Your Song – Elton John
If you’re an intermediate who sneaks a peek at the Easy Songs for Beginners Lessons (and hey, aren’t we all?), then you’ll know precisely what you’re in for today! Well, maybe not “precisely!” In this installment of “Songs for Intermediates” we’ll look at arranging a classic “piano song,” in this case Your Song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, for the single guitarist. So let’s get right to it, shall we?
Our last Beginners’ piece, Carole King’s It’s Too Late, allowed us to explore the driving, rhythmic pulsing style of accompaniment. Here we’re going to focus on an opposite approach, that of graceful arpeggios. Yes, that means to get ready for some finger picking! And I do know that some of you have waited breathlessly to read those words!
Before we go, though, let’s examine the song itself. Again, I have to apologize that it’s been ages since I’ve heard this and I don’t have the sheet music (or even a recording of it!), so we’re going to have to rely on my memory. And yes, feel free to make whatever jokes you wish about that! For whatever reason, I learned this song in Eb, which leads me to believe that at some point in my life I either originally figured it out that way from the recording (listening to the old radio back in the mid-seventies!) or that I saw this written out on some sheet music, perhaps glancing through a book at a music store. That’s how a lot of folks (gasp!) my age learned songs, you know. We’d go into a music store and memorize as much as we could and then buy a string or two so that we wouldn’t get thrown out for loitering. On occasion I might even buy a set of strings…But that’s enough reminiscing!
Kudos to those of you already reaching for your capo! I certainly don’t want to play in Eb major! But what shall we do? The logical choices would be either to put the capo on the first fret and play in D or put it on the third fret and play in C. We’re going to go with the latter solution and I’m hoping you’ll see why as we move along. But do, by all means, feel free to write it out in D as part of a transposition exercise.
As you can see, Your Song is very simple in terms of structure. There is a verse, then a chorus, then a second verse and a repeat of the chorus and then the last part of the chorus serves as an outro. To make matters even easier, the verse pretty much repeats itself – lines five, six and seven are mirrors of the first three lines and the last line is marginally different from the fourth.
We’ll begin with the first two chords, C and Fmaj7. I’m opting to use these as our introduction as well. Why? Believe it or not, mostly to not copy the original! Big surprise there, right? This is the sort of song I want to get into immediately, with as little fanfare as possible, so I’ll play the opening chords once or twice and then get right into the first verse.
But this doesn’t mean that I can’t be having fun or setting the tone of the piece. Let’s look at (and listen to!) some examples:
As I mentioned, our focus of this lesson is to imitate the tinkling piano’s flowing lines. But unlike a song such as Fields of Gold, for instance, where the arpeggios faithfully track the melody line, this will be more of an straight arpeggio accompaniment. We are going to rely solely on the singer for our melody lines while the guitar gracefully provides a thoughtfully flowing backdrop for the voice.
Yet, even though I’m going to essentially be finger picking throughout most of the song, I also want to punctuate the accompaniment with the occasional straight strum. It’s good for mixing things up as well as for providing a little nudge to the nuances of the phrasing. So I find that a downstroke (I usually use with just the thumb) on the Fmaj7 does just that; it’s a nice emphasis on the word “funny,” giving a short pause before continuing on with more arpeggios.
Example 1A gives you the absolute basic model – a slow, lilting arpeggio on the C chord, complete with a little hammer-on (done with the index finger) between the B and C notes to make it more interesting, and a slow downstroke on the Fmaj7 chord. I immediately dampen this to cut it short and then do a second downstroke to let it ring throughout the remainder of the measure. This is (as those of you who read the It’s Too Late lesson know) to imitate the use of the pedals a pianist might use.
This “basic” approach is certainly good. But I want you to feel free to experiment. A pianist will often fill in the “blank spaces” as a guitarist might. The thing I try to do, whether as a guitarist or in those frightful (for the audience!) instances when I sit behind a keyboard, is to keep my flourishes “within” me. That is, I’m not going to play something that is bound to go beyond my control (or maybe not! read on…). I want to maintain either the chord shape I am on or move onto the next one in a fluid manner.
By the bye, you’re going to see me use a lot of different variations of F and Fmaj7 in this lesson. Here I am using the fingering X33210 because I like keeping the C note in the bass.
Example 1B illustrates a graceful downward arpeggio on the Fmaj7 chord, complete with a mirror-image pull-off on the B string (C note to B). Remember that arpeggios can run in both directions! They don’t (and shouldn’t!) always go upward.
