There are days when I could use the services of the Sorting Hat. This song lesson, a look at John Prine’s Hello In There, from his eponymous 1971 debut album, could easily be place in the Easy Songs for Beginners section. It’s not really all that hard, once you get the picking pattern into your fingers. And, as always, the picking pattern is simply a guideline. You could come up with all sorts of ways of playing it, even simply strumming instead of picking when you know the chord progression.
But just because this is an “easy intermediate” song, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something (or more than a few somethings) about it. And that’s the whole point of all these lessons here at Guitar Noise, right?
Even though I’d heard this song for ages, I didn’t ever play it until the day a friend brought it along to one of the jam sessions we’d have in Chicago. His chord chart showed the song in the key of C, which I assumed was the key that the original recording was in. The first verse, and the chorus, looked like this:
Being a jam session, we obviously had a number of guitarists, so I quickly worked out two “up the neck” transpositions in order to be able to play in a different position and add a bit more to the song. The first was in G (which meant playing with a capo on the fifth fret) and the second was in A (capo on the third fret).
The next time I had the chance to play this was years later, as Hello In There turned up in one of Nick Torres’ songsheet collections. Owing to time, I’m not even sure we gave it a cursory going-over.
But when someone asked for a lesson dealing with a John Prine song, this is the one that came to mind first. And it’s kind of interesting because when I took a look at some recent videos of Prine playing the song, I noticed that he currently (or at least less than two years ago) is playing and singing the song in the key of A. He uses a capo on the second fret and plays open position chords in the key of G.
Now, if I were relying solely on information from the Internet without applying a bit of my brain to it, I might be lost because the majority of the tab / cheat sheets available on the Internet still put the song in C. C certainly may have been the key of the original recording (I don’t have a copy to verify that, sorry), but as people age their vocal range can change and that’s probably why John Prine currently plays it in A.
The point is that even when you know the chords of a song, you may have learned them in a key that’s very hard for you to sing in. And even using a capo may become problematic. For instance, my vocal range is not at all like John Prine’s (and that’s certainly an understatement!). I’m very comfortable singing this song in Eb or even E. That would mean putting a capo on the eighth or ninth fret if I wanted to use the same G based chords that Prine uses. Playing that high up the neck changes the character of the song quite a bit, so I have to take that into account when figuring out how I want to do this as a solo piece.
For now, though, we’re going to first approach this song in the style that John Prine plays it in the various recent live performances you can see and hear on YouTube. That means that we’re going to be playing with G chords but use the capo on the second fret, which puts the song in the key of A. Just so that we understand that we’ve technically got three keys to take into account here, let’s transpose the chords from C to both A and G to make our lives easier (and if you’re in a muddle about how to transpose, take a look at our lesson on that very topic – A Basic Guide to Transposing):
Once we have our pallet of chords, we can take a look at the picking. Prine uses a slow and relatively sparse Travis fingerstyle pattern as a foundation. To begin with, you want to use the thumb to get the bass notes on the beats and then add the treble notes with the fingers. For the G chord, for instance, you’d be playing this:
You can also hit the open G string instead of the open D string in this pattern. In fact, you’ll hear on the various MP3 files that go with this lesson that I will constantly flip between using the D string and the G string, particularly on the fourth beat of any given measure. As we’ve discussed in many articles and song lessons here at Guitar Noise, as long as you have the chord in place with your fingers, it’s rarely going to sound wrong.
In other words, even though I’ve written out the bass part as alternating between the low G (third fret of the low E (sixth) string) and the open D string, you should feel free to use the open G string as an alternate bass note as well. If you worry about being totally mechanical about it, you can lose some of the organic nature of playing. So please remember to use the tablature as a template for your playing and not as some kind of sacred text, okay? And forgive my switching from one to the other in the MP3 files.
In terms of structure, Hello In There is essentially a “verse – chorus” sort of song. The verse, or half the verse depending on the arrangement, also serves as an introduction and can also be played for an interlude between the verses. Both verse and chorus are sixteen measures long and can be broken down into two distinct parts, each eight measures long. This is very helpful because, as you’ll see, the second half of the chorus is almost exactly like the second half of the verse. Half of the verse is also used as the outro, or coda, of the song.
The first half of the verse is a four measure progression (one of G, one of Am and two of D7) that repeats itself (making eight total measures). If you’re confident about having a basic picking pattern down, then it’s time to tackle the first half of the verse:
The basic Travis picking pattern remains constant throughout the song, but there are little twists to it. For instance, each of the first three chords has a root note on a different string. The low G, as we’ve discussed, is on the low E (sixth) string while the A of the Am is the open A string and the D of the D7 is the open D string. This means you need to shift your thumb accordingly when picking out the bass notes.
The first of the two measures of D7 tosses in a slight embellishment by adding the note of the open high E (first) string. This is a fairly common ornament that guitar players use when playing almost any open position D chord. You can either pick the open string or perform a pull off with your ring finger, which is keeping the second fret of the high E string down for the initial D7 chord.
The last eight measures of the verse involve four chords (Gmaj7, C, G and D), each of which get two measures. When I listened to the video of John Prine performing this song, it seemed to me that he continued to use the open D string as his bass note when he changed to what the chord charts pretty much write as “Gmaj7” (or Cmaj7 if you go with the key of C charts) and the absence of the G note made the chord sound more like a typical minor chord rather than the jazzy sort of feel of a major seventh chord.
