Lay Lady Lay – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline

I suppose the first thing I’d better do is apologize for the word “easy” in putting this particular lesson in our “Easy Songs for Beginners” page. But that could, pardon the pun, easily be taken for being discouraging and, if you’ve read anything that I’ve ever written, let alone have taken any of my classes, you know the last thing I tend think about is being discouraging.

So, instead let me say that this lesson, a single guitar arrangement of Lay Lady Lay, a song a lot of people single out as one of their favorites of Bob Dylan, is definitely going to pose some challenges. But rest assured these aren’t insurmountable challenges.

Let’s dispense with the formalities and get right down to work, then, okay?

Notice my use of the word “work.” Unlike many people, the word carries no bad connotations with me, and that may be why I have no problem expecting learning any song to involve some work. And that’s after close to thirty-five years of playing. There is little in life that is not going to involve some degree of work. So if you have a problem with the word “work,” you’re kind of setting yourself up with a ready excuse as to why you can’t do something. So now who’s being discouraging?

If anything else, I hope that those of you reading and learning from all the lessons and articles here on Guitar Noise understand and appreciate that nothing about learning the guitar involves magic, anymore than it truly involves me. You are the one putting the effort into learning and making things happen. I’m not much more than a glorified tour guide.

Perhaps a better way of putting it is that even though I’ve done a bit of work for you, putting things in order and arranging them as nicely as possible, you’ve got to also put in the work required for you to make the music happen. I’ll do my best to talk you through the stages as we go. Essentially, we’re going to take something that is slightly difficult and then deliberately make it more difficult in order to get better at our barre chord technique.

First off, let’s deal with some necessary preliminary steps. Structurally, Lay Lady Lay is made up of three verses. Each verse has an “A” section (the “lay lady lay” part) that consists of a four chord progression that repeats itself without the lyrics. This “A” section is then repeated as the second line of the verse and is followed by, a “B” section that lasts for two lines before the verse finishes with one last repetition of the “A” section.

If I go to a book of Bob Dylan songs or get the chords off the Internet or even just figure things out myself by ear, this is what I would come up with for the first verse:

Takedown Notice

You can see how the verse breaks itself into the AABA pattern.

Now, I don’t know about you, but just seeing that C#m listed there is enough to make me think about changing to a key with easier guitar chords. We’re obviously in the key of A major (although there is a very interesting thing going on that we’ll discuss in a moment), and that’s usually going to involve a few barre chords. I’m counting three here, C#m, Bm and F#m, and even though there are ways of getting around these particular chords, I’m still thinking things might go better with a change of key.

Fortunately, I have read Turning Notes into Stone, which explains how to transpose and I’m ready to change all of the chords to their appropriate matches in the key of G:

But this doesn’t help all that much as now I’ve got to deal with both Bm and F. I have gotten rid of one barre chord, since the F#m in the key of A is now an Em in the key of G, so I guess that’s a small victory. Plus, if I throw a capo on the second fret (as I do in all the MP3 examples for this lesson), then I’m back in the original key of A.

Better yet, I know ways of playing the Bm and F chords that don’t involve full barres. Even better, using these particular chord voicings create a natural descending bass line, even though it’s all way up on the D (fourth) string. Let’s start with G, and then use a “four string” version of Bm where the F# note at the fourth fret of the D string is the bass note. Most people will finger this chord with the index finger on the second fret of the high E (first) string, the middle finger on the third fret of the B string, the pinky on the fourth fret of the G string and then the ring finger on the fourth fret of the D. Technically speaking, we can call this chord, “Bm/F#” even though most chord books will list it simply as “Bm.”

From there we’ll go to the typical “beginner’s F” chord, you know, the one where you lay your index finger across the first fret of both the high E (first) and B strings, while your middle finger is at the second fret of the G string and your middle finger gets the third fret of the D string.

Finally, there’s the basic open position Am chord, but in keeping with the walking descending bass line, let’s not play either the low E (sixth) string or even the open A string and let the E note at the second fret of the D string be our bass note.

Putting all this together and using a basic Travis style finger pattern, such as those we’ve used in other lessons, we can put together something like this:

Think of this particular pattern as a slight variation of the pinch that you used in the lesson on Dust in the Wind. Because we’re working with sixteenth notes, the thumb will be counting off both the “beat” (the “numbers”) as well as the offbeats (the “ands” between the numbers) while the fingers will hit the notes in between. So, following this last example, start with a pinch (both finger and thumb) of both high and low E strings on the first beat and then pick the D string with the thumb on the “and” between beats one and two. This will be followed by a hit of the B string and then the high E (first) string with the fingers (usually index and middle, respectively) and then the thumb will get the G string on the “and” between beats two and three.

This is not an easy pattern to get right out of the box, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go well at first. I’ve included a “variation” that uses the thumb on every beat and offbeat and for some of you this might prove a helpful starting place. But this will sound better once you get the hang of it, so don’t give up! As with all finger picking patterns, the hardest step isn’t usually getting it into your fingers – it’s being able to stop and then switch to another pattern when you want to!

