The Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young

Neil Young - The Needle and the Damage Done

As you might imagine, I get a lot of requests for songs here at Guitar Noise. You’ll notice I said “songs” and not “song lessons.” It’s a fine distinction and it’s why a lot of requests may not make it onto our pages. If there’s not more to a lesson than “Here’s how to strum this song,” then there’s really no lesson.

And don’t get me wrong. It’s not that some songs have nothing to teach us; it’s far more often that I simply am not certain what the song lesson should be about. Take today’s song, Neil Young’s The Needle and The Damage Done, originally from the Harvest album.

On the surface, there’s not an awful lot to this short, yet powerfully moving song. It consists of eight measures that get repeated over and over again. And, believe it or not, the brevity of the song is precisely what makes it worth discussing with you. Because of the structure of the song, it’s very much up to the single guitarist to make this an interesting arrangement. And that’s (hopefully) what we’ll do! Let’s take a look at the very basics of The Needle and the Damage Done and then work up an arrangement that is interesting, challenging and (because this is a lesson, remember!) also gives us some things that we can use in our every day guitar playing.

I probably should point out that I’ve heard this song done in numerous ways over the past thirty years! We’re going to opt for a version much like the one Neil Young uses in his Unplugged album of 1993 (1993? I’ve got to stop looking these things up!).

As I mentioned, this song is basically eight measures that repeat over and over again. Initially, two repetitions of the eight bars make up the introduction and then each subsequent repetition is a verse, which is sung. After two verses, there’s an interlude, made up of (yes, you guessed it!) the same eight measures. Then two more verses are sung, the last verse is sung a second time and then the outro is made up (wait for it) those same eight measures again. Okay, I fooled you! The outro uses only the first four measures and leaves everyone hanging.

The first four measures of Needle involve the use of a descending bass line that pretty much defines the chord progression. Let’s look:

Chord progression D - C - G/B - Gm/Bb

We’ve run into this sort of bass line before in many of our earlier lessons. By now it must be old hat to you! We start with the D note in the bass for a D major chord. Then, as the bass line descends from D to C to B and then to Bb, the chords change along with the bass notes; the D chord moves to C which then goes to G (with the B note in the bass) and finally Gm, which uses the Bb note as its bass tone . One of the things we’re going to do today is to use this descending bass line to change our chord and still try to keep a lot of the initial D chord alive.

Here’s what I mean: if you listen to the very first measure of the Unplugged arrangement, you can hear Neil play something like this on his guitar:

Takedown Notice

This is a very basic technique that you’ve undoubtedly heard time and time again. After strumming the first two single notes of the D chord (the open D string and the A note on the second fret of the G string), he plays a downstroke on the rest of the D chord and, immediately removing his finger from the second fret of the high E (first) string, gets a Dsus2 on the upstroke. He then finished the measure with a couple of partial chord strikes on the B, G and D strings, which allow that open high E string to ring out. It makes a very nice effect.

So what I want to do, and what he does a lot, is to recreate this effect in the following chords. This means changing the chords slightly from what you’ll normally see in a TAB version on the internet:

Chord progression D - Dsus2 - Cadd9 - Gmaj7/B - G6/B - Gm6/Bb

Now, I’m truly being anal here in listing these chords out this way! What I want you to understand is that people often don’t even think of things like Example #2 as being much other than “playing around” with the D chord. As I told the folks who attended the first Guitar Noise Seminar a few weeks back, it never hurts to keep your fingers moving!

But there is a reason that some things will sound better than others. That is truly what music theory is all about, seeing the reasons. Or, to put it more aptly, hearing the reasons. You should be able to see that these chords are simply variations of the chords we listed in Example #1. D becomes Dsus2 by removing the F# (second fret) from the first string. Keeping the D note (third fret of the B string) in place when we change from D to C will give us Cadd9. Adding the F# again to the first string, instead of the G note (third fret) we usually play when we play the G chord makes it Gmaj7, here with the B note in the bass. And finally, we create G6/B and Gm6/Bb by having the open high E (first) string ring out over the G and Gm chords with which we started.

Now that I know what chords I want to use, I want to come up with a good way of strumming them. Since I like the way the first measure sounds, I use that as a template for the other three measures:

This looks trickier than it actually is. The key is to realize that you’re not playing the D string during the measures of C, G and Gm. So your fingers will be free to maneuver. Start with your normal D chord. You’ll remove your middle finger from the second fret of the high E (first) string in order to get the open E string for the fourth set of notes. That’s the finger you’ll place on the C note (third fret of the A string) to start the next measure. As you place the middle finger on the C, simply remove your index from the G string. Don’t move it too far! When you start the third measure, place the index finger on the second fret of the A string (the B note in the bass) and place your middle finger back on the second fret of the first (high E string). Again, you’ll remove the middle finger at the appropriate place during the third measure, creating a G6/B to replace the Gmaj7/B. For the fourth measure, all you need do is slide the index finger down from the second fret of the A string to the first.