Now if you take a moment to think about it, this makes perfect sense. The notes of Gmaj7 are G, B, D and F# (F# being the major seventh). If you drop out the G, you’ve got B, D and F#, which make up the Bm chord. So playing a “beginner’s Bm” (xx0432) works wonderfully here, and also allows you to mimic the take-the-finger-off-the-high-E-string ornamentation that you used with the D chord:
And since we’re having some fun dropping notes to open up the D string, how about turning around and adding a note, say adding the G chord at the third fret of the high E string during the C chord? That’s what’s going on in the first measure of C.
For the measures of G, I move the treble part of the picking down to the B and G strings, just to do something different than what we played for the first G chord. There’s nothing too fancy about that. Occasionally, he will hammer on the open low E string to get the bass note (G at the third fret) and you will hear me do that on occasion as well. I marked it on the second measure of G in the notation / tablature so you could see it, but you should feel free to use it at your discretion. Or not use it at all, if you prefer.
Another thing I picked up from listening to Prine’s video is that he uses F# (found at the second fret of the low E string) as the bass note for D chord, making it D/F# if you prefer. And if you take a look at him playing you’ll see that he wraps his thumb over the top of the neck of the guitar to get this note. He also does a hammer-on with the open G string to get the A note at the second fret. This is shown at the very beginning of the second measure of D in the notation / tablature of this last example.
A quick note here to point out that I should have stopped after the two measures of D/F# and not gone on to play the G chord at the end of that last MP3 example. Lost my place, I’m afraid! Hope you’ll forgive me.
Putting both parts of the verse together (and it is the verse and not the “full chorus,” as I mistakenly announce on the following MP3 example) will sound like this:
That F# in the D/F# is something you can decide not to play. It won’t be all that different if you use a regular D chord instead. You will have to change your picking accordingly, though. But the real purpose of the F# is in how it leads your ear around and tricks you when the chorus comes up. Before the chorus, you’ll hear this F# in the bass three times – once in the Introduction, where it leads you to G; at the end of the first half of the verse, where it again leads you to G; and finally at the end of the verse. And your ear is, naturally, expecting to go to G again.
But instead he lowers the F# to F and plays an F chord. And the first eight measures of the chorus simply switch between F and G:
You can play this F as a full barre if you’d like. Prine plays it as another “wrap-around” chord, using his thumb for the F at the first fret of the low E, his index at the first fret of the B string, middle finger on the second fret of the G, pinky on the third fret of the D and ring finger on the third fret of the A string. He doesn’t worry about the high E string because he’s not picking it on either the F or the G chord.
You could, if you wanted to, simply slide this “wrap-around F” chord (13321x) up two frets to get the following G. It will sound essentially the same.
The second half of the chorus is, as mentioned earlier, pretty much a copy of the second half of the verse, but with an additional four measures of G tacked on to the end:
Now let’s put both half of the chorus together:
And that’s pretty much the whole song. Here’s a chord sheet to help you see your way through:
As I mentioned earlier, choosing a key to play a song, or choosing a capo placement for that matter (since it’s just a way of playing in a different key in a different place for different chord voicings on the neck) in is an essential part of how the song is going to sound. You’ve just heard the two main parts of the song, the verse and the chorus, played in A but using “key of G” chords and having the capo on the second fret. Here is another version, this time using open position chords in the key of A. With your permission, I’m not going to tab out the guitar part. There’s no sense to since it’s basically the same exact picking pattern we’ve been using all along. You will need the chords, though:
As I mentioned, these are basic, simple open position chords. Bm7 serves as an easy substitute for a barre chord-style Bm and allows me to use the bass note (B at the second fret of the A string). I do use some hammer-ons, such as hammering from the open B string to the second fret while playing the regular A chord, and also throw in the D note at the third fret of the B string on the E7 on occasion.
In this key, it would have been easier for me to use Amaj7 (x02120) instead of C#m, but I chose instead to use an easy voicing of C#m7, x46600, with my index finger playing the fourth fret of the A string, my ring finger on the sixth fret of the D and my pinky on the sixth fret of the G string. That allows me to slide the fingers, keeping the shape, up one fret and playing D 6/9 (x57700), which sounds very cool. An even easier substitution would be Dadd9 (xx0770) and I play that at least once in the verse.
Finally, I make use of the open, ringing B and high E strings by playing an Aadd9 (x07600) for the final chord. That may seem tricky, but actually it’s another easy chord change because the Aadd9 is essentially the same shape as the open E chord that precedes it. You simply slide the shape up to the sixth and seventh frets and remove your finger from the A string. Voila!
You can hear that even though this version is in the same key as the first one we did, it has its own feel to it. Is one arrangement better than the other? No, they are simply different, that’s all. Instead of thinking of which one is “right,” why not listen to them both played together:
This is an excellent example of how two guitars playing exactly the same fingerpicking pattern can still produce depth and harmony simply by using different chord voicings. And the voicings don’t have to be all that far away from each other on the neck.
One of the things I’d like to start exploring with some of the lessons here at Guitar Noise is how to put together multiple guitar arrangements. Hopefully, this will give you a taste for what you might hear. At the very least, you’ve learned a terrific song by a great songwriter. Roger Waters stated in a 2008 interview that John Prine wrote “just extra-ordinarily eloquent music – and he lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon.”
As always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at email@example.com.
Until our next lesson…