When you switch to the following chords, your bass note will now be on the D string, so your first pinch will be with the thumb on the D and a finger on the high E (first) string, while your second note with the thumb will be on the G string. And this pattern will hold throughout the remaining three chords.

Before we move on, let’s take a minute and look at this progression. We go from G to Bm and then to F and Am. In the key of G, G is obviously the root (the “I” chord) while Bm is the “iii” chord. It’s not the strongest of progressions, in fact it’s very gentle and subtle and maybe that’s why Dylan went with it as it fits the mood of the song very nicely. The next chord, F, may seem out of place, but in the key of F, F is the root (“I”) and wouldn’t you just be surprised to find out that Am is the “iii” chord? Basically what’s going on here is that we’ve got one “I – iii” progression followed by another. And since Am is also the “ii” chord in the key of G, going from Am to G would be “ii – I” in our original key, another very gentle sounding cadence. I only mention all this because I find this sort of thing interesting, not only from a theory point of view, but also from a songwriter’s perspective.

Anyway, you can, if you’d like, use this pattern and these chord voicings for the entire song and consider the lesson over. Simply skip down to the final example and you’ll find all the chords in a nice “cheat sheet” format and you’d good to go. But if you’d like to get some more work and to, hopefully, get better at playing, then come along and let’s tackle some barre chords.

Why? Because while it’s entirely possible to play guitar all your life and not ever use a single barre chord, you are ultimately limiting much of what you can play. And the only way you’re going to get better at them is to use them. Sitting around talking about how you can’t do them will certainly prove yourself right, but you deserve to treat yourself better than that.

And it’s one thing to strum barre chords, especially on an electric guitar. Try finger picking them on an acoustic if you’d like to get better at them in a hurry!

This example uses essentially the same finger picking pattern as before, but every chord voicing, with the exception of the Am, is a barre chord. Fortunately, these barre chords are relatively similar and also very close together on the fretboard, so this makes things a little easier for you as you switch from chord to chord.

On the G chord, your index finger barres all six strings at the third fret while your middle finger is on the fourth fret of the G, your pinky is on the fifth fret of the D and your ring finger is on the fifth fret of the A string. If you think about it, your fingers are forming the same shape as the open position E chord. And thinking about your fingers being in this specific shape will help you a lot as you shift from chord to chord.

When changing from the G to the Bm, you want to slightly raise your index finger so that you can shift it down to the second fret (try to stay across all six string even though you’ll only be picking five of them) and, as you shift your index finger, also “relocate” your E shape so that it’s now an “Am” shape, that is, try to transfer all your fingers at one go instead of painstakingly placing them one at a time on the fretboard. You don’t need me to tell you that this is going to be, in all likelihood, a big train wreck the first few (or few dozen) times out. But as your fingers get to understanding what you want them to do, they will seemingly get better a little at a time until you should find that you are handling the change fairly well at a slow speed. And, as you already know, more speed will come with more repetition.

Moving from Bm to F involves more of the same, only this time you’re going back to the E shape. And use the Am at the end of the progression as a chance to catch your breath before doing it all again.

I cannot stress enough that this will probably take most of you some time to get down. Hopefully you understand that something like this is worth the effort on your part. One day you will wake up and think that you just play barre chords by magic, but the fact is that all the time that you’re spending now on this progression will play a big part of that seeming magic.

Again, you can feel free to call it quits here. But if you want to step up to the next challenge, then by all means, let’s continue:

At first glance, this doesn’t seem all that different from our last example, but it is in a very important way. The first chord, G, is in open position and the second and third chords (the Bm and F) are barres. So that means you’re going to be working on making the shift from the open position G to the Bm barre. To make it even more interesting, I’ve put the F# note at the second fret of the low E (sixth) string, the bass note (I told you earlier there was a reason to barre all six strings on this chord!), so that the bass line now mimics our original “open position” bass line from Example 1. It’s simply an octave lower on the Bm, F and Am chords.

If you play your G chord with your index finger on the second fret of the A string, then you’ve got a head start on making the transition to the Bm a little smoother as all you’ll need do is to stretch it out over the six strings at the second fret. Also take advantage of the fact that your finger picking pattern uses a lot of open strings, which will help you to get a bit of a jump in making the chord change.

Even after all the work you did on the “barre chords only” progression of Example 2, this is going to take more energy and effort on your part. I can only tell you that it will, in the long run, be worth every bit of it. I hope you can trust me on that!

