Learn to Play Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

Lightfoot recorded the song on a 12-string—specifically, a Gibson B-45-12—but it will work just as well on a six-string.

Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976) might just be the most unlikely song to ever peak at No. 2 on the Top 40. Not only is this Grammy-nominated ballad quite long, clocking in at more than six minutes, its subject matter is the 1975 sinking of an ore carrier on Lake Superior that resulted in the deaths of all 29 crew members aboard. 

Lightfoot’s lyrics describe the tragedy in sharp detail and with reverence for the historical facts. The late Canadian singer-songwriter, who died last May at 84, was so concerned with accuracy that he updated the lyrics in 2010 after it was revealed that the wreck was caused by treacherous waves, rather than human error, as originally thought. He revised the third line of verse 4 to say “At 7 pm, it grew dark, it was then he said,” and in the first line of verse 7, he changed “musty” to “rustic.”


“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” with its lilting feel, is in 6/8 time—or six eighth notes per measure. If you are not yet familiar with this meter, it’s best counted “1 2 3, 4 5 6,” as Lightfoot does audibly at the beginnings of concert performances on YouTube. 

Lightfoot recorded the song on a 12-string—specifically, a Gibson B-45-12—but it will work just as well on a six-string. This notation (p. 50)shows a strumming pattern similar to the one that Lightfoot plays on the intro of the original studio recording, with small variations in the rhythms throughout. A good way to learn the pattern would be first to strum downstrokes only on the beats, and then to add occasional upstrokes between them. For those who also play lead guitar, I’ve also included the memorable electric lead line heard in the intro. On acoustic guitar, you may want to substitute slides for some of the bends.

When it comes to the fretting hand, this arrangement of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is pretty simple—just five open shapes in the key of A major (sounding as B, due to a second-fret capo). Instead of an A chord (A C# E), there’s an Asus2, a type of suspended triad in which the third (C#) is replaced with the second (B). Then there’s the G6/A, or a G6 chord (G B D E) with an A as the lowest note, used only in the intro/interlude section. Chords like these are easy to fret and add beautiful colors and textures.

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 September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 48.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 342

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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