You didn’t really think you were going to learn to play the guitar in two weeks, did you? If you did, I apologize for having deceived you. It takes a little more time.
And yet, in a way it is true: the guitar is not a very difficult instrument to get a decent sound from. It has a learning curve that is quite shallow in the beginning, and it really doesn’t get steep until it is time to pass from “intermediate” to “advanced”. Compare that with e.g. the violin, which will not sound good until you’ve played it for a couple of years and reached “intermediate”, or the recorder, which is very easy to produce sounds on once you manage to cover all the holes, but will never sound good (or at least not until youre “advanced”).
So the guitar isn’t so bad after all: with a few basic chords and some focused rehearsal every day, you could actually accompany the christmas carols a week and a half from now.
My way: Rudiments of a Method
You may even decide for yourself if you want to follow a “method”, or just play songs that you like and observe and enjoy the progress you’re making. I propose the following simple points as a rudimentary method:
- Be smooth! Practice the transition between chords, the way I suggested on Day 1. Play
D D A7 A7 D D A7 A7 ... D D G G D D G G .... G G A7 A7 G G A7 A7 ...
until your fingers can do it all by themselves. Do the same for all new chords. Two minutes like this in the beginning will save you a lot of time later.
- Be lazy! Pay attention to how many and big movements you make with your fingers, and see if you can minimize that. Move fingers as groups if possible. Don’t move your whole hand if slipping a finger to another string is enough.
- Be straight. Related to the previous point is: pay attention to how you hold your hand. Don’t twist it, as many beginners do. As an ideal and a point of departure: strive to have a starting position where your fingers attack the strings from a straight angle, both vertically and “horizontally”: Your wrist should be next to where the chord you’re playing is — not in the area of the tuning pegs.
- Be clear! Avoid touching other strings. Check that you can hear sound from all the strings you are playing.
- Have patience (and expect the same of your surroundings)! If it takes two seconds to change chords and you are left hanging on “hang down your head aaaaaaaand…”, then so be it. It is not going to be that way forever, so just disregard it.
- Have fun! Take advantage of the fact that the guitar is an easy instrument in the beginning.
Follow these steps, and you will be guaranteed a prosperous and happy future. I think.
What lies ahead
Here’s a survey of the topics I will be discussing in this series, arranged tentatively in the order in which they will be brought up, which should hopefully be the order in which you will be ready for them and need them.
- Rhythm: the right hand
- all strings are not created equal
- picking out melodies
- tab notation
- barre chords
- chord theory
- a million chords…
- open/alternate tuning
A lot of the topics are actually covered, in a more condensed form, in the help file at dylanchords. You may want to take a peek there already.
Can you tell me where we’re heading?
The learning goals I have in mind are defined by three Dylan albums: The Freewheelin’, World Gone Wrong and — as a bonus — Blood on the Tracks.
The Freewheelin’ is not only one of Dylan’s greatest albums, but also the most varied and advanced album guitarwise. His fingerpicking technique was never better, and songs like ‘Girl from the North Country’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ are good goals to strive towards.
If anyone had assumed that Dylan had forgotten his solo acoustic technique after near thirty years of touring with a band, World Gone Wrong proved them wrong. It’s his best album as a flatpicker, and the way he picks out melodies in the bass lines, incorporates licks, and positions the accompaniment in relation to the singing, is an ideal for any guitar player.
Lastly, the New York version of Blood on the Tracks is a superb example of the use of open E tuning. To be able to play those songs and make them sound like on the record is a thrill that no aspiring guitarist should be denied. The good news is that it’s not really very difficult.
But first things first: we need some more chords.
More chords: Am and C
Am C Am7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ====== ====== ====== ||||1| ||||1| ||||1| ------ ------ ------ ||23|| ||2||| ||2||| ------ ------ ------ |||||| |3|||| |||||| x02210 x32010 x02010
Hopefully, it is not too confusing that the numbers mean different things in the two ways of writing chords: in the graphical representation, they denote the fingers, in the brief form: the frets.
