Imagine – John Lennon

John Lennon

I had originally planned to write this lesson ages ago. First as part of the Christmas stuff, (for Christmas back in 2002!), and then again with last year’s holiday songs. Somehow, though, other things that needed attention kept popping up and I kept saying to myself, “Tomorrow.” At one point, I think I even toyed with the idea of saving this for my “swan song,” whenever that moment came when I knew this would be my last lesson for Guitar Noise. Talk about being silly!

But, as part of my own New Year’s Resolutions, I’d like to start replacing whatever “tomorrows” I can with “todays.” And even though I know I won’t always be able to live up to this resolution, I can’t think of a better song than this one, John Lennon’s Imagine, to at least start my resolution off on the right foot.

Imagine is well known to just about everyone. And just about everyone pegs it as a “piano song” and so you don’t often hear a guitarist do an interesting version of it. And to me that’s very sad. A beautiful song like this should be played whenever one has the chance to do it. So let’s play it, shall we? After all, that’s what these lessons are all about.

First, a bit of history that has nothing at all to do with the actual song, but quite a bit with the arrangement you’re about to learn. I was going through a book of classical guitar exercises at some point in the early 1980s. One particular piece involved playing inverted thirds over a pedal point and, for whatever reason, it was in the key of D major. Part of the exercise involved going from A7 to D and used these particular notes to do so:

Classical exercise going from A7 to D

And when I played it, I said to myself, “Hey! That’s Imagine!” Truly, I did. And I had to stop right then and there and figure out how to do the whole song, incorporating this phrase. Not having a recording of the song in the house to work off of didn’t stop me in the least! This is why my version of Imagine is done in the key of D and also why my version, while incorporating familiar parts of the original recording, sounds a little different. D major also happens to be a key in which I can sing this song. Not owning a copy of the original recording, I can’t even tell you the key John Lennon plays this in. But I’m certain that many of you will be happy to write me and let me know. And if you’re reading this lesson in, say, the year 2008, rest assured I’ve gotten thousands of emails telling me what key it’s in.

In terms of structure, we can’t have it too much easier. Imagine consists of a verse, then a second verse, then a chorus, then a final verse and chorus. Let’s take a look at the chords that go along with the lyrics:

Takedown Notice

You can see that this song is going to be reasonably friendly to learn. Simplifying the chords as much as possible to start with, the first four lines of each verse alternate between one measure of D and one of G. The last two lines of the verses are one measure of G, one measure of Em and two measures of A7. The chorus is a repeated pattern of G, A (or A7), D and F# for two beats each. In the very last line of the chorus, we replace the F# with two extra beats of D.

Using this simple chord chart (or “cheat sheet”) version as a template, we now have the task of arranging Imagine into something more than just strumming the chords along with the singing. First thing we want to do is to once again think about turning our guitar into a piano. We’ve done this sort of thing, this “disguising” of the guitar, before in some of our past lessons, like Your Song, where we tried to mimic the phrasing of a piano, and in Losing My Religion, where we created some nice mandolin-like parts for our instrument.

In Imaginewe want to again be thinking like a piano. One way of doing that is to use a bit of partial chord playing, like this:

Here we’re basically playing a D chord, but adding the E note (the open first (high E) string) and then going back to the D note on the third fret of the B string. This use of the Dsus2 creates a little bit of tonal tension, which is very quickly resolved. It’s catchy and easy and something that pianists do a lot.

This would be a good place for me to mention (in case you didn’t read it at the start of Example #1) that you want to try to let the strings ring out as much as possible. The overtones of the open high E (first) string, for instance, create a big part of the sound we’re striving for. In the various MP3s you’ll hear this ringing adds a lot to the song’s arrangement.

I’ve given you four different ways of picking this, three using your fingers and one with a pick, or general strumming. In all three finger-style methods, you use your thumb to get the D note of the open fourth string. When you pick with your thumb (labeled ” T” in the notation), you also use you your ring finger (labeled ” a“) or your middle finger (labeled ” m“) to pluck the open high E (first) string. For the next pair of notes, the D on the third fret of the B string and the A at the second fret of the G string, you can use any of the following methods: (1) your middle and index (labeled ” i“) fingers, on the B and G strings respectively. This is very much in the classical style of playing and, if you can manage it (which I highly recommend), you’ll find yourself able to handle many complex patterns with relative ease. The second method (2) uses the index finger to strike both the B and G strings. This is done with a short, upward “sweep” of the finger. I use this technique a lot and you’ll hear this version of the picking done in the MP3s that go along with our lesson. Method three (3) uses the thumb to strike both the open D string and then the A note on the G string. Even though I’ve indicated using your middle finger on the open high E (first) string, many people might find it easier to use your index finger instead. In other words, you can essentially play this with just your thumb and index finger, which may make some of you very happy!