In the third example, 1C, I use what’s called a “trill.” This is a rapid and continuous change between two notes, usually a step or half-step from each other. Many instruments employ this technique. You’re probably most used to hearing it done on a woodwind, such as a flute or saxophone. What you want to do is pluck the open B string and then hammer-on and pull-of your index finger as many times as it will go during the duration of that beat (the third beat in this case). For the record, I’ve tried counting how many times I did this, but I lose track after six. The note will often start to fade on its own. I follow up the trill with the last two notes of the Fmaj7 chord arpeggio.
1D, the last example, has me tossing in all sorts of things. Actually, it’s just using a very fast hammer-on and pull-off on both the B and G strings. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the little flourish I stuck on at the end of last month’s lesson on the opening acoustic solo of Wish You Were Here. Perhaps it’s even a bit too much, I don’t know. The point is that the song is offering you a space. How you decide to fill it, or even if you decide to do so is totally up to you.
Before we move on, I want to point out a few things about the transcription. As far as the finger picking is concerned, for the most part I’m using my thumb on the three low strings (the D, A and low E) and my index finger on the G, my middle finger on the B and my ring finger on the high E. Anyplace where I’m striking two of the two three strings at the same time, I’m usually using my middle finger on the higher string and my index finger on the low note. Most of the “full chords,” such as the Fmaj7 in the second measure, I play with a downstroke of the thumb. Yes, there will be exceptions and I’ll try to cover them all!
One other thing that I can’t really stress enough (even though I’m sure you’ve heard it enough, especially from me!) is that you should consider this is transcription as a template. If you’ve read the beginners’ lesson on Wish You Were Here you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You will find the occasional glitch in this notation because when I’d get to playing, my fingers might do one thing even though I wrote another! I tried to make this TAB as accurate to the MP3s as possible, but I know that you’ll find some slight deviations from the notation.
But the point, as I’ve tried my best to bring to your attention out time and time again, is that you don’t want to be a machine in your playing. As long as you’re holding your chord shapes, you won’t hear any disastrous notes. I promise! If your Am arpeggio, for example, skips the D string and instead hits the B string, people aren’t going to notice.
Now let’s proceed with the first half of the verse:
Okay, you’re probably sick of the first two measures by now! Let me just point out that here I opted to go with the “trill” fill. Maybe because I just can’t resist writing “trill fill!” You should, as I mentioned earlier, feel free to (trill) fill it (or not) to your own liking.
In the third and fourth measure, you’ll find the two rhythm patterns I’m going to use pretty much throughout the song:
The second measure here (the one of the E7 chord) is straight eighth notes and should prove simple enough. On the measure of G, the tempo is a little staggered. We begin with three eight notes, then play a quarter note and finish up with three more eighth notes. This breaks up the measure in an interesting way. The lengthy note comes on an offbeat (the second half of the second, to be precise), and although the measure is symmetrical in tempo, it is decidedly more interesting than going with straight eighth notes. This gives our arrangement so breathing room; it allows you places to pause instead of blindly charging on at straight eighth note speed. Remember we’re playing a love song here! It should have all sorts of room to breathe!
I sometimes play this pattern in the following manner: I start the first notes by playing my thumb on the base and a finger (here my middle finger) on an harmony note and then continue on to strike the next two strings with my thumb. Then I will sweep upward with my other fingers, letting them grab whatever strings of the chord they happen to (in this case the high E and the B) and let that ring before finishing off the downward end of the arpeggio with my index finger on the first notes and then my thumb on the last two. This is all, at this point in my playing, very subconscious, which is precisely why I tell you to practice an unfamiliar pattern until you can play it without thinking. As long as it’s in your fingers, your fingers will rarely let you down. And again, if you play a different string, remember that you’re probably the only one who thinks it’s a mistake.
The next section is the equivalent of the musical “hook” to this particular arrangement:
Here we’re using a time-honored technique of playing a short series of notes, a motif, if you will, over a number of chord changes. This creates the same kind of effect as a sustained tone (see the article of the same name), only we are using several notes instead of one (or two in the case of a song like Oasis’ Wonderwall). Look, or listen, closely, and you’ll see (or hear) that the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh notes of these first three measures are the same. Not only that, but they are also the same as the notes of the very first measure of the song. We’ve created a musical “theme” of sorts.
While this motif is going on, we’re changing from one chord to another simply, for the most part, by changing the bass note. You’ll run into this sort of thing so many times in so many songs that I can’t even begin to list them! By the way, the ability to do this is my main reason for playing Your Song in the key of C. It is fair easier to play this motif, along with the descending bass line (A, G, F# and F) that provide the interesting harmonies in C than in D. Also, if you so desire, you can play this by keeping the A note (second fret of the G string) intact throughout.
