It’s Too Late – Carole King

Carole King Tapestry

You may have read, in any number of previous lessons and/or columns, that I played piano before I started on the guitar. This probably seems like a small detail; lots of people go from one instrument to another and many folks, for whatever reasons, do seem to learn on the piano first.

Maybe it’s because of my background, or maybe it’s simply just me, but I never think of songs as “guitar songs” or “piano songs” or whatever. A good song is a good song and with a little effort and imagination, you can often come up with ways of playing any song you like on your instrument of choice. Granted, playing something like Classical Gas on, say, the saxophone, won’t sound anything at all like the original recording. But we’re over that by this stage of our studies here at Guitar Noise, right?

Well, if not, let’s try to get that particular stigma out of our system once and for all. Today we’re going to learn the classic Carole King song, It’s Too Late, from her incredible 1971 album, Tapestry. Let’s dispense with the usual formalities, shall we?

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

In addition to working out a great guitar arrangement, I’d like you to also use this lesson as an introduction to the many nuances of the seventh chord. We’ll be seeing almost every type there is in this song, so do yourself a favor and listen to what you’re playing.

That may seem like an incredibly silly thing to say, but listening is an important part of developing as both a guitarist and a musician. You want to listen to everything, not just your playing but the playing of others, whether they are guitarists or bassoon players. You’ll be amazed at the little things you can pick up by keeping your ears (and mind) open!

Take our lesson today, for instance. Mention Carol King and the piano is probably the first thing that springs to mind. However, you’re probably aware of incredibly popular versions of her songs that have little to no piano in their arrangements. Who doesn’t become mesmerized listening to James Taylor’s version of You’ve Got A Friend, just to pick an example?

The piano, much like the guitar, is an instrument that plays many roles. It can pound out chords or weave together haunting arpeggios. It can lay down a song’s signature riff or hook so loudly you can’t ignore it or it can simply hide in the background, occasionally popping up with a stunningly beautiful and simply fill.

Our Easy Songs for Beginners Lessons (as well as our Songs for Intermediates) have concentrated on the single guitar, so we want to keep that in mind as we think of the best way to approach our arrangement. In this lesson we’ll focus on more of a straight chord style with riffs and rhythms holding the piece together.

And, believe it or not, it’s one simple riff that holds this whole song together. Let’s take a look at it:

Takedown Notice

Playing this on the lowest two strings of the guitar and allowing that A string to ring out, you can hear how close this sounds to the piano already! The key is to make this as smooth as possible. As you hear in the MP3, I advise that you don’t even pick the low E (sixth) string after the first strike. Hammer your finger (I usually use my ring finger for this and I’ll explain why in a little bit…) onto the third fret of that string and then pull of to get the note of the low E for the final tone in this phrase.

Since this is one of the two “signature” hooks of this song, take the time to get it right before moving ahead. I’m sure you’re probably tired of me telling you this time after time, but hey! if it’s working, why mess with it?

When you’re happy with your playing of this riff, we’ll move on to adding it to the verse. The first two lines of the verse also serve as the introduction, by the way, so this is another bit that we want to get down well:

I think we should take some time to talk about chord selection. And I do mean “selection.” When you look at a TAB on the internet, you won’t always find the exact chords or the chord voicing that was used in the original recording. For instance, if in our lesson on Wish You Were Here, I simply wrote out the first two chords as Em7 and G, would you automatically assume that you should make certain you’ve got the G note (third fret on the high E (first) string) and the D note (third fret on the B string) covered? Perhaps some of you might, but I suspect that you’d play the open position chords you recognize and then wonder why it didn’t sound the same.

The same lack of detail can occur in sheet music as well, especially when it comes to older songs and non-guitar oriented music. While unpacking a box, I found a friend’s copy of the sheet music for the entire Tapestry album and I was surprised to find that their version of It’s Too Late had no seventh chords in it at all! The opening two chords are Em and A. And you certainly can play it that way…

But it’s rare to hear a pianist using basic major and minor chords. The piano lends itself nicely to all sorts of interesting voicings. Your only limit is how far you can stretch your hand! Also, nice compact chords can create an interesting, and fairly far from unpleasant dissonance.

So we’re going to use a liberal dash of seventh chords in our arrangement and as we progress further through the song, I think you’ll agree that this is a good choice. Does it always work? No, most certainly not. This, like many other things we’ve covered, is a matter of experimentation as well as personal taste. But if you don’t take the time to listen to all the ways you can play something, you’ll never know what options are open to you.

Here I’ve chosen these particular voicings of the Em7 (022030) and A7 (002020) because I like the way the D (third fret of the B string) and the E note of the open first string start out fairly dissonant and then resolve to the C# (second fret of the B) and open E at the A7 chord.

Playing these chords, I use primarily my index and middle fingers. On the Em7 my pinky is on the B string, my middle finger is on the D string and my index finger frets the A string. When I switch to the A7, I simply shift my index finger up from the A string to the D and my middle finger from the D to the B. This leaves my ring finger free to do the hammer-on the low E string for the main riff. Sneaky, no?

The rhythm of this song is a hook as well. The use of the anticipation (coming in on the last half-beat of the measure) when changing from the Em7 to the A7 creates a sense of urgency.

You see that I’ve notated the strokes I use in this MP3. “D” stands for “downstroke” and “U” denotes an upstroke. The “D(P)” indicates a percussive stroke done on a downstroke. I add these for two reasons – first, to provide a nice sharp contrast to the ringing notes from the open strings. Your thinking here should be that you’re using the percussive stroke to create a rest – a distinct, marked space between chords.