You should note how economical this is. The strumming pattern holds the same in all four measures and you can hear how the similarities between measures one and three and between measures two and four hold this portion of the song together. And not being hampered by fretting the D string during the measure of C ensures that you can let the strings ring out.

Also (and always) remember that you should feel free to use this pattern as a starting point. Using partial chords during measures two and four will certainly sound good. Using single notes for the last three eighth notes in measures one and three will also sound fine. Play around with it and see what you come up with and be sure to take notes of what you like!

What Neil does in the last four measures is very interesting, at least to me. In terms of theory, one can argue this in all sorts of ways. You might see the Gm6/Bb as a pivot chord so that the song modulates from D major to D minor (which is the relative minor of F major). You might also pose that it abruptly switches tonality from D to Am. Does it truly matter? Only if you enjoy arguing things long into the night…

What we’re concerned with is what happens in the measures of C and F. Here Neil takes a classic little boogie-woogie / blues / rock lick and makes it part of the strumming pattern. First, let’s look at the riff:

Boogie-woogie riff

There’s no MP3 with this because I want you to play it yourself! Sound at all familiar? I’m certain you’ve heard this a million times or more. It usually pops up as a bass line, but here in The Needle and The Damage Done we’ll use it, as I mentioned, as part of the rhythm. How? Glad you asked:

If there’s any trick to this, it’s to remember to keep in motion, and that means both hands. Sometimes it’s best to concentrate on one hand at a time and I almost always suggest that you start with the rhythm. You want your picking hand to make short, concise strokes. The first measure, the one of the C chord, keeps the same pattern we used in the first four measures. But then you’ve got two measures (the F and the Esus4) that are straight eighth notes – just down and up and down and up and it really couldn’t be much simpler.

When you feel you’ve got the strumming down, work on the chords. Begin with the C chord. Your middle finger does all the moving here. Use it to hammer-on to the second fret of the D for the E note and then use it to finger the A note at the second fret of the G string.

The measure of F (or Fsus4, F, Fsus2, F if you want me to go back to being anal about things!) is easy because we’re only going to be picking the B, G and D strings. So begin by making a very basic F chord (fingering: XX321X) with your index finger on the first fret of the B, your middle finger on the second fret of the G and your ring finger on the third fret of the D string. Now add your pinky to the third fret of the G and you’re all set to play the Fsus4! Stroke down on the D and G strings and then up on the B string. And kudos to those of you who recognize this use of the C note (first fret of the B string) as a pedal point. It has been a while since we’ve seen that! Take your pinky off and when you stroke down and up again you get the F chord. Now remove your middle finger (which should be getting a lot of exercise today, no?) and you’ve got the Fsus2. And place the middle finger back where it came from for the final F of this measure.

I should mention that this measure of F is an excellent exercise to use to practice your partial chord picking. This whole song is, really, but especially this measure since you’re working solely on the middle strings of the guitar. Take you time and get comfortable with this now and you’ll find other songs you might have passed up before are a breeze to you now that you’ve taken the time to sharpen your skills.

Before we move on to the lest two measures, I’d also like to point out that while this is pretty close to what Neil Young plays in the intro (and interludes) of this song, during the verses when he’s singing, he tends to use a straight strumming of these two voicings of these chords:

Chord charts for C and Fadd9

If you can play this version and sing the song at the same time, more power to you!

Okay, back to the final two measures! What I’ve given you here is, like all the other patterns, a starting place. I find that when I’m performing this song, or playing it while someone else is singing, that these two measures tend to be played in all sorts of ways, depending on the emotional vibe going on. But I do almost always find myself playing something very close to this.

I start out with the E chord instead of the Esus4 so that I can hammer-on from the G# (first fret of the G) to the A (second fret). Then I can play around on that A note before going back to the G# in the next measure. Also, I find that when I play this song strictly finger style (I am using a pick in all these examples), that I often switch to the “E to Am” walk that we learned in the lesson, Your Song:

Now when you put it all together, that is, the first four measures and the second four measures, it should sound something like this:

And once you’ve got the music all squared away, all you need are the lyrics to sing along with:

And that’s the whole thing! I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing around with this song. It’s amazing how involved some of these short pieces can be and there’s a lot here that you can work on and use in the other songs you know. Just remember to keep your fingers moving!

Remember, too, that this is a very powerfully moving piece. You want to make the arrangement interesting and involving, but you certainly don’t want it to overpower the singing. Try different things out and see what you can come up with.

And, 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.