I want to mention that originally, I’d plan on doing the same picking pattern with the Fmaj7. However, that did not occur when I recorded it, so you have what I’ve notated. I was kind enough to include the TAB for the way I originally intended to play it! It’s listed as “alternate Fmaj7 pattern” in this example. Again, I’d like to stress that they both sound fine. No one will shun you for preferring one to the other.
When playing this, I start out with a normal Am chord – my index finger is on the B string, my ring finger plays the second fret of the G string and my middle finger is on the second fret of the D. After I do the upward arpeggio, usually right after the hammer-on, I shift my ring finger down to the third fret of the low E (sixth) string to get ready for the second measure. This is why the “Am” arpeggio has the open G string on the way down! It’s already technically an Am7.
This is the first of several interesting bass lines in this piece. Since our ring finger is on the third fret of the sixth string, we now have an Am7/G. Again note that if you want to hold the A note on the G string, then you’ll need to use your pinky to get the bass note. It’s not the easiest thing to do but it’s far from impossible. Be sure to arch your fingers so as not to get any dampened notes in your arpeggio.
For the D9/F#, I move my middle finger from the second fret of the D string to the second fret of the sixth, giving me my F# note in the base. Simultaneously, my ring finger returns to its original position at the second fret of the G string.
On the Fmaj7 (this fingering is 103210), I play the first fret of the low E string with my thumb and use my other fingers as I normally would: index finger on the B, middle finger on the G and ring finger on the D. Playing an Fmaj7 this way might be new for some of you, so take your time with this. It’s actually not that hard at all. You can use a barre F chord here, but it makes doing the hammer-on on the B string quite difficult.
This particular chord progression not only comes up twice in the verse, but also again at the height of the chorus. So I can’t help but suggest that you set these four measures aside for special attention as you will want to have them flowing smoothly when you get to them.
Bass lines take center stage in the next section of the song. This is another reason why I prefer the key of C for this piece; I find the bass lines a little more accessible for my (short) fingers! Have a look-see:
Beginning with the C chord, we string the bass notes down to G in the second measure. Nothing new here, it’s all just part of the C major scale which I’m sure you can handle. Going from G to E, though, we’ll liven things up a tad by using chromatic steps (G to F# to F) in our bass line. This provides an interesting change.
Going from E to Am, we’ll notch it up even higher by adding a harmony line to the bass. This is something that I’ve seen done in numerous classical pieces, not to mention in Paul Simon’s song, American Tune, the melody and harmony of which are taken directly from a Back chorale. This progression may remind you vaguely of something else we’ve done in the past, but let’s save that surprise for a just a bit… In case you’re interested, here I simply spread out my fingers from the initial E chord – my ring finger goes from the second fret of the D string to the second fret of the G string and my middle fingers shifts position from the second fret of the A to the second fret of the low E (sixth) string. I use the same fingers on the next set of notes at the fourth fret of these strings as well.
Continuing apace, you’ll also see that we tack on a brief ascending bass line, on the D string, during the change from the Dm to F. Nothing here you can’t handle, either.
At the close of the first half of the verse, you might be surprised to see an old friend:
Yes, that’s indeed the opening of Blackbird with an additional pair of notes thrown in, no pun intended, for good measure. You never know where this particular musical phrase will turn up, do you? This is what you were undoubtedly thinking about when playing the E to Am transition.
The additional final pair of notes technically turns our G chord into a G7, since we’ve got the F note on the first fret of the first (high E) string. This helps to solidify the change from G to C and we’ll discuss that a bit later on.
By the bye, on all these “optional” notations I just showed the phrase in question and then a measure of resolution. If you use one of these, you’ll obviously want to continue on with the patterns and not just play a measure of whole notes!
Anyway, the second half of the verse (last four lines of lyrics) is musically identical to the first half, until you get to the last line. I guess I should say it’s as musically identical as you choose it to be. Feel free to experiment with different variations.
Going From The Verse To The Chorus (And Beyond!)
It’s the last line of the verse, the one immediately preceding the chorus, that is different from the rest, so let’s look at the last line and then go on and check out the chorus. See you on the other side!
Notice I used the “E to Am variation” to start this MP3. Also notice that both versions sound perfectly fine!
The first two measures of the last line (“…my gift is my song…”) start out the same as the fourth line of the verse, that is, a measure of C major arpeggio followed by a measure of Dm. It’s when we reach the F that we find we can’t simply repeat things:
Here we’re going from F to C, instead of F to G as we did at the midpoint of the verse. A little theory (hey! you didn’t think I’d let you off that easy, right?): Since we are in the key of C, the F to C progression is called a plagal cadence. In technical terms it’s IV to I. G (or G7) to C is called a perfect cadence (and if you want more to read on this subject, check out the old columns Five To One and You Say You Want A Resolution). Plagal cadences, as far as the ear is concerned,
aren’t as “strong” as perfect cadences. They’re pleasant, I guess you could say. What can help make them more dynamic is using a descending bass line, going from the IV to the root.