And, of course, you can also use a pick and strum, which is demonstrated in the last part of Example #2. You don’t have to use a pick to do this. In our final MP3, which is done on the twelve-string guitar, you’ll occasionally hear me use my thumb to get all the notes on the downstroke and then get back into the regular picking pattern. So you see you’ve got a lot of options and, personally, I think that you might want to take the time to try each method and see what you like. But you already knew I was going to say that, right?

Me, I’m sticking with “method two” for now and trying to move on to the G chord. In my mind (because, as you’ll remember, I’m doing this without the benefit of an original recording to listen to), I can hear Lennon’s piano doing something like this:

And as pretty as this is, I’m thinking that it’s also going to get pretty monotonous as a guitar part. But what part of this do I want to change? I like the beginning part of the measure and the end as well. Also they seem pretty essential to the song. So why not replace the second and third beats of the measure of G with something like this:

Here, I’m being very careful to use both my middle finger and index finger for the notes on the B and G strings, respectively. I definitely don’t want the first two sets of notes to be a pull-off; they sound much nicer if fully articulated. On the last beat, though, a hammer-on to get the C# on the second fret of the B string works perfectly fine.

And while coming up with this arrangement, I’m thinking to myself that I’ve found a nice balance – I am evoking the original piano music while still letting people clearly hear that this is a guitar. That’s not always an easy balance to achieve, but I believe we have done so in a simple, yet elegant, fashion.

As always, take the time to practice this, as much time as you need in order to make the changes smoothly and cleanly. And when you’re ready, let’s attempt the first four lines of the verse:

And guess what? You’ve now got better than half the song down cold! It’s also good in that you’ve got a nice pattern going in both your head and fingers and that will help you throughout the rest of Imagine. Before I forget, you can use this pattern of two measures as an introduction, repeating it as often as you’d like. Usually two times through the chord changes is good enough to get things going.

Speaking of the rest of the song, let’s finish up the verse. The last two lines of each verse end the same, but the first verse, as we’ve seen, goes directly into verse two while the second and third verses are followed by the chorus. Fortunately for us, this does not involve a lot of extra work. Let’s take the last two lines in and of themselves first and then look at how they make their turnarounds into either the verse or the chorus. Here we go:

Now the first thing you may be wondering to yourself is probably, “Hey! Where did those new chords come from?” Well, that’s me just using some theory to make our arrangement a tad bit more interesting. Let’s back up a moment and pretend we stuck with our cheat sheet, which, as you recall, has one full measure of G and one of Em. We could have easily come up with some simple G and Em arpeggios like this:

Compared to what we’ve been doing so far in Imagine, this seems a little static. It’s nice and all, but even though it’s all arpeggios it seems to lack movement. So we’re going to use a bit of a descending bass line to generate some motion. First, why don’t we try going from G to Em by using the F# note (second fret of the low E (sixth) string) in our bass, comme ca:

This is definitely an improvement. But I think I would like something a bit more dramatic. Using the F# in the bass is certainly a good idea, at least to my ears (and if you’re wondering why I chose F# instead of F, just remember that we’re in the key of D. These are simply notes found in the D major scale), and since F# is also part of the D chord, what say we try something like this:

I really like the sound of this! Now I’m going to punch up the changes a little by giving the G to F# to E a little more emphasis. And while we’re at it, let’s expand on this use of the D scale in order to run our bass line down one more step from E (in the first two beats of Em) to D, creating an Em/D chord for the last two beats.

And that sounds just like the MP3 of Example #6, no? Two other things I like about this are that (a) I can pretty much pick any of my guitar’s six strings and as long as I’m holding onto the chord in question, nothing will sound bad and (b) the Em/D gives me a chance to remove all my fingers from the neck and give them a bit of a break. It’s good to be nice to your hands every now and then!

How does one decide to do any of these particular changes? First off, having played a while I know that whenever you’ve got a G to Em chord progression, this is always a possibility. It doesn’t always sound good and quite often the timing is not always as simple as this one is. But I’m always on the lookout for this progression as well as any other movement between one chord and its relative minor (or I to VI, for those of you into the Roman Numeral aspect of theory). You can do the same thing we’ve done here when switching between C and Am, F and Dm or D and Bm, just to name a few. And it’s things like this why I tell you that knowing theory, even the tiniest bit of it, is not the handicap that many would lead you to believe.

(And if you’d like to think and learn a little more about this sort of thing, keep an eye out for the upcoming Easy Songs for Beginners piece on, no lie, You Are My Sunshine.)

Finally, the last line of the verse brings us to A7 and the little classical exercise I showed you at the beginning of this lesson. We’re actually tracking the melody notes on the B string while creating a harmony line on the D string. And to top it all off, we’re using the open A string as a pedal point. If there’s a trick to this, it’s using your middle finger to fret all of the notes on the D string. When the accompanying note on the B string is on the same fret (the second and fifth frets in this case), use your ring finger on the B string. When you need a finger on a different fret, like when you want the F# on the fourth fret of the D string and the D at the third fret of the B string, then your index finger is in perfect position to play that note. This is something we’ve run into time and again in our lessons and I hope it’s a habit you get into. It will certainly make your playing smooth as you change from note to note. And if I ever write up a lesson on Brown Eyed Girl, then you’ll have had plenty of practice to play the intro!

