One of the joys of teaching guitar is the look of amazement on a student’s face when he or she is playing a song and everything starts to click. The chords, the riffs, the fingering, the timing – it’s all there and no one is probably more pleased than the pupil. Time and time again we will start on a lesson which at first seems very difficult and then, almost by magic, it all falls into place.
This is particularly gratifying for me when it happens on a song that most people, let alone just guitarists, would not think of teaching as a “guitar” song. To me, music is music and if it has notes, then you can play it on any instrument you like. This is not to say that the new “interpretation” of a song is going to be a work of art – far from it. But more often than not, if you pass up a song simply because you don’t think of it as a guitar song, you might be missing out on a chance to play something very interesting. The worst thing that can happen is that you might learn a thing or two. Perish the thought, no?
Today we’re going to discuss and demonstrate some concepts in theory that (some of) you might consider too “advanced” for a beginner. Perhaps we should discuss that as well. To me, a beginner is not only about learning things. And there are, as you well know, a lot of things to learn. It is also about getting acquainted with new ideas. One has to start someplace, even if you are merely introducing yourselves to concepts that you will study in earnest further along. I found it very interesting that some people found the introduction to slide guitar in If Not For You to be “a bit beyond the scope of a beginner” while no one voiced any such sentiments concerning the alternating bass line in Margaritaville or the concept of twelve bar blues, not to mention the blues shuffle, in Before You Accuse Me. Go figure.
Speaking of which, you might want to review all of those before tackling this lesson’s song. Yes, I know, sneaky, sneaky. But we are at the point that you should be able to see that we’re building upon the concepts we’ve learned from earlier lessons. Perhaps I should tell you to look over Feelin’ Alright and Three Marlenas as well, since both alternate chord voicings and passing chords (like the A7sus4 in the latter song) pop up later on in this lesson, too. Is there no end to the madness?
So what are we learning today? Let me offer up to you Riders On The Storm, by the Doors, originally released on the album L.A. Woman. Believe it or not, this is a blues song. At least in terms of song structure. Really. It consists of four verses (the fourth verse is a repeat of the first), and each one is twelve measures in length. Here are the chords for the first and the lyrics for the other two:
To be helpful, I’ve written this out so that each line is two measures long. Now, we remember from our earlier lesson that a normal twelve bar blues follows this pattern:
Okay, now let’s compare this to the pattern in Riders:
Here you’ll see that we’re fine up to measure nine. Instead of going V to IV (which would be Bm to Am in the key of E minor), we go VII to VI, which is D to C. But think about this: D major is the relative major of B minor while Am is the relative minor to C major. All we did was to substitute the relative major chords of the V and IV. This is a very basic form of what many guitar books call “chord substitution” or “progression embellishment” or some other incredibly pompous sounding phrase designed to make you think “all this fancy stuff is beyond me!” It is simply the songwriter’s choice and in this case it livens up a song that would otherwise sound a lot like The Thrill Is Gone.
The focus of our lesson today is chord substitution. What we’re going to do is to take each of the four measure sets of our twelve bar blues pattern and come up with a more interesting way to play them. Perhaps a better way to think of this is that we are going to forgo our usual routine of strumming such and such a chord for so many beats or measures and instead play a riff. But instead of the riff being made up of single notes, it’s made up of chords!
Reshuffling The Deck
Or better yet, think of it as a shuffle made up of chords.
First, let’s concentrate on the Em sections, which only makes sense since it’s two thirds (eight of the twelve measures) of any given verse! Listening to the original recording of this song, the primary instrument, that is, the one our ears tend to focus upon, is the electric piano. After a bit of an introductory solo, the keyboard settles down into playing a blues shuffle. But it’s obviously not the typical blues shuffle we learned earlier. Just to review quickly, a typically standard blues shuffle involves playing the root note and the fifth and then alternating the fifth with the sixth. In the key of E, we’d be doing this:
We should note here that even though this song is in E minor, we appear to be using the sixth from the major scale. Now, you could look at this as using the melodic minor scale, but then you’ll be giving yourself a real headache when we get to the next step. Let’s just say that the conventional thing to do with a shuffle is to go from the fifth up one whole step to the six. Try using a C natural in this example (third fret on the A string instead of the fourth) and see how weird it sounds.
Here, though, the shuffle is going beyond the sixth note of the scale. In fact it ascends to the seventh before coming back down. And, again, convention dictates that this is a flatted (or dominant) seventh. Here are two ways of playing this shuffle:
But if you listen very carefully to the electric piano, you’ll hear something even more interesting. Along with the lead note of the shuffle, the note a third below is also being played. Here is a rough approximation of the keyboard’s shuffle, just so you can hear it yourself:
This is what is known as a chordal shuffle or a harmony shuffle (again with the fancy names!). Coming up with a guitar part to mimic this is really no sweat. Hey! Let’s do a bunch of them. But before we do that, let’s talk about it for a moment. A little planning can go a long way.
First, how about we examine the notes involved in this chordal shuffle? Since the second and fourth chords are the same we need only look at the first three:
The first chord is a straight E minor triad. The second chord is an A major chord! How about that? The third chord could be a lot of things but for now we’ll think of it as an Em7, which would be E, G, B and D. Except here, in this voicing, there is no third. I do plan to use it in the full chord, though. Are we cool with that? If so, then let’s give it a try, shall we?
