is musical genres month here at Guitar Noise and I have to admit that my picking this topic was a sneaky way to slip some lessons into the mix. Today’s song is Bob Marley‘s I Shot The Sheriff, which will not only serve as a delightful introduction to reggae rhythms, but I’ve also managed to get very sneaky and throw in some transposing as well.

Before we go on, you might also want to read this little bit on Reggae Style on Guitar. It contains a bit of history on the genre as well as some ideas on rhythm that we will expand upon later.

Step 1 – Chords

Let’s look at the chords and transposition first, shall we? On the CD that I am using (“Legend”), this song is in the key of G minor. How do I know that? Well, if you’ve read some of my past columns, particular the trio on ear training, you’d know that I sat down with my guitar and the CD and played around until I got the chord progression. In terms of song structure, Sheriff can be broken down into two parts: the chorus (the “I shot the sheriff” part) and the intervening verses, which tell the story. There is also a little instrumental riff which separates the two, but we will come back to that later (good lord! More things to learn!!)

The chorus has two alternating chords, Gm and Cm, and goes like this:

Takedown Notice

The verses have the following chord progression (the number of beats is in parenthesis):

Now I don’t know about you, but this does not at all look like an “Easy Song For Beginners!” But take heart! You have all read my column on transposing called Turning Notes Into Stone (and if you haven’t now’s your chance to sneak out and do so! Don’t worry, we’ll wait right here for you…), so you’re all whizzes at the art of transposing.

Ready to make this a bit easier? Alright, then, since I have no intention of playing this as nothing but barre chords, I have to come up with another key in which to play it. To me, there are two obvious choices – A minor and E minor. As you’ve read, I prefer use a key lower in pitch whenever possible so that, with the aid of my trusty capo, I can still play along with the CD. So I opt for E minor. E is one and a half steps down from G, so all my other chords are going to have to be one and a half steps down as well. Let’s figure it out:

Chord transposition chart

Now that looks a lot easier, doesn’t it? And if I put my capo on the third fret (that’s one and a half steps, remember?), then I am playing in G minor again. So here are the chords we’re going to use:

I Shot the Sheriff chord chart

Let me point out that there are a lot of ways to play the Bm chord (yes, not to mention every chord!). For this song, I prefer to use this voicing and we’ll look at the reasons for this shortly. But first, let’s get our rhythm down.

Step 2 – Rhythm

Having made the chords user-friendly, let’s see what we can do about the rhythm. Like all the things we’ve been doing, we’ll start out fairly simply and then get a bit more complicated as we feel the confidence to do so.

Playing a reggae rhythm guitar involves playing on the offbeat. Just what does that mean? Well, let’s say we have a song in 4 / 4 time (and, thinking about it, I can’t remember ever playing a reggae song that wasn’t in 4 / 4 time), you would count it out like so:

Reggae Rhythm Guitar - straight quarter notes

Nothing could be simpler, right? This is how we count the beat of any song, at least any song done in 4 /4 time. But we already know from our past lessons that we can subdivide this into eighth notes or into triplets:

Reggae Rhythm Guitar - eighth notes

Reggae Rhythm Guitar - triplets

Here you see that we have notes in between the “beats,” between the actual number count if you will. This is the “offbeat.” To get the reggae rhythm, we will strum our guitar only on the offbeat, that is we will strum on the “and” or the “and a” parts of the measure.

And let’s take a moment here to talk about tone. Reggae guitar tends to have a very clipped sound (or “chunky,” as the good book tells us). There are several ways to get this effect. The easiest way is to use an upstroke when you strum. When I play reggae in an all upstroke style on my guitar, I will actually slap my palm on top of the strings after the upstroke. This accentuates the pause that takes place on the beat. When I do use downstrokes, I find I get good control of the tone by resting my palm directly on the strings when I stroke. This is particularly useful in a triplet rhythm.

Upstrokes also bring out the higher strings, or the treble part, of the guitar and most reggae guitar has a nice treble tone to it. This is also another reason I like to use the capo to position my chord voicings higher up on the neck, thus bringing more treble into the chords.

If you’re using an electric guitar, try to keep your tone as clean as possible. Avoid effects such as distortion. Even chorus or echo can really clutter things up a lot, so try to listen carefully to what you’re doing. Reggae should have lots of breathing space.

And don’t think you can’t play reggae on your acoustic guitar. The percussive sounds you can get from strumming an acoustic are wonderful for this style of music.