Meanwhile, though, we’ve still got to continue here with Imagine. Once we’ve reached the end of the verse, we will either move on to the second verse or start in on the chorus. And, for me anyway, this is a tricky part of the song. In the original recording, this is where John does a little lilting “Ah ah ah ah ah” with his voice and I cannot do that without sounding pretty silly. So I let my guitar do it instead. Since we’re already tracking along the melody line, it’s not all that hard to keep doing that. It involves doing a double slide on the B and D strings (ring and middle fingers, respectively) and adding the A note at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string with our index finger:

Occasionally, as you’ll hear in the upcoming MP3s, I hit the open A string again, usually simply to keep the beat going. You can, if you’d like, change the timing a little, making the last two sets of notes eighth notes instead of sixteenths, as I do in the next MP3. That’s a matter of personal style. Mixing it up a little during a performance also adds a bit of flair.

As I mentioned earlier, the only thing you have to worry about at this juncture of the song is where you’re going. If you’ve just finished the first verse and are starting the second, you’ll want to nail that D note but then get right back into your original picking pattern. This will mean sacrificing a few notes at the start, but you’ll soon be right back into the swing of things:

If you’re moving on to the chorus, from either the second or the third verse, then you’ll be going to a G chord. The D note (third fret of the B string) will still be your target, but you’ll want to obviously change the chord accompaniment like this:

Of course, we’re not going to simply stop on a whole note of G when we get to the chorus! I just wanted to get us here. And now that we have finally reached the chorus, you’ll find it very much like the picking pattern we’ve used throughout the song thus far, but slightly sparser. Let’s take a look and a listen:

We only have four chords to worry about here, but it’s also important to give each one its due. The G is pretty straightforward; the only noticeable thing about it is that we’re using the D note (third fret of the B string) as our high note and not playing the high E (first) string at all. I prefer using A7 to A, but either chord will sound fine. I particularly like the way the A7 sounds when I switch from the C# (second fret of the B string) to the open B string. This is, as if you needed me to tell you (!), just me following along the melody line whenever I can. The D is played, picking-wise, almost exactly as the G. And that leaves the F# chord. As you’ll note, I like to play one beat of F# and one of F#7. The reason for this is that it creates a nice descending melody on the high E string. Since this takes part in a section where there is no singing, it brings some dynamics to the chorus that it wouldn’t normally have with just a single instrument. It’s a little reminiscent of the piano and the strings in the original recording.

In the last MP3 you’ll hear me play these two chords with straight downstrokes as opposed to the arpeggios you just heard. Something like this:

And before you ask, there are all sorts of ways to play these particular chord voicings. I usually play the F# as a straight barre chord and the F#7 with the open E string, my index finger on the second fret of the B string, my middle finger on the third fret of the G string, my pinky on the fourth fret of the D string, my ring finger on the fourth fret of the A string and my thumb grabbing the F# in the bass (second fret of the low E (sixth) string). But sometimes I will start out with the fully barred F# and then slightly raise my index finger to get the open high E (first) string in order to make the F#7. Sometimes I will also play the F# in much the same way I described the F#7, that is with my thumb grabbing the bass note and my index finger catching the second fret on both the high E (first) string and the B string.

In the second line of the chorus, I change the D chord slightly, hitting the A note (second fret of the G string) first in order to (surprise!) echo the melody. You don’t have to. I just find it nice to change my patterns every now and then.

And I take this “follow the melody” pattern to task in the last line of the chorus:

To do this, I use my pinky to get all the notes “non-A7” notes (the F# at the second fret of the high E (first) string and the D at the third fret of the B string) in the last two beats of this first measure. Once again the spirit of The Little Drummer Boy raises his head!

Because this is a little busy, I give myself a breather on the measure of D, just letting it ring and not worrying about doing an ascending bass line up to the next verse as they do on the original recording. If you’re younger than me or feel you need the exercise or simply want to show off, you can do something like this:

And I think that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much covers things. I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing around with this song. And I truly hope that you go out of your way to include it in your repertoire and play it whenever you have the chance. It’s beautiful and relatively easy to get into your fingers. Take the time to practice it and you’ll also find yourself using little bits of it when you least expect it!

I particularly want to take a moment to thank everyone in the Guitar Noise community for their support over the past five years, and this past year in particular. Consider this lesson my Chinese New Year’s gift to you all. Here’s an MP3 of two verses and the chorus done on the twelve-string guitar:

And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns, criticisms or whatever 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 our 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.