Now this sounds more like we’d like it to sound, but I still think it can be better. So what I’m going to do is to play around a little bit and see if I can’t find some different chords or chord voicings that will both jazz things up a bit and flow a little smoother. And it’s funny that I used the word “jazz,” but that’s the way my brain works sometimes. The first thing that I think of when I think of jazz is third upon third, triads stacked to the sky. If you’ve read my piece Building Additions and Suspensions you probably know where I’m going with this. I think another look at our chordal shuffle chords is in order:
You can see that by adding an additional third to both the A and the Em7, I’ve come up with an A7 and an Em9. I really like the way the A7 sounds in the progression. Trying out different voicings of Em9, I come up with what is essentially an Am chord shoved up two frets. The cool thing about this is that I can either dampen or not play the A string or I can play it and call my new chord an Em11! It helps to have a fallback for those times when I hit the wrong string by accident. Here, then, are the chords and voicings I have chosen to use for my “Em shuffle” in Riders On The Storm:
Now that I have my progression, I need to have a strumming or picking pattern to play as well. Here are a bunch of them, ranging in tone and complexity. You will notice that they employ a variety of techniques that we’ve used in past lessons.
Shuffle #1 is a relatively straightforward strumming pattern, the sort that any rhythm guitarist should have in his or her repertoire. It involves the use of “anticipation,” that is the chord change actually occurs a half beat before the beat. We’ve discussed this before both here and in Dan Lasley’s Bass For Beginners pages. It also uses a percussive stroke or full palm muting on the second and fourth beats. I would try using these strokes for this:
Also, I do tend to strum all six strings on the Em9 here so, yes, you can call it an Em11 if you’d like.
I do tend to fingerpick more often than not and shuffles #2 and 3 reflect this stylistic quirk. As usual, I use my thumb to cover the the fourth, fifth and sixth (D, A and E) strings while plucking the first, second and third strings in an upstroke motion with my ring, middle and index fingers respectively. These two shuffles may at first glance seem to be very similar, but you can hear quite a difference when you play them. Number three is a fairly close approximation of the electronic piano of the original recording while the second shuffle has a more laid-back feel to it. Using an alternating bassline during the inital Em chord provides a nice transition to the A7
The fourth shuffle can be played with a pick or your fingers or even a combination of the two. I like to do a sweeping downstroke on the full chords and then get the next three notes on the upstroke. We run into the anticipation technique again on the A7 chords and I also took the liberty of tossing in a quick fill, based on some simple pull-offs on the second fret, just to spice things up a bit more.
None of these should give you any real problems if you take them nice and slowly to start. You don’t even have to use these particular examples. Like everything I show you, they are simply meant to be guides for you to use in exploring what your guitar has to offer:
So, wherever you see a line of “Em” in this song, feel free to use one of these two measure shuffles instead. If you’re playing with a group of people let me advise that you pick one and stick with it. Consistency in rhythm is more important than showing off.
Breaking Things Up
On to the line of A minor! Once again looking to the electric piano on the recording for inspiration, we can hear a “shuffle-ish” procession of chords. What is going on here is that the keyboard is progressing from the Am back up to the Em and using all the triads in between, (Am, Bm, C, and D) on its way up to the root. And while this sounds very dramatic, listen to how much more interesting we can make it by keeping an A note in the bass (with our open A string):
Okay, now I know that some of you are saying, “Wait a minute! The B(add4)/A is the same exact fingering as the Em9 we use in the Em shuffle. What’s going on?”
Well, you’re absolutely right about that. This is part of the wonder and frustration of chords. More often than not, what we call a chord is a function of what the chord is doing in a song. During the Em shuffle, we are establishing the Em modality. Here we are doing an ascension of chords from A to E, so thinking of it in terms of B makes much more sense. This may not seem like such a big deal to you, but it can be. Imagine that someone tells you that you’re playing blues in F so the I, IV, V chords are F, A# and C. Most musicians would say F, Bb and C. Both answers are correct but the second one will keep your fellow players from thinking that you’ve just had a nasty head injury or something.
I like to also emulate the rhythmic pattern here in this part of the song, accenting the eighth notes on the first and third beats. Here are two ways of doing it:
So, again, start out by playing two sets of your Em chordal shuffle and then, when you come to the Am line, play one of these Am to D progressions. Then it’s back to one Em.
Okay, we’re almost finished; all that’s left is the next to last line of the verse. Since we’ve been basing much of our arrangement on the recording, let’s examine how these two measures (one of D and one of C) are played.
Following along with the recording once more, I find that really accenting the first two beats of the D packs a lot of punch. Occasionally, I will throw in a little flourish, say an arpeggio based on a Dsus4 or Dsus2 (or both), but quite often I’m content to leave the last two beats as a rest.
For the measure of C, I switch my rhythm again to accent the lyrics. This involves playing strong eighth notes on the first and third beats, much as we did in the Am shuffle. But on the third beat, I like to also mimic the vocal line, which slightly dips a little in tone. One good way to do this is to throw in a Cmaj7add9 voicing on the downbeat followed immediately by a regular C on the upstroke. This is nowhere near as difficult as it sounds. In fact, you’ll laugh at how easy it is. To play a Cmaj7add9, you play a normal C chord but leave the B string (major 7) and D string (add 9) open, like this:
And here’s how these two measures look:
See? Nothing hard here, is there? So let’s go back to our original TAB of the song and throw in our new riffs whenever we see the appropriate chord. For the first two lines of any verse, we will play an Em shuffle. Then the Am shuffle and then one more Em. Finish it all off with the D to C transition and one last Em shuffle and you’ve got yourself a song.
Again, the main point of this lesson is to show you that sometimes it is possible, even desirable, to play something other than what the TAB dictates. Over the course of these lessons, and the ones on the Intermediates’ page, you will get a chance to learn what kind of chord substitutions, embellishments, whatever, work and in which circumstances you should feel free to use them.
I hope that this has been fun for you. If you’re interested, we will be continuing these topics in the upcoming lesson Moondance, which will be online soon on the Intermediate’s page.
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@example.com.
Until next lesson…
Bass players: check out this lesson’s companion piece The Open Road.