Yesterday – The Beatles

Paul McCartney Live

Playing the guitar can seem daunting when first starting out. Being able to combine the different elements of playing – picking, strumming, bass lines and voice leading – into a single song appears formidable.

But once you’ve learned some basic chords and can strum without thinking too much about it, you start to think “Is this all there is?” And this is where you start to find that all those things that seemed so hard – the bass line here, the little fill there – are welcome obstacles. You look for all the little things that can make your playing stand out a bit more. This is what arrangements are all about. You come up with a way to play a song so that you can showcase it to the best of your abilities.

In addition to the ever present disclaimer, you’re probably also a tad weary of me going on (and on) (and on) about how these lessons are not direct note for note transcriptions of the original recordings. But this is important to remember.

When you sign on with a teacher, whether you know it or not, you sign on to his or her way of playing. I can only teach you what I know. I play according to my own tastes and quirks. It is up to you to take the next step, which is to use my teachings, or any of the other influences that you take in, only as a way of coming up with your own style, your own arrangements.

Take today’s song, Yesterday, for instance. The version I intend to show you is (big surprise here) not the original recording. While it is based on the Beatles’ original song, my arrangement also incorporates elements that I like to use in my own playing, such as moving bass lines and the use of inverted thirds and chord shapes to use as vocal cues. I’ve also added classical-style block chords, which I’ve found invaluable as teaching tools for my own students.

Yesterday‘s structure consists of a verse section and a bridge section. The verse is played twice. Then you play the bridge, then a third verse. The bridge and final verse then repeat, and an “outro” or “coda,” consisting of the last line of the verse, closes the song. Shall we take a good look at these sections?

Before we go on, let me add one last note: the original recording of Yesterday is in the key of F major. If you look at almost any piece of sheet music, you should find it in this key. It’s a bear of a key to play on guitar, so this arrangement is in G. If you want to play along with the recording, you will need to tune down a whole step so that your guitar is in DGCFAD.

From what I understand, this is how Paul played it when he wrote it. I’ve also heard that he wrote it on piano one morning after dreaming of the melody in his sleep. Since I wasn’t there, I cannot tell you for certain exactly what transpired. But I can show you how to play this song, which is supposedly one of the most recorded songs in the (relatively short) history of recorded music.

The Verse

The verses are primarily straight chords, strummed or picked in eighth notes. We are going to use a traditional (and very basic) form of finger-style playing. On the first and third beats, we will strike the bass note of the chord and follow it with three eighth notes of the chord itself:

Takedown Notice

These are the first two measures of the song and they establish two important things: the rhythmic pattern that the song will follow and the bass line, which will guide the song on its way. I play this in what I’ve called in other lessons “Jose Feliciano” style – I use my thumb to pluck the bass note and my fingers (or fingers and thumb) to pluck the chords on the higher strings. For the chords in these two measures, I use my thumb on lower notes of the chords, like this:

Finger placement is important here. While there are many ways of playing F#m7, the second chord, there is pretty much only one fingering for the B7. I grab the bass note of the F#m7 (the F# on the second fret of the low E (6th) string) with my thumb, but I know this is not everyone’s cup of tea. Here are various fingerings you might try:

Chord charts for correct fingering of F#m7 and B7 chord
Chord charts for correct fingering of F#m7 and B7 chord - 2
Chord charts for correct fingering of F#m7 and B7 chord - 3

The thing to consider, as you try out different ways of dong this, is what allows you to play this progression as smoothly as possible. That’s the big question for any arrangement you might come up with: Can you play it? Not to state the obvious or anything, but what good is a great arrangement if you can’t play it? Take the time to figure out what works for you. There have been times when I’ve had to change a lot of things in a song in order to make them simple enough for me to play. There is nothing wrong with this. As you get better, you will start re-arranging songs to reflect the new theory you’ve learned and the new techniques you can perform.

Let’s move on to the rest of the verse:

These measures continue on with the same rhythm pattern as before. The only difference is that we break up the third and fourth beats of the measure of Em with a descending bass line. Because all of these chords are played on the first four strings only, I don’t need to use my thumb to play the chord portion.

The end of the verse requires a little attention with regards to timing:

Here, the chords follow the melody. In fact, I use these partial chords to have the exact melody line at the forefront. But it’s important to keep the chords separate from the bass line, which is still in straight quarter notes:

Download midi

This is simply a matter of practice. Let me throw out another “gem” of advice that will make you squirm: do this as slowly as you have to, to get it right. One thing that always helps me is to play just the bass notes and then sing the melody. This will show you where the chords are going to go.