And that’s what we’re doing here, starting with the F note (third fret of the D string) and continuing on down through the E and the D ’til we reach the C that starts the second measure. I use the “beginners” version of the F chord (fingering XX3211) for this, but you can use a barre F equally as well. Personally, I find I can do the bass line better with the simpler fingering.
In measure three I play an “all thumb” downstroke of the F chord and then repeat the E to D bass line and finish with a full strum of the C chord, again with the thumb. And just to keep things going, I then immediately launch into a C to G bass line, which takes us to the chorus. And yes, this is yet another example of echoing a musical phrase. The descending bass from F to C has the same intervals as the one from C to G. It adds musical continuity to your arrangement.
The chorus begins with measure-long arpeggios of G, Am, Dm and F. These four measures are then repeated. The only new thing here is that I’m using a barre F chord in order to get the low F bass note in measure four of the chorus. I do this pretty much throughout the chorus, in fact. After this we recycle the Am to Am7/G to D9/F# to Fmaj7 progression that we covered in the verse section.
But when we get to the Fmaj7? Well, here is a good example of what I tried to talk with you about earlier. I had absolutely no idea as to what I was going to play! My thought was, “Let’s see what happens when we get there.” I knew I had two measures to fill and I knew I wanted to start it off like the second verse of the song (that old quot;echo a musical idea thing!”), but after that, I’d just let the muse take over.
And what the muse said was, basically, not something I’d write in a family-friendly piece. Or any piece, for that matter! So my fingers, in a sheer state of panic, did this:
As I mentioned, it started out well, mirroring the second measure of the opening right down to the trill (“trill fill! trill fill!”). For the second measure I kind of wimped out and just played a descending C major scale from B down to F, all in quarter notes. Very simple and elegant, I must say, if only to save face! Ah well, there’s another chance at this in the second chorus!
Before we get to the second chorus, though, I’ve got to get to the second verse. So we cycle through the C to Dm to F to G progression, absolutely like the midpoint of the verse, using an extra measure of G to do the Blackbird-turnaround thing, here done with straight quarter notes.
You might observe that I changed up the rhythm of the measure of C (“…wonderful…”), opting for full chords instead of an arpeggio. Again, this is simply a change of pace, a way to punctuate the word “wonderful.” You can play a straight arpeggio if you’d like.
In fact, that’s precisely what I do when we reach the turnaround in the final chorus:
The “outro” of Your Song is simply a repeat of the final three lines of the chorus, only ultimately resolving to C instead of to G as we’ve just done. This is accomplished in precisely the same way we ended the verse (going from F to C and then briefly repeating that progression with full chords), so you should be able to follow along with it very easily.
The only potentially “sticky” area is immediately before we actually start the outro. We’re on G and we want to go to the whole Am to Am7/G to D9/F# to Fmaj7 thing (“…I hope you don’t mind…”) one last time. While going from G to Am is certainly an easy thing to do (try it! use our patented Blackbird turnaround, only end on Am instead of C), I want to give this part a little more punch. So I opt for this:
We start out with our Blackbird run, in full quarter notes this time. But instead of tacking on the G7 pairing at the end, I switch to an E7 chord. This is a particularly easy thing to do. On the third pair of notes in this measure, have your pinky on the D note (third fret of the B string) and your middle finger on the B note (second fret of the A string). Now, keeping those two fingers in place, simply add your ring finger to the second fret of the D and your index finger to the first fret of the G. Voila! E7! I play this with a sweeping down stroke of the thumb. I do the same with the Am that starts the next measure. In fact, I give that a little extra space to ring out, not starting on the arpeggio until the second half of the second beat.
And what about that Fmaj7 at the end of this progression? The same one I shamelessly botched the first time out? Well, the results here are certainly more promising:
It’s definitely a bit of an improvement over the last pass of this part of the song! The point is that you can fill (or not fill) these spaces as you see fit. Do try, though, to keep harmony with the spirit of the song. One time, just because I was a bit out of sorts, I played the signature riff of Satisfaction in this space. It worked surprisingly well. But that’s the sort of thing you do once in a lifetime!
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoyed this venture into making a piano-style arrangement. The range of the emotions one can get from a guitar, whether acoustic or electric, is mind-boggling. While it’s great to be able to get one style down to a science, I think it’s also important to continually explore other avenues. Always be willing to take an adventure with your guitar. It will rarely let you down.
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 Forum page or email me directly at [email protected]
Until our next lesson…
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.