What this is really about
This is a guide for playing Amazing Grace, in the style of John Fahey.
Before recording this, it hadn't really dawned on this noggin that he'd already recorded Amazing Grace on America..
So scrubbing that for now, imagine if Fahey played Amazing Grace in the same vein he plays Hark the Angels Sing. Listening to that, the simple melody is there, but there's this mysterious force that keeps it "hoppy" and "jumpy"..
What does he do to accomplish that witchcraft with his fingertips? And if that's figured out, how can it be used on melodies like Amazing Grace?
Using the song analysis toolkit
To unravel the mystery clogging the pipe... it's time to break out the song analysis toolkit.
An old guitar teacher, Dan Wilson, used to suggest for learning solo jazz guitar - learn the melody & bassline together... the rest is fill-in-the-blank..
That "first step" for wedging your way into any new melody is so powerful. No matter how scary the song feels, just begin by learning the melody on the treble-side, and the bass notes on the bass side; that's all - baby steps. Then, try marrying the two, playing them simultaneously. "The rest is fill-in-the-blank".
And in that way, you can build a Fahey-esque arrangement of Amazing Grace. Here are the steps:
- Understand the chords & scales in the progression - bass notes & "doodle" notes
- Learn the simplest/vanilla version of the melody - treble notes
- Combine the bass & treble notes
Understanding the chords & scales
As you listen to the chord progression of Amazing Grace, you could imagine there's a heatmap of consonant/dissonant notes, dynamically morphing as the chords change, like a live organism.
Being aware of those notes is nice to know; you can understand bass notes that will sound good, know other notes u can use for soloing, and get ideas for how to transition between chords.
For Amazing Grace, there are 5 chords used: C / C7 / F / Am / G7...
In the following mini-sections, C / F / G7 are covered, with playable exercises.. they're meant to show you: (1) right-hand picking patterns, (2) available scale notes u can choose from
Regretably, C7 / Am don't have mini-sections, but hopefully those will come soon. Regardless, it would be helpful to extrapolate these exercises to C7 / Am even though they're not shown here.
The C chord is the "home" or "root" of Amazing Grace.
Fahey composed many Standard tuning songs in the key of C, such as Assassination of Stefan Grossman, When You Wore a Tulip, Sligo River Blues, Knott's Berry Farm Molly, and others. Other guitar songs from the pre-war period such as Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor, West Coast Blues, and Wilson Rag are also in the key of C.
These are picking exercises to train independence of your thumb & plucking fingers. By working through the 3 modes below (on the beat, off the beat, and pickups) your hands will start to "feel" the 3 major ways that treble-side notes are played against bass notes.
Mode 1 - On the Beat
Mode 2 - Off the Beat
Mode 3 - Pickups
It's no fun to read straight off a piece of paper, let alone an LED screen... so try to "get" the idea being written on the page, and then just focus on practicing "offline" by memorizing it... a few quotes come to mind:
- "The point of sheet music is to notate sounds in the easiest way possible that the maximum amount of people can understand." - Jim Hall (paraphrasing)
- "Get it off the paper as fast as u can" - Bass teacher
- "Technique is like an acceleration pedal.. you don't always need it, but it's nice to have" - George Shearing (paraphrasing)
Next you can take these concepts (mode 1 / mode 2 / mode 3) and mix them together, modify the treble-side / bass-side notes, and suddenly you've got many variations of fingerpicking in C.
The C major scale
Another quote by Miles Davis is that "there are no wrong notes... a wrong note can always be made right by the next note"
That idea of right versus wrong notes actually gets pretty deep. For now, just know that these are the open position notes, as they related to the C chord.
As a test, try strumming a C chord, then playing each of the notes... u might notice rough patterns based on how they're colored-in.
These jumbles of circled notes have some method to the madness, hopefully they aren't losing you.
- Black: root tones
- Red: chord tones
- Blue: scale tones
- White: chromatic tones
The higher up on that list, the more "right" the notes sound.
Have u ever wondered why certain notes are used as the bass notes for C, G, Am, E7, etc? For bass notes, it's important to use notes that are very "right" (relative to the Miles Davis quote above). For that reason, the Black root tones and Red chord tones are often used as bass notes, because they strongly suggest the underlying chord.
However, they're also great as melody notes too (not just bass notes), because the ear loves to hear notes that match the underlying chord. Perhaps u notice how the triangle of notes circled below is a keystone of the standard C chord, and it contains lots of juicy Black and Red notes.
