Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Kurt Cobain

There is a lot of music out there in the world. With the Internet, one has a seemingly endless supply of new music, some created even as you read this. There’s also a rich history of music going back hundreds (and thousands!) of years. Good songs are timeless and you shouldn’t discount a song simply because it’s older than you are. Or older than your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, for that matter!

Case in point, many people are familiar with the song Where Did You Sleep Last Night because Nirvana performed it on their MTV Unplugged performance (it’s also on the album issued from that performance) and they may assume that Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) wrote it since Kurt Cobain attributes the song to him. But historians have traced the song back to at least the 1870s, making it impossible for Leadbelly to have written it. While the song’s original author is unknown, it has been recorded and performed by hundreds (if not thousands) of artists since 1925, up to 2010.

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.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is known by many other names – In the Pines and Black Girl being two of the most common titles – but most arrangements tend to be a variation of Leadbelly’s numerous recordings of the songs. Depending on whose version of the song you listen to, you’ll hear different chord arrangements as well. Structurally, Where Did You Sleep uses a repeated eight-measure chord progression. Let’s assume for the moment that you want to play this in the key of E. Again, depending on whom you listen to, it will more likely than not that you’ll use one of the following three progressions, where each chord change is marked at every three beats (remember in 3/4 time each measure has three beats):

Example 1 - Progression #1
Example 1 - Progression #2
Example 1 - Progression #3

Sometimes you’ll hear this done with all power chords (also called “5” chords – check out the lesson Building Additions and Suspensions for more on those), which makes the song both a little darker and slightly sterile:

Example 2 - Power Chord Version

Nirvana’s arrangement, as well as the Mark Lanegan arrangement it seems to be derived from (Lanegan, a member of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, was a contemporary of Cobain’s and introduced him to the song), is done in a lowered standard tuning, Eb standard, to give it a even darker sound. If you’re not familiar with lowered standard tunings, you can read up on them in the old Guitar Column, On The Tuning Awry. In Eb Standard tuning, all six strings are tuned down one half step:

Tune down half a step

You certainly don’t have to play this song in lowered tuning. The final MP3 file that accompanies this lesson is in Eb standard, so bear that in mind if you try to play along with it. All the other MP3s are in E standard. I apologize in advance for this confusion.

There are interesting musical aspects to each of these progressions. For our arrangement, we’re going to work in some of the cool drones we can create in standard (or lowered standard tuning). In the key of E, whether E major or E minor, the root note is E and the fifth is B, which are the notes of the two open high strings. We can use these two open strings and arrange our chord selection to take advantage of the interesting voicings they can give us. We can also make use of the two open strings to work out chords that use either five or all six strings, giving us a fuller sound than one might expect from a single guitar:

Example 3

Rhythmically, it’s a good idea to keep this fairly simple. Start with a downstroke on the first beat and then use an upstroke on the second half of the third beat, like this:

Example 4

This may seem ludicrously simple, but once you have the accent of the beat down, you use your natural strumming motion to fill in the blanks. Those of you who have read the articles on strumming here, particularly the first article of the Getting Past Up and Down you know that keeping your strumming motion constantly going helps you keep the beat in a steady manner. What it also does is allow you to fill in space by lightly (and sometimes quite unintentionally!) brushing some strings as you pass by with your strum. This is one of those instances where you’ll drive yourself crazy if you’re following a “note by note” transcription, like those we covered in The Pattern Trap. So instead of writing out strings that will cause you to focus on the wrong aspect of playing, just listen:

Every time you try something like this, it’s going to be slightly different. You’ll catch a different string on an upstroke or hit the same string with slightly different pressure. That’s part of what makes playing so organic. You want to treasure that.

With the rhythm in your pocket, you can then add little touches like bass lines and such. Many performers borrow this one from Leadbelly’s versions:

Example 5

You can use this short chromatic climb in other places as well. For instance, when you move from the G6 chord to the Bsus4, it’s easy enough to hit the G note in the bass and then run through the A of the open A string and then the A# at the second fret of the A before landing on B.

I’ve also come up with one to play over the Bsus4 chord that I like to use instead of the Leadbelly version:

Example 6
Example 6 continued

This is essentially just moving down the E minor scale from B to G, throwing in partial chords on the upstrokes between the beats. You can opt for just the single bass notes, too. Giving the G note a little tug, which is essentially a quarter-step bend, gives it a blue note quality, placing the tone somewhere between G and G#. This is a technique used quite a lot in blues, rock and country guitar.

If you like, you can use a hammer-on to get the G note in the bass (third fret of the low E (sixth) string) at the third beat of the second measure. You can also use both the hammer-on and the quarter-step bend.

So if you put the whole progression together, and remember to take into account the many slight variations on the basic strumming you can play just by keeping your “sock puppet” strumming motion going, you’ll have an arrangement quite like this:

Example 7
Example 7 continued

There are many, many versions of this song, particularly as far at the lyrics go. In addition to Leadbelly’s (and Nirvana’s), which focus on the girl who spends the night in the pines, you’ll also find many that revolve around “the longest train.” I’ve used a bit from both in this version.

As I mentioned in the “Author’s Note” at the start of this lesson, this song is one that will be included in the upcoming book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar. Since the guitar is used more often than not to accompany a singer (who could be the guitarist, of course), the CD that comes with the book contains many examples of the guitar doing just that. I am honored that our own Nick Torres was willing to participate in this project by singing the vocals for almost all the songs (there are a number of instrumental and chord melody pieces as well as an original song of my own). Here is his wonderful take on Where Did You Sleep Last Night, done in Eb standard:

Download Chord Sheet

I hope that you have enjoyed this song lesson. I know that many people attach a bit of disdain to “traditional” songs, but a great song will be played regardless of its age and origin. There is a lot of music out there in the world. You should go digging through some of it that’s been around for ages and see (and hear) why they are still played hundreds of years after they’ve been written.

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…