“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is best known today as an Elvis Presley song, but the tune actually goes back to the Roaring Twenties. Written in 1926 by Lou Handman and Roy Turk, it was a hit for a number of vocalists in the ’20s and ’30s—Vaughn De Leath, Henry Burr, Gene Austin, and others. The song saw a resurgence in popularity starting with Al Jolson’s 1950 version, peaking ten years later with Presley’s iconic rendition, which spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.
Recordings through the years have varied in both the style of the day and the arrangements. An intro section and a Shakespeare-inspired recitation have been used or set aside to suit each version. Presley’s interpretation, for example, dropped the intro but used the recitation; others use the intro and not the recitation. For this arrangement, in the key of G major, we’re going to concentrate on just the main body of the song.
As always with this series, we’re going to keep things simple, with a relaxed tempo and mostly open chords. The arrangement runs through the song form twice, with the first ending landing on Daug (D F# A#). Augmented chords hold a lot of tension and just ache to resolve back to the I chord (in this case, G), so they’re a great device for this job. At the second ending, an E7 chord sets up a tag in which the last line is repeated. The E7, with its major third, G#, adds a moment of brightness to lift us for the ending.
For the strumming, I would recommend a common waltz pattern—play a bass note on the first beat of each measure, followed by downward strums on the higher strings, squarely on beats 2 and 3. If you’re sitting on a chord for more than two measures, such as the Em shown notated in the accompaniment pattern, try alternating the bass note—play the root (open low E) in the first bar and the fifth (B on string 5, fret 2) in the next measure. Be sure to strum gently, to best suit the character of this classic song.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!