Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 5: All Strings Are Not Created Equal

It’s been said about guitar playing that the left hand is the craftsman, but the right hand is the artist. I first read that when I was a kid, struggling with some classical guitar etudes or whatever, and I thought it was a great quote — only whoever said it must have gotten the hands mixed up. Surely, the left hand must be the artist?

But no: even though most of the rehearsal time — at least as a classical guitarist — is spent on figuring out fingerings and practicing transitions between chords, that’s “just” craftsmanship. It’s the right hand that makes the music. Rhythm, as we discussed yesterday, is of course the main right-hand task. But also the sound quality in general — do you strike hard or soft, close to the bridge or to the sound hole, upwards or downwards, with thumb or fingernails, or with a plectrum? All these things that determine what kind of sound you make.

But also in the areas of melody and harmony, the right hand has a huge task. This is of course a shared area between the two hands, but the ability to pick out a melody or a certain harmonic progression is first and foremost a right-hand technique. This is going to be the main topic today.

All Strings are Not Created Equal

In the beginning — as far as I remember it — one is probably mostly concerned with placing the left-hand fingers in the right spot and trying to disregard the pain in the fingertips. The right hand does a rather crude job, mostly striking all the strings every time, or — perhaps — trying to avoid hitting the wrong strings.

The first step towards releasing the artistic potential of the right hand, is to realise that All Strings Are Not Created Equal. The guitar can do a pretty good job at filling in for the members of a full band: The three high strings — roughly speaking — provide harmony and play the part of the organ or the backup singers; the low ones are bass strings and do what the bass guitar does (and the right hand in general — with some help from the left hand — is the drum kit; the only instrument that is missing, is the solo guitar, which the guitar cannot mimick, unless you are very advanced, like Richard Thompson, e.g.).

In order to bring out these different roles — and this is something you should strive towards — you need to be able to treat the strings separately.This means: to be able to

  • strike only the bass strings or only the treble strings; and/or
  • strike a single string at the time.

Compare these two examples:

  v   v   v     v   v ^ v     v
  G                           C
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .
|-0---0---0---|-0---0-0-0---|-0---  etc.


  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .
|-----0---0---|-----0-0-0---|-0---  etc.

The exact strings are not important, but the general idea is: what you’re doing here is both adding some air (so that the music can breathe), and providing lines. Already in this little example, you are playing a bass line and bringing out more clearly at least a fragment of two other melody lines.

The most obvious line is the bass line:

  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .

But also on the two upper strings there are melody lines that stand out more clearly, now that they are allowed to sound alone, without the mass of strings on their back.

This is the kind of lines that you should try your best to bring out in your playing. The good thing is that it will happen more or less automatically if you make a habit of varying your stroke. As a rule of thumb, the bass strings belong to the accented beats (the first beat in triple time, as in the example above; the first and third in 4/4), the treble strings to the unaccented.

(I realize I haven’t said anything about time signatures and such yet. I will add a section about that to the Day 4 lesson.)

Slash chords

Also, in a good chord file, the bass line will be written out for you. This is done with slash chords.

A slash chord indicates, in addition to the chord itself, the bass tone to be played. This is added to the chord symbol, separated with a slash. E.g. “G/b”, which means: G major, with b as the bass string.

In an ordinary chord symbol, such as “G”, it is implied that the bass note — the deepest sounding note — is also g. So although the G chord contains all three bass strings, the one that plays g is the most important one. This happens to be the sixth string —

(I realize I haven’t presented you with the whole scale and the positions of the tones on the fretboard yet. I’ve just added a section about that to the Day 4 lesson, which you may want to revisit.)

— so in the case of G, there isn’t much of a problem there: strike all the chords, and the lowest note will automatically be the bass note. Gee, it’s a great chord… But remember our hate chord, D? One of the reasons it’s such a despicable chord is that there are two strings — a third of your whole resource base — that you’re not supposed to use. In shorthand: xx0232.

Time to modify that statement a little. The sixth string is an E, which is definitely not part of a D chord, so that string is forever out of the picture — it will sound bad if you even touch it while playing a D chord. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But the fifth string is different. It’s an A, and the tone A is actually part of the D major chord. It’s there already: the tone on the third string should be an a.

