It’s The Same Old Song… Or Is It?
Like virtually every other person who’s ever picked up a guitar, I started by learning some easy chords – Em, E, Am, A, D – all in open position. Then I picked up G, C and F and various seventh chords.
Of course, there was a book involved. I’m a little hazy on the details as this was way back in the mid1970’s. And, of course, when your parents buy a guitar tutorial book and they have no experience whatever of guitars, that book’s going to have very little relevance to the kind of music you want to play. Instead of rock ‘n’ roll songs, my particular book had songs like “Skip to My Lou” and “Three Blind Mice.”
I struggled a lot in those early days. One of my gripes was that everything I played sounded the same. Hardly surprising, since everything was either G Em C and D, or A D and E. Easy chords, you see. Why complicate matters? I did move on to barre chords eventually, and learned a blues shuffle from somewhere.
I did get very good at transposing, though. E A and B? No, I’ll do it in A because A D and E’s easier. Bb, Gm, Eb and F? Thanks, but no thanks! G, Em, C and D will do me.
And that’s the way things went for years. Too many years. I got lazy – those few chords were all I needed, why learn more? Never bothered much with lead guitar since I had a slide for that.
But still, at the back of my mind, there was a vague dissatisfaction. Why am I not a great guitarist by now? I’ve been playing for so many years I should be really good by now.
In the end, like many other would-be guitarists, I just drifted away from the guitar completely. I was a single parent with a two-year-old child to look after, and money was in short supply; it would be quite a few years before I touched a guitar again.
Fast-forward a few years: the daughter’s now ten years old, and her best friend’s just got a guitar. Of course, my daughter wants a guitar too! So I managed to scrape a few pounds together and bought a cheap steel-strung acoustic from a second hand shop. Of course, she wants to learn how to play – and I’ll never forget the look on her face when I picked up the guitar and played “Stand By Me” for her. G, Em, C and D of course.
“I didn’t know you could play guitar, Dad!”
“Well – I know a few chords and stuff. Want me to show you?”
The answer to that was “yes,” so I had to remember what I knew from years ago. To my surprise, I found that a few years without going near an instrument had done me good. I re-discovered my love for playing the guitar, and even though the guitar I’d bought her was a fairly cheap one, I found it quite easy to play.
It wasn’t long before Kayleigh (named after the Marillion song) couldn’t get to play the guitar because I was hogging it. So naturally, I had to buy another guitar…same second-hand shop, another cheap acoustic, and fortunately it was another decent guitar. Really enjoyed playing it, especially after so long away!
It wasn’t very long before I’d built up some decent calluses – now all I had to do was learn to play guitar properly so’s I could teach Kayleigh, and her friend, to play. But as these things tend to happen, the pair of them got bored with guitar after a couple of weeks. Too much like hard work. They both ended up getting a cheap keyboard instead – I’ve still got the one I bought Kayleigh, that didn’t last long either.
On the other hand, I didn’t get bored! On the contrary, I became almost obsessed with the guitar, spending hours and hours every single day practicing. And everything still sounded the same………
My daughter was responsible for the next breakthrough. She wanted to join the library. Having always been a voracious reader myself, naturally I took her there and decided to join, too. I discovered the library had a whole section dedicated to music – and not just autobiographies, actual sheet music. With guitar tab. Guitar tab? What the heck’s that? Sat down with a book and worked it out for myself. Hmm, some of these chord shapes are strange. Sus2? Cadd9? Cmaj7? Suddenly a whole new world was opening up – there was more to life than majors, minors and 7ths after all. And all these shapes are movable, too!
Daughter was responsible for the next breakthrough, too. She wanted a computer. Off to the shop to buy a PC, then. Perhaps I’ll get to use it too. I did. Long story short – I typed “on-line guitar lessons” in my search engine. I found a site which not only had lots of songs tabbed out, but that had forums where you could get almost an instant reply to any questions I might have. And boy, did I have a whole lot of questions!
I’d consider myself a fairly mediocre guitarist by this time, but since joining this particular site my guitar playing came on by leaps and bounds. It seemed like every time I paid a visit to the site I’d learn something new. Not only that, but it’d be explained in such a way that I could apply that knowledge in other areas of my playing. Little by little, I was picking up quite a useful arsenal of tips, tricks and (gasp!) music theory. I also learned the value of experimenting – playing around with open strings, different chord voicings and so on.