Before you even get going on the rhythm, take some time to experiment with the sound that you want. You really should do this for any song you work on. The tone you achieve with your guitar, with or without an amp and effects, will be a big factor in how your rhythm sounds.

Okay, having said that, let’s give the rhythm a shot. Let’s start out simply with the eighth notes. Remember to take it as slowly as you need in order to do it right. Once you get the hang of it you’ll be amazed at how fast you can go. All right then, we’ll use the Em chord, one upstroke on each offbeat. Ready?

Reggae Rhythm with Em chord - eighth notes

If you want to see if you’re doing this correctly, try counting the beat aloud while you strum. Seriously. When you count the beat (just the “one, two, three, four” – don’t say the “ands”) you shouldn’t be playing at all when you speak. Once you feel that you’ve got a handle on this, do it again using only downstrokes. Remember to keep them short and clipped. Then mix it up – try both upstrokes and downstrokes. See what you like, where and how you get a sound that you like.

When you feel comfortable play the rhythm in eighth notes, then you can give the triplets a try. There are lots of ways to approach this. Personally, I tend to do a downstroke (D) followed by an immediate upstroke (U), like this:

Reggae Rhythm with Em chord - triplets

Okay, you’ve got both of those rhythms down cold, right? Now comes the fun part – mixing them together. Up ’til now we’ve been doing this with only one chord but you’ll see that these exercises will get you going on changing chords as well. Again (always), start out as slowly as necessary. Don’t move on to the next line of the exercise until you feel that you’ve mastered the one you’re on:

Reggae Rhythm with Em and Am chord changes

Reggae Rhythm with C Bm and Em chord changes

Reggae Rhythm with Em chord change

Reggae Rhythm with Am chord change

Reggae Rhythm with C and Bm chord change

Reggae Rhythm with Em chord changes

That’s a lot of fun, isn’t it? That last exercise pattern, by the way, is the pattern I usually use to play I Shot The Sheriff. Okay, one more step to go and we’re ready!

Step 3 – Bass and Fill

You’re actually ready to go on and play the song right now if you’d like. The purpose of this section is to give you some added pizzazz should you want some.

If you’re playing solo, reggae can be very disorienting. There is no bass to root your rhythm. But in learning to play the way we have, you can see that are spaces in which to fill in the bass. Do you see them? The rests that we don’t play provide a natural place for it. In other words, we will play a bass note on the beat while playing the rhythm on the offbeat. I told you I can be sneaky sometimes…

Using an alternating bassline, as we did in Margaritaville, will work very well in the chorus section of the song:

Now take your time with this. And don’t get frustrated if it takes you a number of attempts to get it right. After all, you’ve just learned how to do the rhythm and I’ll be more than willing to bet that you haven’t even thought about the alternating bassline since we saw it last. If it helps, revert to doing a straight eighth note pattern until you feel you’ve got it down.

The verses are a little trickier, and now you’ll see why I wanted to use this particular voicing of the Bm chord. What we’re actually doing is a “Bm/D.” When you see a chord with a “/” in it, it is normally understood that the actually chord is in front of the “/.” The note behind it is supposed to be your bass note, or the lowest note in the chord. Since we are going from C to Bm to Em, and since the D note is part of the Bm chord, I have decided to do a straight ascending scale from C to E. Then I revert back to an alternating bass pattern on the Em:

But here’s something interesting – when I do the alternating bassline on the Em, the last voiced bass note is a B which naturally leads us back to the C. Almost as if someone had planned it that way.

Another way of going about playing these rhythms, believe it or not is in fingerstyle. Using your thumb to play the bass parts while employing your three fingers to pluck the first three strings for the accompanying chords gives you a great sound and excellent control over the rhythmic pattern. If you’re into this sort of thing, go back over the last two examples (the chorus and the verses) using this technique. Your thumb will play the bass notes (downturned stems) and use your ring finger (1st (high E) string), middle finger (2nd (B) string) and index finger (3rd (G) finger) to pluck out the chords.

Okay, one last thing. At the end of each verse, there is a riff that is played by pretty much all the instruments in unison. You’ll see that I’ve TABbed it out right after the first verse. Having the guitar with the capo on the third fret certainly helped to make things easier, didn’t’it? Well then, you’re ready to go and play!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into reggae. Next time out we’re going to learn an old Dylan song. But before you start groaning, let me add that it’s my way of teaching you the basics of slide guitar…

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…


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.