So why is it forbidden, “x”ed out in the shorthand? Because it is not the proper bass string. The fundament of a chord should be its proper bass tone, and so there is nothing else to do than to leave out two of the swetest strings you have. Shit happens.

But slash chords can change that. There are circumstances where you want the bass tone to be something other than the chord’s proper bass tone. You could for example play an alternating bass pattern:

  D       D/a       D       D/a
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

or, as in the earlier examples, bring out a certain bass line. The example that we started with could be written:

G    G/b    C

This is sometimes abbreviated to

G    /b    C

I will usually use the latter form if the chord itself is not really that important — what counts is the bass tone, as part of a bass line.

Both these forms of notation are confusing to some, but as you can see, it’s simple enough: the slash part of the chord is extra information that you can use to bring out a certain effect. Since it’s “extra information”, you are free to leave it out.

Blowin’ in the Wind Revisited

If you have been with me from the start and have played “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the version from Day 2, you may have noticed that even though it sounds more or less as the album version (at least it should), it’s still not quite the same. And if you’ve checked some tab site’s version, you may have seen that it’s not written in D at all.

That’s because Dylan plays it with a capo, all the way up at the seventh fret, and because he uses a lot of slash chords. The capo position means that he plays with chords shapes from the G major family but the sounds that come out of it are in D major.

If you followed the day 1 instructions and bought a capo, this is the time to put it on. If not, either run down there and get one right now, or play it without a capo, in which case it will not sound exactly as on the record (but it probably never will — no offense — so it may not matter that much …):

G        C     /b     D/a      G
How many roads must a man walk down
G          C    /b    G
Before you call him a man?
         G        C    /b     D/a        G
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
G          C      /b     D
Before she sleeps in the sand?
         G        C     /b       D/a          G
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
  G            C  /b   G
Before they're forever banned?
    C   /b     D/a        G              C
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
    C   /b    D/a            G
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

You already have all the tools you need to play this, but since I’m a nice guy, I’ll summarize:

  • /b means “play the bass tone b (regardless of the chord you’re otherwise playing). In this case, this means the second fret of the fifth string: -2----.
  • D/a is a D chord with A (the open fifth string) replacing d as the bass string.

If you use the default bass string for the rest of the chords, and otherwise try to apply the variation between bass and treble strings, you may end up with something like this:

  G                 C       /b
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

  D/a               G
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

  G                 C       /b
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

  :   .   .   .

The exact strings you play in the treble section is not important — should you strike some bass chords, that’s just fine — and the rhythms I’ve written in are just the ones I happened to play this one time. The important thing is the bass notes and the variation. With this in mind (and in hand) you should be able to play the rest of the song, which is just variations on the same patterns as above.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Ready for another old gem.

     G             Em
Come gather 'round people
    C        G
Wherever you roam
      G            Em
And admit that the waters
 C              D
Around you have grown
      G            Em
And accept it that soon
          C               G
You'll be drenched to the bone.
        G       Am           D
If your time to you Is worth savin'
         D            D/c
Then you better start swimmin'
          G/b         D/a
Or you'll sink like a stone
        G     C          D   G . .
For the times they are a-changin'.

Some initial comments:

Em is a new chord. It’s quite simple: 022000.

In this song, Dylan plays G with the shape 320033 instead of 320003. It’s a subtle difference, which you are free to disregard, but it’s like that for a reason (and this is in fact yet another example of Dylan’s mastery in achieving effects with a minimum of effort): The tone on the second string in the regular chord is b, which is the tone that defines the chord as a major chord. By replacing that with the d’ on the third fret, the chord is almost released from that whole field of tension, and takes on a solemn character, a little like a tolling bell — quite befitting the theme of the song. All that, with just one finger…

As I said: you are not required to use the 320033 shape. It does involve all four fingers, and that may be too much to keep track of at this point. Although … some people actually find it easier to play than the standard 320003, because the two pathetic little weaklings, the ring and little fingers, can support each other. Try it, and go with what suits you best.