These scale diagrams, as busy as they can look, are also useful for figuring out alternative notes for "doodling" on the treble-side, perhaps for improvisation, or just a different arrangement. Every note is different, but you could for example use the Blue D and F notes alongside the Black and Red notes, for some nice soloing against the Cmaj chord. The chromatic F# and C# are also quite usable, but require a bit more tact... one use-case for them is as transitional notes, when you're going from C to D, for example, you can instead play C, C#, D.
Returning to the subject of bass-notes, since Red notes are also quite strong (though not as strong as the Black notes), you can use them for bass notes also. In fact, Fahey often plays key of C songs with the alternating bass between the low G and E notes. He does this on Assassination of Stefan Grossman.
One takeaway of these scale charts, with all the different notes, is to show how actually there are always lots of possibilities as far as notes. In fact, to open your fingers up to different picking patterns in C, you could use those same Mode 1 / 2 / 3 exercises, but swap out different bass and treble side notes, based on the scale's notes. Training your fingers to improvise is a big step towards making fingerstyle blues sound more "real" (for more on that subject, check out the last post on Spike Driver Blues).
The F chord is an important chord also; when you're in the key of C, it's also called the IV chord... it gets that name because F is the 4th note away from C.
Just like learning the Cmaj chord in all its picking permutations, it's handy to do the same for the F chord.. similarly, try to "get the point" of each Mode & each time value (whole/half/quarter)... from there, you can "get off the paper" and just practice it based on memory, mainlining it into your fingertips potentially faster.
Note: at the moment of publishing there is an error on Line 3^
The F major scale
Next these are some chosen notes that could work nicely underneath the F chord. Try strumming an F chord and then doodling around the colored notes; you'll find ones that could work nicely while playing the F's alternating bass. Also, you can try modifying the alternating bass notes, using the available root/chord tones in Black/Red.
The G chord is also a vital piece of the puzzle. It's referred to as the V chord, since it's the 5th note away from the C root (a la... C, D, E, F, G).
For reasons that won't be discussed here, the V chord is often played as a dominant 7th... hence, G7, or V7 chord. For more about that, you can research "secondary dominants" and connect those dots... the cliffnotes is that u can play ANY dominant 7th chord... E7, F#7, D7, etc... and it's like it forces the listener's ear to hear the chords that those V7 lead into... (ie. E7 -> A, or F#7 -> B, or D7 -> G).
For the C and F chords, try letting these patterns marinate in your fingers
The G7 scale
For the G7 chord, here are the root/chord/scale/chromatic tones, available in open position.
Despite the busy-ness of the diagram, you can kind of see familiar patterns and shapes. For example, it's understandable why the B & F notes (on the 5th and 4th strings respectively) are often used as alternating bass notes, since they're Red and stronger.
Now that you've built more of a mental universe of notes, you can use that to decide on bass notes to use, as well as good notes for soloing & improvisation on the treble side but also all strings.
Vanilla version of the melody
It's also a good time to try to memorizing the melody on your guitar - that way you won't have to refer to the "paper" for the melody notes later on.
Combining the melody & bass
Next, it's time to squeeze in the bass-side alongside the treble-side.
But, for now, forget that alternating basslines even exist; just try "punching" out the root notes at the start of each bar.
After getting comfortable with that, you can start to add some detailing by then layering in the alternating bass...
Once you're past that, you might notice how some of this is all coming together...
Do you notice how all those melody notes are Mode 1? In other words, they're all played as fingerstyle "pinches" that are on-the-beat? It's all about those other permutations, so the next step is then playing all the melody notes in Mode 2 off-the-beat... if you worked through those chordal exercises above, you'll hardly break a sweat modifying the melody!
Of course, after working it all out in Mode 2, then it's Mode 3 next, as pickups...
And once you've worked through the melody in Mode 1, 2, 3... then you can mix it all up! And even add in improvisational notes based on the root/chord/scale/chromatic tones.
Polished version... "fill-in-the-blank"
Here's a more polished out "final" version of Amazing Grace that incorporates those things: mode 1 / 2 / 3 all mixed up, playing around with bass notes, and adding in other improvisational notes. There are lots of ties added in, but that's just to help the MIDI playback sound more natural, with some notes ringing out longer than others.
Finishing things off
As some final words, to work out that Fahey magic, where he can seemingly take any melody, and make it sound nice and "jumpy" as a fingerstyle arrangement, you can follow some of the steps here. Have a comfortable understanding of the underlying chords/scales, learn a basic version of the melody, marry the two in a step-by-step process (adding more complexity each time), and then let your fingers start to improvise using extra/less notes, mode1/2/3 picking patterns, and other variations.
PS: It's amazing how Mode 3 picking can really help get closer to Fahey's sound... he uses it extensively here on Hark, The Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful.