How to Play Acoustic Bob Dylan: the Secrets Behind 10 of His Greatest Songs
First and foremost, Bob Dylan is a wordsmith (On October 13, it was announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature). His lyrics are the reason people still buy his records—old and new—and continue to flock to his concerts. His way with language is why every generation of songwriters since the early 1960s has studied his work. Dylan’s words are what kept his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks. Yet, for all the accolades Dylan has earned as a writer, there is an aspect of his artistry that often gets overlooked: his great acoustic guitar playing. It’s been there all along, for anyone who cared to notice.
On the 50th anniversary of John Wesley Harding, an album that signaled the beginning of a seven-year period in which Dylan would record The Basement Tapes and release a half-dozen largely acoustic albums, AG decided to showcase his acoustic side. Of course, Dylan has expressed his acoustic side throughout his nearly seven-decade-long career. In this lesson feature, I’ll take a close look at some of Dylan’s deceptive chord moves, his fluency with standard and non-standard tunings, and his knack for constant reinvention. The music examples are mostly drawn from his early work. He’s made a lot of great music in the ensuing years, of course, but his relatively spare early recordings are where the fundamentals of Dylan’s style are most easily heard and appreciated.
Do Look Back
In the early 1960s, at the beginning of his career, Dylan was an unabashed folkie. He wrote and sang of landmark news events such as the assassination of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers (“Only a Pawn in Their Game”), warmongering (“Masters of War”), and social justice (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). While honing his own material, the young artist also took it upon himself to become a walking compendium of traditional American styles, absorbing song after song. On his eponymous 1962 Columbia Records debut, featuring just his voice, harmonica, and solo acoustic guitar, Dylan showcases his ease with such forms—on the gospel song “In My Time of Dying,” for example, and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s blues “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
Columbia released Dylan’s second record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, just a year later. It was a huge leap forward, artistically, featuring a dozen original songs—including the instant classics “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—as well as the traditional “Corrina, Corrina” (featuring the ornamental second guitar of studio ace Bruce Langhorne). Freewheelin’ closely followed the sonic template of its predecessor—vocal, harmonica, and mostly solo acoustic guitar (often strummed close to the bridge to give a percussive effect)—yet Dylan’s guitar work is more confident and more varied than before. His continued development is evident on The Times They Are A-Changin’, in 1964, with Dylan employing a wider variety of strumming patterns and some lovely fingerpicking on “One Too Many Mornings” (more on this song later). Another Side of Bob Dylan, also released in ’64, finds Dylan once again in solo troubadour mode. Featuring “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the entire album, incredibly, was recorded in just one long, late-night session.
In 1965, Dylan did something that many fans and critics never saw coming—he went electric, donning a Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival. Backed by electric guitarist Michael Bloomfield and other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan’s amped-up set caused an uproar. That same year, he released not one but two albums pulsing with rock-and-roll energy—Bringing It All Back Home, in March, then Highway 61 Revisited five months later. The double-LP Blonde on Blonde was released in May of ’66 and features several of the songs that would later become Dylan’s calling cards, including “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.” He returned to Nashville and released John Wesley Harding at the end of 1967. Though the album features a small backing band—bass, drums, and occasional pedal-steel guitar—the tone is spartan compared with the three energized releases that preceded it.
Part of Dylan’s genius as a player and songwriter is that he can take simple musical ideas and rework them in seemingly endless combinations.
Higher & Higher
Dylan’s acoustic guitar chimes clearly throughout each song on John Wesley Harding. He sometimes achieves this by using a capo to move his voicings farther up the fretboard than you might expect—presumably so his chords won’t get lost in the mix. The higher-register guitar also frees up more latitude for his voice.
“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is a good example of his use of a capo on John Wesley Harding. The song is in the key of F major. Dylan could’ve played it in E with his capo at the first fret, or in D with the capo at the third fret—but he plays the song in C with the capo at the fifth fret. (The recording also features a second acoustic-guitar track, much quieter in the mix, played in a lower position.)
Ex. 1 is in the style of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”
Similarly, the album’s title track is in the key of F and played in C with a capo at the fifth fret. The track “As I Went Out One Morning” is in the key of F# minor, played in D minor, with a capo at the fourth fret. An interesting aspect of the specific voicings in Ex. 1 is that two of them—F/C and D7/A—have the fifth in the bass instead of the root. (The note C is the fifth degree of the chord F; A is the fifth of D7.) Dylan has used this inverted harmony repeatedly throughout his repertoire.
Never the Same Way
Unlike many singer-songwriters, Dylan has never been precious about performing his songs live the same way he recorded them. “Desolation Row” is a classic example. On the original studio recording—from Highway 61 Revisited—he plays this epic three-chord song in drop-C tuning (C A D G B E), with a capo at the fourth fret, sounding in E.
Ex. 2a is similar to the first four bars of each verse section of “Desolation Row.”