The ending is the greatness of this song (which incidentally was the first Dylan song I heard, although not with Dylan himself. I’ve written an emotional account of this first meeting in the introduction to The Uneven Heart.). Again, it’s the use of slash chords and bass lines that makes the difference.

The “better start swimmin’” lines could go something like this:

  D             D/c           G/b           D/a
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .
  Better start swimming or y’ll sink like a stone

But here, you may have several objections:

  • “Hey! That thing in the second measure — that’s not a D chord!”
  • “Hey! That thing in the third measure — that’s not a G chord!”
  • “You said I could leave out the slash thing, but if I do, the second measure doesn’t sound right!”

And you’re right. But if you would just calm down a little, bridle your righteous anger over lying bastards who pose as guitar teachers etc., I’ll explain.

[ten seconds’ break to calm down]

There. Ok.

It all has to do with what is important and what is not. That section of the song could be seen as basically just a descending bass line over a sustained note: the single note that the melody has at this point, which incidentally is what you have on the third fret of the second string. So, stripped down to the essentials, the passage could be played:

  D             D/c           G/b           D/a
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .
  Better start swimming or y’ll sink like a stone

and nothing inalienable has been lost, really. Hence, we may consider the rest as ornament, filler. This is not to say that the filler is unneccessary, only that it can be dealt with somewhat freely, if other considerations are of greater weight.

Such as: ease of playing. If you were to play the D/c chord without cheating making it easy for yourself, you would have to use the little finger on the second string and the third finger for the c on the fifth string. That is playable, but here it is unneccessary. Much easier to move the stronger longfinger from the first to the fifth string:

xx0        x
======     ======
||||||     ||||||
------     ------
|||1|2     |||1||
------ ->  ------
||||3|     |2||3|
------     ------
||||||     ||||||

Note that I haven’t banned any of the open strings other than the sixth in the chord diagram; the fourth string has a d which can’t be all wrong, since it’s the keynote of the chord; and the first string — well, it’s filler. It’s a “wrong” tone, but in this case, hey, it doesn’t matter.

It can actually be defended not just out of laziness economizing, but as an element in an interesting melodic line. With the open e string in the second measure, what you’re playing is:

  D             D/c           G/b           D/a
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .
  Better start swimming or y’ll sink like a stone

Which works well as a a countermelody to the otherwise static melody line, and which is also parallel to the bass line.

Much of the same could be said about your second objection. Again: the important thing is the -2--3- skeleton — the rest is filler.

Note that you use the version with the third fret on the second string here, no matter what you do elsewhere in the song. This has to do both with flexibility (not being limited to one chord shape only) and economy (why use the other shape, when that finger is already in place?). It may not be something you need to hear right at the moment, if you think that just learning the basic chord shapes is more that enough, but the great thing about the guitar is that you can play the same chords in many different ways, depending on what is important at a particular spot.

So, in the third measure, we define x20030 as a legitimate replacement for 320003.

This gives the following transition between D/c and G/b:

  x          x
  ======     ======
  ||||||     ||||||
  ------     ------
  |||1||     |1||||
  ------ ->  ------
  |2||3|     ||||3|
  ------     ------
  ||||||     ||||||

The third objection is actually valid, and it exemplifies the problem of pinning down a set of chords/sounds to a common symbol — the chord sign. I’ll come back to this later when we take a look at “Boots of Spanish Leather”, but for now: why should I call the second chord D/c?

First of all: it’s a bit cheating. The c is the seventh tone in the D major scale, and hence the proper name for the chord is D7/c. When I don’t write it like that, it’s not just out of laziness, but because even though all the tones of a D7 chord are in there, it doesn’t feel or work like a seventh chord — it feels like a static D chord with a descending bass line under it.

For that matter, I could also have called the third chord D/b, and that wouldn’t have been all wrong either, although the tone d is the only tone in there that actually belongs to the D chord.

To test this statement, try to play that whole line with just a D chord all the way through (disregard the bass line for now), and say if that doesn’t actually sound quite right.

The lesson to be learned from this is that a chord name is not just a way to tell you which fingers to put where — it’s not just a name for a certain finger configuration: it’s also a way to classify according to function. This may go so far that a chord could be called a variant of, say, G, without even containing a g note.