So here’s a little list of some of my favourite little tricks I’ve picked up over the past six years or so that I’d like to share with you:
1) Try different chord voicings. Instead of x02220 for an A chord, try x02225 or even x02255. Try different voicings with barre chords, too. Instead of 577655 for an A chord, try 577650.
While writing a song, I was fooling around with Em and Am chords, and came up with these voicings:
Em – 075000
Am – 077500
(okay, the open B string in the latter chord actually made it an Am(add9) chord – but it sounded good, and it was a nice easy change, so I kept it anyway!)
2) Experiment with a capo. If a song’s using A, D and E chords, try capoing at the second fret and playing G C and D chords, or maybe at the 7th fret using D G and A chords. This is a great trick if there are two or more guitarists playing; the different chord voicings will bring a nice full sound to any song.
When I’m jamming with a particular friend of mine, we always play “Maggie May.” He’ll play the open chords up near the headstock, and I’ll be playing with a capo on the 7th fret. Obviously, I’m using different chords, but they are transposed so we’re playing in the same key.
3) Experiment with open strings. If you’re playing a barre chord, try and double the root by leaving a string open. For instance, 355433 is a G chord. If you leave the G string open and play 355033, you’re changing the G chord into a G5 chord – almost a completely different chord by changing one string!
Again, I used this technique in another song I wrote. First I played that 355033 fingering for G5 and then slid that shape down two frets to 133011, which gave me an Fsus2 chord. Sounded good to my ears, so I kept it!
Try sliding those E- and A-shaped barre chords up and down the fretboard without the barre. You might be pleasantly surprised at some of the exotic sounding chords you can make. Leave the top E string open for the A-shaped barre chords; leave the B and E strings open for the E-shaped barres. Try it with Em and Am shaped barre chords too. “Melissa“ by The Allman Bros and “Riders on the Storm“ by The Doors both utilize that particular trick.
4) Find a good chord construction chart. Play around with roots, fifths, sevenths, ninths. Learn the fretboard, so’s you know where those fifths, sevenths, etc., are.
5) Experiment with pedal points and sustained notes. Hold certain strings so they play the same notes over and over again while you’re strumming, as discussed in this Guitar Noise lesson . “Wish You Were Here” is a good example of this.
Oasis’ “Wonderwall” is a song I’m more familiar with, so I’ll use that as an example. Basically, the chords used are G, Em, C, D and A but with a slight twist; your pinky goes on the top E string at the third fret and your ring finger goes on the B string at the third fret, and these two fingers stay in the same place throughout the song. Those two fingers change some of the chords; G is still G, 320033; Em becomes Em7, 022033; C becomes Cadd9, x32033; D becomes Dsus4, 200233; and A becomes A7sus4, 002233. Do make note that to play along with the CD that you want to put a capo on the second fret of your guitar!
6) Don’t be scared of making mistakes. Another song I wrote had a descending riff going from G6 played 355430 to an Amaj7 chord and it took me ages to find the right chord to go in between them! I only found it when I played the Amaj7 chord one fret too high (instead of x02120, I played x03230). This turned out it was a Dmadd9/A(!) – it sounded good, so I kept it.
That phrase, “it sounded good, so I kept it,” is a recurring theme in this article! Sometimes, you’ll stumble across a nice chord change by accident, almost. Don’t be afraid of keeping it or writing it down. If it sounds good to you, someone else’ll like it too.
This goes hand in hand with other good advice I’ve been given over the last few years (and one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had!) – keep a pen and a pad by your bedside. In fact, keep a pen and paper with you always! If you don’t, you’ll find that classic riff one night and it’ll be gone by morning. Always, always, always write it down! You will regret it if you don’t!
And my last piece of advice that I’d like to pass on from all the advice I’ve been given over the years? Just this: pick the guitar up and play. You’ll never learn anything from studying theory until you put it into practice!
I seem to have picked up quite a few little tricks like these over the years – I’ve tried to introduce them into my own songs, though sparingly, and I’ve noticed that “the same old song” tag no longer seems to apply. Strangely, my songs are beginning to sound like me…
All the best,