by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
From “Ashokan Farewell” to “Edelweiss” to “Sweet Baby James,” some of the loveliest melodies glide along in 3/4, or waltz time. Waltz time seems to bring out the sentimental side of songwriters—as Richard Thompson puts it, “Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love.”
Songs in 3/4 can sound sweet on acoustic guitar, especially when you go beyond a basic one-two-three waltz rhythm and take a more nuanced approach to picking patterns, chord voicings, and bass lines. That’s the goal of this Weekly Workout. For inspiration, you can listen to the songs mentioned in this lesson, plus some other favorite acoustic waltzes, on Spotify. To find the playlist, search for “songs in waltz time.”
Songs in 3/4 have, as the numbers indicate, three quarter notes in each measure. On guitar, the simplest way to play accompaniment in 3/4 is with a bass note on beat one and strums on beats two and three: That’s a boom-chick-chick (or call it oom-pah-pah) rhythm, where boom is the accented downbeat. Play it in Ex. 1a, which has a I–V–I–IV progression that you can hear in the first four bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, arranged here in the key of C.
That boom-chick-chick pattern can sound clunky or mechanical after a while, so now try some variations. In the first two measures of Ex. 1b, play two eighth notes—a down-up strum—on beat three or (in measure 7) on beat 2. Notice how using the inversion G/B instead of a regular G makes it so the bass moves stepwise—down and up a half step (C to B to C).
In Ex. 1c, create a more open feel by playing the chord only on beat 2, with bass notes on beats 1 and 3 that guide the accompaniment from chord to chord. Ex. 1d shows one of my favorite rhythmic figures for accompanying a waltz: Play two eighth notes in the bass on beat 1, then strum the chord on beat 2 and let it ring. The Fmaj7 at the end of the example adds a little extra softness to the sound.
Finally, in Ex. 1e, play the chords on beat 1 and leave lots of space. Now you can hear a hint of the “Edelweiss” melody in the phrasing and the choice of chord voicings. The accompaniment is supporting the melody in a deeper way than just marking time. In the original soundtrack recording of “Edelweiss,” the guitar actually plays almost the entire melody along with the vocal.
Apply some ideas from Week One to a different chord progression—drawn from Jay Ungar’s beautiful fiddle tune “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.
The rhythmic figure in Ex. 1d is used extensively here, starting in measure 2, where you play F# and A eighth notes (on the sixth and fifth strings) followed by a half-note strum. If you’re playing with a flatpick, use the down-up-down pattern shown in measure 2; that maintains a relaxed alternating motion with your picking hand and gives a fuller sound for the strum than you’d get by playing with all downstrokes.
As in Ex. 1c, there are bass notes or runs at the end of each measure leading to the next chord; in measures 5–7, for instance, the bass walks down from D to B to G. Notice the fingering suggestion in measure 5: This passage is easiest to play if you use a first-finger barre for the D shape, with your second finger on the second string. That leaves your third finger free to grab the C# on the fifth string.
With a little more attention to bass notes—the lowest notes in chords as well as the single bass notes—you can play a full-blown melody in your accompaniment part. That’s what you’ll do this week, in an example inspired by the late, great Elliott Smith, a prolific writer of waltzes and a sophisticated guitarist as well. The example tips its hat to “Waltz #2 (XO),” which has a much more jaunty feel than the other songs mentioned (though the lyrics, as in so many of Smith’s songs, are far from upbeat).
In the first half of the example, focus on the treble side of the guitar, as the melody descends from A on the third string (in measure 1) to C on the fifth string (measure 8). The C/G, C/E, and G7/D inversions allow you to keep the melody line below the chords throughout. The second half of the example moves the same melody down an octave, starting on the open fifth string, using low versions of the C/G and C/E. Look for the suggested fingerings in measures 5–6 and 9–10, which will help you maneuver through the eighth notes to the fingering you need for the following chord.
The last example in this waltzing workout uses a number of ideas from the previous weeks. The progression comes from one of my own songs, an old-timey country waltz “Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye.”
In measures 4–8, play a gently rolling G–Gmaj7–G6–G pattern that, rhythmically speaking, may remind you of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” After that, the example incorporates a mix of picking patterns, with sections of block chords broken up by bass lines, arpeggios, and single notes—all these changes are cued to the song’s melody. The inversions D/F# and D7/C add a little harmonic variety. In measure 24, play a C#m7b5 (fancy name, easy fingering) as a transition between the A and D, and at the end, climb up the neck on a D–Dsus2–D9 sequence and let the chords ring.
Try applying the patterns and approaches in these examples to other 3/4 songs you know. As in all accompaniment, the key is taking your cues from the song itself. Reinforce the melody with your chord voicings and bass lines, leave plenty of space, and add fills only where they enhance rather than distract from the song.
In this waltz, your guitar is the dance partner. Let the melody lead—and try not to stomp on its feet.