by Joe Deloro
In this guitar lesson we’ll focus on some of the acoustic rhythm guitar techniques that Bob Dylan has used throughout his career to accompany his vocals. Along the way we’ll also look at how some other artists have approached his songs.
Ranging from very simple to fairly intricate, the following examples illustrate how Dylan used accompaniment parts in ways that never overpowered the melody or the lyrics. We’ll start with different types of strumming and then move on to arpeggio and fingerstyle parts.
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Full and Zone Strums
The first two examples employ “full strumming,” in which all of the strings are strummed. For some, this is folk guitar at its finest. Of course, one man’s “strumming” can be another man’s “banging,” so keep a light touch.
Ex. 1 is based on the background to “The Times Are-A-Changin’.” Here you see how occasional eighth notes can be effective in creating a flow for a simple 3/4 accompaniment. The notes that fall on the downbeat of each quarter-note get down strums, and the upbeats get up strums.
Now let’s look at two approaches Dylan took to ‘All Along The Watchtower.” Ex. 2a shows the rhythmic, full strum approach he used on the Unplugged recording. It fits in well with his six-piece band, since the organ and dobro are playing melodically.
The next few examples use what we’ll call Ex. 2b “zone strumming.” This means thinking of the adjacent strings of a chord as different zones. Any division is fine–there could be two zones, where strings six, five, and four are the bass zone and strings three, two, and one one are the treble zone, or three zones, where six and five are the bass, four and three are the middle, and two and one are the treble. If there’s an odd number of strings in the fingering, wing it. Got all that?
The point is, this technique offers a melodic approach to strumming: By hearing/strumming the highest note of each zone as a melodic tone, you can build patterns or phrases. Be patient–if you’re new to it, accuracy takes some practice.
Ex. 2b shows the zone strumming that Dylan used in the John Wesley Harding version of “Watchtower.” In this recording, the backup band was just bass, drums, and guitar, so it called for more detail from the guitar part. Different strokes for different folks? (Yeah, I know…) Notice that all the accents fall on up strums in this example.
Ex. 3 is also based on the Unplugged session. It features a two-bar guitar vamp from “Knockln’ On Heaven’s Door.” This time, all the eighth-notes get down strums, and only the second of the sixteenth-note pairs are up strums.
In 1967 Dylan recorded “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on The Basement Tapes. It was a minor hit for The Byrds in 1968–their version is on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Ex. 4 is the vamp the Byrds used in both the verse and chorus.
Dylan also recorded “I Shall Be Released” during The Basement Tapes sessions. Ex.5 highlights The Band’s ethereal version from
their debut album Music from Big Pink, where Robbie Robertson takes a zone strum approach. Think of the upper note of each
zone as part of a background counter-line to the vocal melody.
The next examples, from Dylan’s first hit “Blowin’ In The Wind” (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), feature a “walking bass” technique. In this approach, a bass note is picked before strumming the higher notes of the chord the variety of bass notes allows for more melodic accompaniment lines.
Ex. 6a, from the verse, centers on G and is very straightforward. Ex. 6b is based on the chorus and centers on C-the pull-offs add melodic flavor.
With a great cure for the wimpy-D-chord-voicing blues–the C-shaped Dadd4 in the first measure-Ex. 7 takes a look at “It Ain’t Me Babe” from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Here Bob used the “root/strum” approach for the verse. No mystery here–as the name implies, you lead off with the root and then strum. Notice the hammer-on lead-in to the C/G in bar 4. We’ll see more of that in the fingerstyle examples.
“It’s Allright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, is the subject of Examples 8a and 8b. The tuning is “double dropped D.” That is, you lower both the sixth and first strings one whole step to D and get w-i-d-e with it. There are some great syncopations as the low open D grounds the modal changes of the intro. Then the whole thing flip-flops in the verse, where the D triad acts as a pedal chord for the walking bass line. And that’s just the background!
Ex. 9 looks in on “Pretty Boy Floyd” by folk legend Woody Guthrie. In 1988 Dylan laid down a version as a tribute to Guthrie for Folkways:A Vision Shared. Recorded solo with his original setup of guitar, harp, and vocal, he turns in a beautiful, razor-sharp reading of the Oklahoma dust-bowl ballad. He uses every technique we’ve covered so far, and then some.
Bob embellishes the bass line, using hammer-ons on the back beat, to get some nice melodic effects. The time signature changes in measures 3, 4, and 5 create tension to set up the verse.
The main guitar part from “Just Like A Woman” (Blonde on Blonde) is mostly wall-to-wall major chord arpeggios. Strung together in a chain of closed in versions for a very melodic sound, the effect is almost like that of a music box. Notice how Dylan keeps things melodic and interesting by varying the chord voicings. Give the arpeggios a 6/8 feel–they can be played with a pick or fingerstyle–and the part will sway and not sound mechanical.
The two-bar I-JV-V vamp that makes up Ex. 10a is based on the intro, but is also repeated in the first four bars of the verse. To finish the verse, Ex. 10b introduces block voicings (in measures 3 and 4) to keep things fresh.
Now let’s look at two of the most popular approaches to fingerstyle playing, Travis style and clawhammer in two views of the intro to “Don’t Think Twice.” The first is by Dylan, the next is by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Arranged in cut time, Ex. 11a is based on Bob’s version and features Travis-style alternating bass. Here your thumb plays the bass-string notes, while the index and middle fingers handle the rest.
Ex. 11b is similar to the preceding alternating bass approach, except that here you usually begin each measure by plucking two notes on the downbeat of one. As you can see, measure 2 is the exception. Also, note the absence of bass notes on the second beat of measures 3 and 4.
Our final examples are taken from one of Dylan’s earliest original ballads, “Girl From The North Country,” where he uses two-and three-finger “clawhammer” techniques as well as simple alternate picking. Clawhammer style uses the first two or three picking-hand fingers to pluck upwards on the treble strings. This usually follows on the upbeats between bass notes played by the thumb. As always, check out the recording.
Ex. 12a illustrates the intro. As you can see, it gets progressively simpler over its four bars. Notice how bars 3 and 4 introduce the verse’s basic alternating 4/4 to 2/4 time signature pattern.
Ex. 12b follows the first 12 bars of the verse. It features an Em9 chord which, as Dylan’s music goes, is a pretty exotic chord. A perfect background for the subject of the song, and it never overstays its welcome.
The more melodic or syncopated a part is, the more it stands out. Having an understanding of various techniques, from full strumming to Travis picking, allows you to tailor your accompaniment to avoid overshadowing the melody or other parts. Bob Dylan’s incredible output over the past 35 years has always drawn on that kind of vocabulary, and this guitar lesson has only scratched the surface.