This is also why, if you leave out the slash part of the chord names above, the second chord will sound wrong. We have defined the descending bass as one of the important elements in that line, and chosen the chord names accordingly. If we leave out the important part, we may have to find a way to put it back again.

One way could be to play the second chord as a C. That would give us the /c in the bass, and it would actually also account for the open first string, which we’ve allowed as “filler”, but which really doesn’t belong in the D chord. It does belong in the C chord.

A C there would also go well with the chord that follows: G. Even though C is not the dominant of G but the other way around, there is still enough of a bond between the two chords, that C G is a perfectly acceptable progression. (In popular music, that is. In fact, if we add the D to which we’re coming, we have the “Try with a little help from my friends” part of the Beatles song. In classical music, that progression is not permitted.)

When I name the chords as I do, it’s by choice: I choose to consider the passage as basically a drawn-out “D-with-variations”. The G/b is partly a concession to chord shapes — it is actually closer to a G chord than to a D chord — and partly as a way of acknowledging that there is a certain preparatory character to that third chord, which sets it apart from the other “D” chords in that line.

There. Calmer now?

Now, ’nuff talking. Back to rehearsal.

All the Lessons

[catlist name=Lessons numberposts=150 order=asc orderby=date excludeposts=419]

7 thoughts on “Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 5: All Strings Are Not Created Equal

  1. hey eyolf, just wanted you to know i’m following this series with much interest, though i’ve been playing guitar for a lot longer than two weeks. in particular, i enjoy the bits where you talk more about theory. i’ve been working with some kids at my church trying to teach them how to use music theory to improve their guitar playing, and i’ve sent them links to days 2 (where you explain the function of the three main chords) and 5 (where you give an elegant explanation of why a G chord might not contain the note G). hopefully your musicological vocabulary and dylan’s protest material doesn’t scare them off. i’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. Glad to hear that. BTW, the Boots example I was alluding to, is indicated, although not written out, in the tabs at dylanchords. It’s about the x54030 chord, which functions as an Em7 (i.e. the relative minor of G) in the album version, where it is followed by D7, and as a D in all the live versions where it is followed by a C.

    The example of the G-less G I had in mind was Blood in my Eyes (see explanation there). I now see that there is a g in that chord after all, so I’ll better find a better example. :)

    Anyway, thanks for your feedback — much appreciated.

  3. Hi Eyolf,

    May be I will be the second tech person, who reads your blog. :)

    I really enjoy this series, and it’s been helping out greatly. I was amazed to see that I’ve taken G chord wrong (fingering the 1st string with 3rd finger, instead of 4th) for years. And, while awkward at first, the pinky version provides a really nice pivot point to go from G to other chords. Amazing!!!

    I’m struggling to grasp how to play the slash chords. On your tabs, the bass note comes earlier in time, then the rest of the chord.

    Does it mean that you pick that bass string by itself first, and then play the rest of the chord?


  4. I wouldn’t say it’s wrong, but as you say, it does make it a whole lot easier to play around with once you learn it.
    There is this video — perhaps from the Hard Rain video from 1976 — where one can see Joan Baez and Dylan playing the same chord change between G and C. Dylan plays it “correctly”, while Baez plays it like you have been playing it. It it quite instructive to see how Dylan’s hand hardly moves at all, while Joan’s is all over the place, because all the fingers have to move (same three fingers for the two chords, only in very different places).
    About the slash chords: yes, that’s the basic idea: bass string alone on the strong beat (the first in the bar), and the rest of the chord filling in in some interesting rhythm pattern.

  5. Thank you very much for the explanation.

    I hope rhythm is a learned thing. I hear it in my head, but keep forgetting to actually transfer the motion to the right hand. It’s really kind of funny. I keep expecting the guitar to make a sound simply because I thought of it, and not because I moved my hand. :)

  6. This is probably one of the best tuts/lessons I have ever seen. Plz, keep going, I am learning ALOT, some stuff I have read before but never could understand, especially the chord theory stuff

  7. Pingback: chord diagram United States

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