Then two songs to use them in. They are both ideal for practice, since they consist of a simple series of chords that is repeated over and over again.
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
G Clouds so swift Am Rain won't lift C Gate won't close G Railings froze G Am Get your mind off wintertime C G You ain't goin' nowhere G Am Whoo-ee! Ride me high C Tomorrow's the day G My bride's gonna come G Am Oh, oh, are we gonna fly C G Down in the easy chair!
Notice that “You Ain’t Going Nowhere is in the key of G major. That means that G is no longer just an auxiliary chord, but the Tonic. It is more important than it was as a Subdominant in D major. You are therefore urged to use the full form of G (320003).
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
G D Am7 Mama, take this badge off of me G D C I can't use it anymore. G D Am7 It's gettin' dark, too dark to see G D C I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door. Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Mama, put my guns in the ground I can't shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is comin' down I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door. Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Again, the song is in G major, and again, a simple pattern is repeated over and over again throughout the song.
It looks like a six-chord pattern this time, and it is: G D Am7 | G D C |, but you will notice that the two halves of the pattern differ only by one chord: Am7 and C. And if you look at the chord charts above, you will see that those two chords in turn are virtually identical.
So while you practice knocking, I’ll do some more explaining. My apologies in advance for the following outpouring of theory. It is intended as reference material, not as something you are required to understand fully at this point. Again, the idea is not to burden you with things you need to know, but to give you a chance of knowing why things work, and why they work the way they do.
More chord theory: minor and seventh chords
We now have three chords with “A” in them: Am, A7, and Am7:
Am A7 Am7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ====== ====== ====== ||||1| |||||| ||||1| ------ ------ ------ ||23|| ||1|2| ||2||| ------ ------ ------ |||||| |||||| ||||||
What’s the difference between them? What’s that “7” doing there? How are they used? And what’s with the C, which is so similar to Am7?
The Seventh chord
Let’s start with the 7. In brief: The seventh chord is a variant of a chord where the seventh tone counted upwards from the keynote is added to the plain chord. This spiced-up chord is frequently used when the chord stands in a dominant position, because the extra tone adds tension to the chord, in relation to the tonic.
Why is this so? In a scale (the classic do-re-mi, e.g.), the distance between the tones varies. In most cases there is a whole tone between the steps (two frets on the guitar), but in two places, between the third and fourth steps and between the seventh and eighth — mi-fa and si-do, or e-f and b-c — there is only a semitone or a single fret. And, to (over-)simplify matters a little, there is a certain attraction between the tones that belong to one of these semi-tone steps.
In the D chord, two of the string play the tone d: the open fourth string, and the second string, which is fingered at the third fret. (Try it; they should sound the same. If they don’t — check your tuning.)
The second string is fingered in the A7 chord too, but at the second fret — one fret away from what is played in D major. That is part of what gives the “drive” from one chord to the other: a semitone away from the keynote “wants” to be resolved.
The added seventh tone does two things to strengthen this drive.
First, the seventh chord is a dissonance, and a dissonance wants to be resolved even more strongly than a semitone. In the modern tonal world, the seventh chord is perhaps not perceived as a dissonance, because we are so accustomed to the sound, but if you play the two tones that dissonate alone, chances are that the dissonating character stands out more clearly. Try to play only these two “chords”:
x0x xx x0x0xx ====== ====== |||||| |||||| ------ ------ |||2|| |||||| ------ ------
I.e., the fifth and third strings, first the open fifth string and the third string fingered at the second fret, then both open. The first is the tone A played in two different octaves (again: if they don’t sound the same, check your tuning), the second is the core of A7. The first should sound stable and calm — static, even: there is no drive anywhere, it’s just a tone. The second sounds displeased, somehow, happy to get somewhere else; or, if this is reading too much emotion into an interval: at least it sounds dissonant. That’s the first element of the added tension.