Second (and even more important), by doing so, I provide the listener with the same sort of aural quality the piano has by use of its sustain pedal. By not letting some of the tones ring over from chord to chord we create a rhythmic pattern not just by strumming, but also by playing and not playing. This also allows us to give some dynamics to the rhythm. You’ll notice that sometimes I nail the percussive stroke hard and the following chord harder. Sometimes it’s more of a whisper. If I let the chord run on continuously, this nuance would be lost.

This use of a rhythmic hook (as opposed to a riff made out of notes) is best exemplified in the third line of the verse:

I guarantee you that if you were to play just those last two measures of Cmaj7 to someone as old as I am, they’ll say “I know that song!” and start singing the chorus!

Here again I use the percussive stroke as a way to accentuate the rhythm rather than simply letting one chord run on into another. Again (and always) take your time working on this; it’s a technique that you’ll find yourself using time and time again.

And I’d also like to point out that I like using this particular voicing of the Cmaj7 (332000) because you can play all six strings of the guitar and give the chord a good full-bodied sound.

Okay, we’ve gotten through the intro and the verse! We’ve just got the chorus to go:

And there’s almost nothing to this, right? We play a measure of Fmaj7 followed by one of Cmaj7 and repeat that progression a total of three times. Next comes a measure with two quarter notes of Am and two quarter notes of Em. We wrap the whole thing up with an arpeggio of the B7 chord and go right back into the main verse/intro chords of Em7 and A7. Piece of cake!

Two small things to point out: I know that a number of TABS use a Bm7 (which you could play (X20202) very easily) instead of the B7. Personally, and this is just a matter of personal taste, I prefer the B7. That choice is up to you.

The other thing is another fingering detail. If you play the Am as most people do, your index finger is on the first fret of the B string, your ring finger is fretting the second fret of the G string and your middle finger is playing the second fret of the D. When you switch to the Em, try not to use your index finger. Just move the other two fingers to the next lower string; your ring finger will be on the second fret of the D string and your middle finger should be on the second fret of the A string.

The reason for this is that many people have problems with the B7. I’m not really sure why; it’s just one of those chords, I guess. But if you’re fingering the Em as I described, then to go from there to the B7 simply requires you to move the ring finger back to the second fret of the G string. You can now slip your index finger nicely onto the first fret of the D string and then (only after you’ve done all that!) place your pinky on the second fret of the high E (first) string. Practice this shift a few times and you’ll probably wonder why you ever let that B7 chord bother you in the first place!

Alrighty, then. The song goes verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, third verse and final chorus. Naturally the final chorus is different from the first two in that it has an “outro” attached to it.

But since we’ve had it pretty easy in the first two choruses, I’d like to give you a few little extras that you might want to toss in if you feel you’re up to it. You can here them all on the final MP3, but let’s look at them individually first, starting with the second line:

What I’d like to do to give this final chorus a little more pizzazz is to simply use some partial chords to follow along with the melody line. Here, we start our Fmaj7 chord with an open B string and then hammer-on C note at the second fret. That’s certainly not too hard. The main thing is to try to follow along with the rhythm of the song.

We do the same thing on the third line of the chorus (“…,something inside has died…”), but now we’re upping the ante by adding a few more notes:

You should be keen to notice that I use a different voicing and fingering for this Fmaj7. I want my pinky to be free to fret the D note (third fret on the B string), so it makes sense that I don’t want to pull my pinky off of the Fmaj7 chord shape to do this. That would completely disrupt the proceedings. Instead, I make a “three fingered” voicing of the chord – index finger on the first fret of the B (after I hammer it on), middle finger on the second fret of the G and ring finger on the third fret of the D. This leaves my pinky free to get the D note and then, when I take it back off, my index finger gets the final note in that measure.

For the second measure of this line in the chorus, I play the Cmaj7, formed as I have the entire song, only I make certain to stop my strum at certain strings in order to get the notes of the melody. The first strum (and the percussive stroke) are downstrokes across all six strings, but the next upstroke I start on the B string and then my final two strokes (first up and then down) I make sure to start and then end at the G string.

This sort of thing is good to practice because it helps you get better at strumming partial chords. As we’ve seen in a number of our lessons, you don’t always want to strum every string.

Now let’s look at what would normally be the final line of the chorus:

Starting with the Am chord (downstroke), I then pull-off my index finger to get the note of the open B string. I then pick only the G string, again a downstroke, which gives us the A note since my finger is still on the second fret. I then hit the open low E (sixth) string with an upstroke, play two partial chords of Em and then switch to a D chord instead of the arpeggio of the B7, as we’ve played the first two times.

From there we’re simply going to play a Gmaj7 chord and then the Cmaj7 chord to close out the song. For the Gmaj7, I use my middle finger on the low E, my index on the A and my ring finger on the high E. There are numerous ways to play this, but I find this fingering the most comfortable for me.

Now let’s go through the entire final chorus and outro:

And that’s the whole song! Let me post it out for you in its entirety:

I’m guessing he wants to follow me; gonna have to set him straight on the liklihood of that happening

I hope you had fun with this lesson and have fun playing this great song. Just as important, I hope that when you hear a song that’s mostly (or all) piano, you don’t think of it as a song you can’t play! Arranging songs is simply a matter of your imagination. As you develop more and more as a guitarist, your belief in your abilities will allow you to see more and more possibilities in songs. Not every song will turn out as wonderfully as you will hope, but more often than not, they will.

If you found this fun and would like a bit of a challenge, then check out the next “Songs for Intermediates” lesson, which will be on Elton John’s Your Song, a piano piece if there ever was one, right?

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 page 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.