It’s been 50 years since James Taylor released what would prove to be one of the most enduring ballads in the folk-pop realm—and, according to recent surveys, an overwhelming favorite of AG readers. “Fire and Rain” is a rather heavy song. Its three verses refer obliquely to a friend who committed suicide; Taylor’s struggles with drug addiction and mental health; and not an aviation disaster, as is commonly assumed, but the failure of the singer-songwriter’s band the Flying Machine to take off.
Though “Fire and Rain” sounds in the key of C major, Taylor plays it in A, with a capo at the third fret. This allows the use of open strings for the roots of chords that would require fretted notes without the capo. It also makes it possible to decorate the I chord (A, sounding as C) in ways that would not be possible with a basic open C chord.
The heart of the song—a four-bar progression that appears throughout the intro and verses—is shown in tab and notation in bars 1–4. In the chord frames that precede the song, I’ve included Taylor’s somewhat nonstandard fingerings for the D and A chords—grips that allow the first finger to be used on the hammer-ons and pull-offs. Do try these, but go with whatever fingerings are most comfortable for you. Also, note the use of the bVII chord, Gmaj7 (sounds as Bbmaj7), which lends a melancholy character and also reveals Taylor’s deft ways with harmony.
Speaking of harmony, another interesting detail occurs when Taylor lands on the A9(no 3rd) and Asus2 chords at the first and second endings, hinting at the use of static harmony (basically, no chord changes) in the song’s outro. Harmony like this, encountered more often in modal jazz (like Miles Davis’s landmark album Kind of Blue) than in pop songs, makes for a wide-open kind of sound.
One more thing to consider: While at least part of the appeal of “Fire and Rain” owes to its spare but beautiful instrumentation—acoustic guitar, piano (played by the singer-songwriter Carole King), drum kit (played with brushes), and upright bass—it does work very nicely with just voice and guitar. That said, on the original recording, the bass plays a bowed C throughout the third verse, and this pedal tone, as it’s called, lends a sense of drama. You can achieve the same effect on your guitar by playing the open fifth string under all the chords in the verse; this will provide a subtly unexpected transformation.
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 January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 66.