The next to last measure of the verse returns us to the original rhythmic pattern. I use these particular chord voicings because I like the way the descending note on the B string plays against the melody line. You can chose to use regular Em and A chords here if you so desire.

We end the verse with the same C to G progression used in the fifth measure, only we play the bass in unison with the chords. This gives us a chance to take a short breath before going on to repeat the verse or, if we’ve already done so, move on to the bridge.

The Bridge

To me, the bridge is the fun part of the song. The chord changes come fast and furious, and there are lots of interesting chord voicings to play while maintaining the bass line and the rhythm. We start out with a slightly different version of the second measure of the verse:

Please note that the F#m7add4 is not really a “sus” chord, as many people might be tempted to call it. Why? Because we’re still playing the third of the chord, the A. This is why we’re calling it a minor chord! Consider this the trick question portion of the lesson. Or think of it as my way of making sure that we study some theory.

But why use this voicing at all? Here in the bridge, I intend to play the melody line all the way through, and this is where it is: on the B note that matches the open B string. Again, I cannot stress enough that this is a preference of mine. Most transcriptions of Yesterday will tell you to play the same chords as those in the second measure of the verses, which is a perfectly fine alternative.

Things get really interesting with the next measure. The melody line ascends three notes while the bass line is descending at the same time. This is something that is done a lot to good effect and might be worth remembering the next time you’re stuck while writing a song.

Because the chords change every beat, we are going to go with the simplest thing: straight first position chords, but playing a voicing of C major that uses the G note on the high E string. When we get to this chord, you should be fretting the first string with your pinky and the bass note (C on the third fret of the A string) with your ring finger. Now, simply slide your pinky and ring finger down one fret, while removing your index and middle fingers from the fretboard, and you will be in position for the Em9/B. That couldn’t have been easier, no?

This technique, by the way, of playing chords which are voiced in such a manner to actually play the melody, is used a lot in jazz. Some people call it “melodic chording” and some “chordal melody” and there are a lot of other names for it, too.

Let’s move on:

The next chord, the Am7add6, is a good example of what I was talking about earlier – making certain you can play something. Even though I like the sound of this full chord, I cannot always get my fingers into place fast enough to play it at tempo. Since I don’t need to play the full chord, I will often replace it with a partial voicing:

As you can hear, there is a distinct difference between the two chords. But playing one instead of the other does not detract from the song itself. You have to go with what you can do at the moment. For me, it means I don’t have to worry about getting a finger down on the D string, which is what slows me up when I play this at tempo.

The bridge repeats these four measures (making it a true “middle eight” for those of you interested in such things), but the melody changes for the last two measures the second time around:

We compensate for this by playing a standard D chord instead of the Dsus2 we used the first time. I like to use this voicing of the G for the ending because that allows me to have my finger in place on the D note (third fret, B string) for the signature descent back into the verse.

Showing Off

I’ve taking the liberty of adding a few flourishes in the third verse. I tend to do this when performing if I’ve gotten a little restless and don’t want to play the same exact thing three times in a row. In Yesterday, I get to play the verse four times so I like to put in a little variety, even if it’s something as small as this.

The verse plays out the same for the first three-and-a-half measures. Where we would normally change to the D chord, though, I switch to playing a series of inverted thirds:

Download midi

Why? This gives me a chance to double the melody line (the notes on the B and G strings) while also adding a single harmony line (the inverted thirds on the D and A strings). The abrupt change from a full chord to a two-part harmony gives the song a little more dramatic punch, which, quite frankly, it can certainly use. I continue this technique into the following measure, using a hammer-on to accentuate the notes from the C chord. You can also pull-off to get the open B and D strings if you so desire.

And just to hammer home the point, I add a harmony note (the A note on the second fret of the G string) to the descending bass line we’ve already established in the first two verses. It’s an incredibly little thing, but to my ears it adds a lot.

Please don’t let the term “inverted thirds” confuse you. If you think of the initial D in the melody, F# would be its third. This is pretty standard harmony. The thing is that I am playing the F# lower than the D, so it is inverted. Some people call this a sixth. It’s one of those things that depend on what (and how) you were taught, certainly not worth arguing over or losing sleep or friends about.

The “coda” or “outro” is simply a repetition of the last two measures of the verses. You should gradually slow down the tempo here and finish with a nice full G chord, which you can hold to your heart’s content.

Okay, shall we play the whole thing? For those of you with a metronome, 110 beats per minute is a good pace.

Download midi

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson and playing this song. I like to fill these intermediate lessons with a number of different things so that you can see how it’s possible to work lots of ideas into your own playing. Whether you play original songs or arrangements of other songs you really like, always look for the little things you can do to make them fun to play over and over again.

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 Forum page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until 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.