“Georgia on My Mind,” with music and lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, respectively, is among the most beloved tunes in the Great American Songbook. It has been interpreted by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to James Brown to Willie Nelson, but the best-known version is the one that the legendary R&B singer Ray Charles recorded for his 1960 album The Genius Hits the Road.
This take on “Georgia” not only established Charles as a masterly interpreter outside of his genre of origin, it became a Billboard No. 1hit and in 1979 was adopted as the state song of Georgia. But it came about only by accident, as Charles explains in the liner notes to his 1997 CD box set, Genius & Soul: “Had me a driver who’d always hear me humming ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ Cat said, ‘You hum it so much, why don’t you record it?’”
This arrangement kicks off with an intro that captures the original string parts by arranger Ralph Burns. To make things easier to play on the guitar, I placed the first two bars an octave lower than the strings on the original recording, with the second two bars in the original octave. Play this part kind of languorously, taking advantage of the breathing room afforded by the open strings.
The bulk of the arrangement distills the wonderful jazz chords of the original Charles version into compact guitar voicings, most with just three or four notes, for a lean and uncluttered sound. For a bit of a textural contrast, in the bridge I’ve included fuller chords with ringing open strings. Note the use of the line cliché—the chromatic movement of B to C to C# on string 2 between the Em, Em(b6), and Em6 chords—borrowed from the string arrangement. Before you play the piece, make sure that you can comfortably fret all of these shapes, and feel free to change the fingerings to your liking—you could, for instance, play the G6 grip with your third finger, rather than fourth, on string 3.
Use any picking-hand pattern you’d like, but I’d recommend strumming in the manner of Freddie Green, the longtime guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra. Basically, just play downstrokes in quarter notes, four to the bar, with a somewhat relaxed feel. (For more on this approach, see Ron Jackson’s Weekly Workout in the October 2015 issue or Whit Smith’s Western swing lesson in the May/June 2019 issue. You could also fingerpick the accompaniment, as ace guitarist Adam Levy does in this video.)
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Charles was a gifted pianist, and the last two bars here approximate the bluesy phrases he plays at the song’s end, transposed down an octave to be playable on the acoustic guitar. As always, try adding a personal touch using your own embellishments here.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 64.
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