One of the (many) reasons for all this dealing with barre chords is that the technique of barring can help you out a lot even when you’re not playing barre chords. Confused? Well, let’s look at our next example to shed a little light on that:

This latest pattern is a dead ringer for our first pattern but I’ve decided that I’d like my single guitar arrangement of Lay Lady Lay to contain some of the textures of the pedal steel guitar that accompanies Dylan in the original recording. Absurd, you say? Well, I certainly cannot make my acoustic sound like a pedal steel, even on a good day. But by mimicking some of the notes and licks by use of a hammer-on, such as at the end of both the Bm and F chords here in this example, I can give the listener a bit of the flavor of the pedal steel guitar and hope that his or her mind fills in the rest.

The easiest way of getting these particular notes, you might notice, is by raising and lowering my index finger, just as if I were barring the second fret (for the Bm) or first fret (for the F). And if I want to emphasize the very low bass notes, as we did in Example 3, this would be the only way of accomplishing this. So now you’ve got another excellent reason for keeping up with the barre chord work.

Okay, just to keep this lesson from being too one dimensional, let’s tackle the “B” section of the verse:

In order to give this section a bit of its own identity, I’ve changed the picking pattern to more of a “straight down and up” sort of arpeggio while keeping the rhythm of the finger pattern of “Section A.” Note the use of the E (second fret of the D string) as the first bass note in the Em chord. This mimics the bass player in the original recording. Playing the B at the second fret of the A string for the second of bass note of the Em chord makes a nice lead down to the G (third fret of the low E (sixth) string) that starts the second measure.

This section also contains what most folks think of as the “signature lick” of this song, namely the little ornamentation at the end of the second measure. To play this, start by fingering an Am7 chord (x02010) and pinch only the D and B strings (the ones where your fingers are on). After performing the pinch, pull-off your fingers on both strings. Remember that you always want to tug down a little when you make a pull-off. That’s what gives you a good clear sounding of the notes of the open strings.

On the original recording, there is a slight variation on this lick, which I’ve included in our last example. To play this, first you’ll need to form a different voicing of Am7 (x02013) that uses either your ring finger or pinky on the third fret of the high E (first) string. Once you’ve formed your chord, play a “three finger pinch,” plucking the D string with your thumb, the B string with the index finger and the high E (first) string with your middle finger and then perform the pull-off on the D and B strings as before while leaving whichever finger you have on the third fret of the high E (first) string, firmly in place.

This signature riff, as well as the “multi-finger pinch,” shows up again in the bridge:

I should note that I deliberately used both the finger patterns from “Section A” and “Section B” for the bridge, but you can feel free to go with either one or the other. Truth be told, I originally wrote it all out in the style of “Section B” but found myself playing the first measure of the bridge in the style of “Section A” and subsequently re-wrote the music! Sometimes your fingers just do what they want to do!

In the second and sixth measures, you’ll find three block chords (D, Em and G) that require a multi-finger pinch. The easiest solution is to use the thumb on the bass note (the open D string or the open low E (sixth) or the G at the third fret of that same string), the ring finger on the high E (first) string, the middle finger on the B string and the index finger on the G string. Another possible method is to use any finger to “sweep’ across all three high strings in an upstroke motion while playing the bass note with the thumb. Both techniques work fine.

In the final measure of the bridge, I throw in another little guitar lick, taken directly from the original recording. This involves playing the open high E (first) string, and then playing the D note at the third fret of the B string before pulling off to sound the open B. After all the work you’ve done so far, this should prove to be a snap.

To put the finishing touches on our arrangement, let’s add an outro:

Here the chords simply ascend up the G major scale, going from G to Am to Bm and then to C. Surprisingly, this is the first use of this chord that normally shows up every two to three chords in the key of G!

This entails a little more complicated picking pattern than before, but you can also use either the pattern from “Section A” or “Section B” of the verse if you’d prefer. Try, though, to pinch the first notes of the chord that I’ve written out as it makes for a very nice melodic line to close the song, moving from the open B string to the C note at the first fret to the D note at the third fret and then to the open E of the first string. Once there, use your pinky to get the G note at the third fret of the first string and then slide the pinky up to the seventh fret for the final note. When you’ve reached it, you’ll also play the G note at the third fret of the low E (sixth) string with your index finger. This is a bit of a stretch and normally I wouldn’t think about trying it, but having the capo at the second fret makes this a lot easier and, again, it mimics the slide guitar part played on the original recording.

And now that we have all our pieces in place, let’s try out the whole thing:

I hope that you’ve hung out and tried the various exercises and techniques involved in this lesson. Part of this, obviously, is meant to both encourage and light a fire under you to get you going on feeling more comfortable with barre chords. Part of it is selfish, as well. We’re going to be doing some lessons in the very near future on Jack Johnson songs that will actually be less involved than what you’ve just accomplished and I don’t want to have to put all of these songs in the “Intermediates” section when you truly would be able to handle them if you simply worked a little on them with some concentrated effort.

Anyway, I also hope that you had fun with it as well. This is a beautiful song that you’ll probably find yourself playing over and over again and wondering what all the fuss about barre chords was about in the first place!

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…