Remember the first song you learned to play? Do you remember exactly how and where you learned it? Do you still play it? I remember vividly sitting in the living room with my father, learning “You Are My Sunshine” when I was a kid.
The circumstances that led up to this event were something like this: I’d been exposed to music my whole life, because my parents both played and sang frequently. My brother Don and I could sing harmonies when we were pre-schoolers. Neither of my parents “read” music, had no formal training and didn’t feel “qualified” to teach us anything. My grandparents had offered to pay for music lessons for my brother and me. For the life of me, I still can’t remember why we wound up taking accordion lessons.
My grandfather would drive us to a store in mid-town Memphis one evening a week. The red and gold shiny contraptions weighed a ton; I felt like I was trying to pick up a piano and set it on my lap. I didn’t even like accordion music. We’d sit there and try to read simple melodies and I hated it, so I quit. I knew my grandparents were disappointed in me, but I just couldn’t stand it. My upper body did become stronger, however, as a result of wrestling this enormous calliope/beast. Soon after that, I told my father I really liked guitar better, and asked him if he would show me how to play a song. He said, “I don’t really know how to teach music, but I can show you what I do.” I said, “OK. Let’s try it.”
He had an old Silvertone acoustic he’d played for ages. He played a G chord for me, and I watched his fingers move and apply pressure to the strings and make contact with the fretboard. Then, he handed me the guitar and I tried it. Ouch! I didn’t know it was gonna hurt! He told me it was normal at first, because my fingertips weren’t used to pressing hard like that—made sense to me. He took the guitar back, turned those little tuning keys a few times and made some funny “boing-boing” noises, then returned the guitar to me again. It was easier to press the strings down! He had de-tuned it about a step. Next, he showed me how to play a C chord. Wow, that really stretched my fingers! I said, “I don’t think my fingers will reach that far.” He replied, “Sure they will. Maybe not today, but if you keep practicing, your fingers will get stronger and more flexible.” Then he showed me how to make a D7 chord. He said I could imagine a little pyramid shape that my fingers made. That’s still how I think of a D7. (The D is an ice cream cone.) I tried making those three chords a few times. I couldn’t change very fast and forming the C was difficult. I couldn’t quite get that 3rd finger to reach all the way to the 5th string. After about five minutes, I was definitely a little quicker. Then he took back the guitar and said, “Now, watch and listen real close.” He played “You Are My Sunshine” about four times while I watched and listened.
One of the things I noticed was that his fingers landed on each chord simultaneously, instead of one-by-one, the way I was doing it. Another thing I noticed was that he only played the D7 at one place in the song, right before the end. The other thing I noticed was that he stayed on the same chord G until he said the word “happy.” I already knew the words and melody, so I could tell when “happy” was coming around again. I also noticed that he went back to C again when he said, “You’ll never know,” right on the word “know.” Other than those two C places and the one little D7 near the end, the rest was all G chords. He told me the song was in the “Key of G.” He really didn’t know how to explain it, but he said, “G is the main chord. You usually start and end on it.” Then, he played the song in the key of C to give me an example. He told me you could do a song in any key you wanted to. Nobody ever told me this stuff in accordion lessons! I really didn’t understand about when and why you had to change chords, and told him so. And he said that magic word: “Listen.”
He played and sang the song, but when he got to the “happy” chord, he didn’t change to C and stayed on G. It sounded awful! I could definitely hear the dissonance. Then he sang the melody and played a C chord. But why did that work? He said, “Look at my first finger. Listen to that note.” Oh, I get it! That’s the same note he was singing! It matched.
I asked him why we played the D7 when we did, and he said, “Listen.” When he sang the melody, he showed me that the second fret of the G -string matched the melody note. A few minutes later, it occurred to me to ask him if I could play any chord that I wanted to that had that same melody note in it. He said, “No.” “Why?” “Some of ‘em don’t sound right.” And he proved it. Yes, I could hear the ones that “sounded right.” He said, “Every song has got three main chords in it, except ‘Jambalaya’ and a couple of others that only have two.” I watched him play “You Are My Sunshine” in the keys of E, A and D, and asked him why you did the same song in different keys, and he said, “To match people’s voices. Some sing high and some sing low.”
He next showed me a strumming pattern. It was eight notes, but he didn’t know that, he instructed, “Just go up and down like this with the pick.”
He then explained, “Some songs are waltzes. Then, you go like this: one, two, three, one, two, three….” Somewhere in there he told me, “Those chords with a seven on ‘em, like D7 or G7, usually lead back to the main chord.” He showed me which minor chords usually went in which key. He also told me, “Don’t play these little runs and things while people are singin’. It’s not polite. Wait ‘til they take a breath.”
I learned my first song and had my first guitar lesson that Sunday afternoon with my father. He could have been watching a baseball game. Too bad he didn’t know anything about music.
If you stop to really look and listen, every great song has many valuable lessons in it. Take any song you like and look at it in terms of chord progression, tempo, form, rhyme scheme, key, etc. If you have a recording, listen to the instrumentation. What’s the rhythm guitar doing? Does it have more than one guitar? What’s the lead guitar doing? Does it have a solo? Does the solo stay close to the melody? Can you tell the key by listening to it? Does the song have an ending or just fade out? If you record a song, remember you don’t have to have a set ending. You can take the chord progression of a song you like and write new lyrics and melody. Change the tempo. Not only can learning one of these classic songs provide you with years of fun, but it can open the doors to understanding basic songwriting and guitar playing too.
Gary Talley is the original guitarist for Grammy-nominated group, The Box Tops. He’s toured and recorded with Willie Nelson, Billy Preston, Waylon Jennings and more. Visit GaryTalley.com to check out more.