Besidses, the added tone (i.e. the tone g, which is the tone of the open third string) adds another pair of semitone-related tones. This is not so easily seen in this case: because of the most common shape of these two chords, the corresponding tone in the D chord is usually not played next to the open third string, but one octave higher. So let’s try this: play the first string, fingered at the third fret. Sounds the same as the open third string? Good. (If running ahead of things hadn’t been such a damned unpedagogical idea, I would at this point have disclosed that another way of playing A7 is indeed x02223, where the first string is indeed played at the third fret.)
First string, third fret: that’s again one fret (one semitone) away from one of the tones in the D chord — another driving force from one chord to the other.
As a final illustration, play the two semitone steps together, first only those, then with the bass note added:
'A7' 'D' A7 D xxxx xxxx x0xx xx0x ====== ====== and ====== ====== |||||| |||||| with |||||| |||||| ------ ------ the ------ ------ ||||2| |||||2 bass: ||||2| |||||2 ------ ------ ------ ------ |||||3 ||||3| |||||3 ||||3| ------ ------ ------ ------
Hopefully, you hear the tension, and the delight of getting “home” when you reach D. If not: don’t despair; this is not your last chance.
That leaves just one more thing to be said about the seventh chord: it is almost exclusively used in the Dominant position. That almost goes without saying, given the mass of tension-generating features that go into the seventh chord, since “tension” is the dominant’s middle name.
The Minor chord
You probably know already what a minor chord is, and how it differs — at least in sound and character — from the major. Major chords are bright and happy — minor chords sombre, sad, melancholy, etc.
We haven’t had any use for the plain A chord yet, but for the sake of completeness and argument, here it is:
A x0 0 ====== |||||| ------ ||123| ------ |||||| ------
Compared to the minor chord, you will see that one note makes all the difference.
A Am x0 0 x0 0 ====== ====== |||||| ||||1| ------ ------ ||222| ||22|| ------ ------ |||||| |||||| ------ ------
I won’t go into as much detail about the minor chord as with the seventh chord. A summary of some central points will suffice for now:
- Notation: a single letter “A” conventionally denotes a major chord. The minor chord is denoted with an added “-m” (Am), or — in some systems — as a lower-case “a” (I consistently use the Am notation).
- A song in a minor key also has a family of chords with specific relations between them. These are to some extent different from the corresponding major keys.
- One of the differences is that the dominant of a minor chord is still a major chord. E.g. A7 is the dominant of both D and Dm.
- The minor seventh (m7) chord, consequently, is not usually an ordinary seventh chord in the “dominant” sense, but rather a colouring of the plain minor chord.
The last point can be illustrated by “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door”, where there is a minor seventh chord, but it does not stand in a dominant relation to the chord that follows.
Another minor/major relationship: Am vs. C
One last thing before we call it a day: C and Am are closely related — so closely that they are called “relative chords”. The relation is not of the dominant kind as with D and A7, the quarreling siblings where the older brother always wins, but more like good old friends, one slightly melancholy, the other more on the gleeful side, but both deeply affected by and affectionate towards the other. That is why the two patterns in “Knockin'” are virtually the same. The colouring of Am to Am7 is in fact a way to make it even more similar to C.
All the Lessons
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks (and Impress Your Girlfriend)
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 2: First songs, first theory
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 3: More Chords — seventh and minor
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 4: Tablature and Rhythm
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 5: All Strings Are Not Created Equal
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 6: Chords and Overtones
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 7: Barre chords
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 8: Strumming My Gay Guitar
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 9: D major redeemed (dropped tunings)
- Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, day 10: Fingerpicking I
- Between lessons: In case you need some inspiration
- Guitar in Two Weeks, day 11: Fingerpicking II
- Guitar in Two Weeks, day 12: Chords, chords, chords
- Guitar in Two Weeks, day 13: Open Tuning