This particular tuning and capo setup gives Dylan a sonorous low-C bass note, even though he’s four frets above open position. It also makes it easy to grab the harmonically ambiguous Cadd4 by adding his fourth finger, which he does consistently on this version of “Desolation Row.”(It’s worth noting that the Highway 61 Revisited recording of the song features Nashville session guitarist Charlie McCoy, who provides tasty acoustic-guitar fills from start to finish.)
Dylan played at Manchester Free Trade Hall in the UK during his 1966 world tour. A bootleg recording of the show has circulated ever since, with the venue misidentified as the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan’s acoustic and electric sets from that night were officially released in 1998 as The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. His version of “Desolation Row” from that performance is markedly different from the one on Highway 61 Revisited. He plays the song at a slightly brighter tempo, in the key of D, in drop-D tuning. (Interestingly, he uses that drop-C tuning—with capo at the fifth fret—for a down-tempo rendition of “Just Like a Woman,” but not for “Desolation Row.” Ex. 2b is inspired by Dylan’s “Desolation Row” verses as played at that show in ’66.
When Dylan performed “Desolation Row” during his 1994 appearance on MTV Unplugged (later released as a live album), he took a different approach to the song altogether. Here, he’s in the key of D, in standard tuning. Backed by a five-piece band—including the tasteful Bucky Baxter on Dobro—Dylan pares down his part to nothing more than palm-muted power chords, not unlike Ex. 2c.
If you take the time to really check out what Dylan’s playing behind his broadsides and ballads, you may be shocked by the nuances his hands are capable of.
It’s not unusual to find Dylan using and reusing a limited array of his favorite harmonic elements within each album. These may include particular tunings, chord progressions, chord voicings, and such. That’s part of his genius as a player and songwriter—that he can take simple musical ideas and rework them in seemingly endless combinations.
There are ten guitar songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan (an 11th track, “Black Crow Blues,” is played on piano.) Half of these ten are in the key of G, played in open position, using rudimentary chords. The album’s rollicking opening song—“All I Really Want to Do”—is in G with a capo at the second fret, again using common chords. Three of the remaining songs—“My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You,” and the ironically titled “Ballad in Plain D”—are played in C, using the capo for transposition to nearby keys. “To Ramona” is also played in C, without capo. That’s a lot of juice squeezed from just two humble pieces of fruit: the key of G and the key of C.
The main thing that sets each of these songs apart from all other three-chord songs is their knockout lyrical punch. However, Dylan’s guitar work is rarely as straightforward as it seems upon first listen. If you take the time to really check out what he’s playing behind his broadsides and ballads, you may be shocked by the nuances his hands are capable of.
Take, for example, the aforementioned songs in the key of C from Another Side. On all of these, the home-base C chord is nearly always played as C/G (Ex. 3). Placing the chord’s fifth (G) in the bass, instead of the expected root (C), gives the chord an expansive quality.
Dylan uses a similar sonority on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Played in G, with the capo at seventh fret, the song sounds in the key of D (Ex. 4, in the style of “Blowin’”). The chord in bars 11–12 includes the open first string (E), giving the B minor-triad a little extra bite. Subtle? Yes. But without this stepwise bass motion, the song would sound like a million other I-IV-V-I songs.
To hear that fifth-in-the-bass voicing in another context, check out Ex. 5, loosely based on Dylan’s “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” from John Wesley Harding. In this protracted blues (a 19-bar cycle in lieu of the standard 12), Dylan propels the music forward by never letting the I chord (G) settle, toggling between G and C/G instead. The effect is kind of Stones-y—as if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had decided to be folkies for a day.
On “It Ain’t Me Babe”—from Another Side—Dylan uses that bottom-heavy chord form again. Check out Ex. 6, inspired by “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Bars 7-10 could be played as a static G chord; in this example, however, as in Dylan’s original, there’s a syncopated move to C/G (bar 7, beat 4). That C/G blurs the line between the I (G) and IV (C) chords. C/G reappears four bars before the end of this example. There are a few other unorthodox chord voicings worth looking at here. Right off the bat, in bars 1 and 2, the D chord is rendered by fretting a common C chord two frets higher than usual, which lets the open third string (G) rub against the fretted F# on the fourth string. The Bm chord in bar 11 includes the open first string (E), giving the chord a little extra bite. As in the previous example, C/G reappears here four bars before the end.
In 1993, nearly 30 years after the release of Another Side, Dylan released an equally powerful solo-acoustic record, World Gone Wrong. On the title track, the songwriter works his understated magic again. As he did in “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” Dylan builds “World Gone Wrong” on an expanded blues form. In this sort of atmosphere, only three simple chords are needed to get the job done, but that wouldn’t be very Dylan. Look at Ex. 7, inspired by “World Gone Wrong.” Notice the curious Cadd4 chord on the fourth beat of bars 2, 4, and 6? It’s similar to the chord you saw in Ex. 2a (bar 1, beat 3). This particular voicing also could be called C/F, as all three notes of the C triad (C, E, and G) are present above the bottommost F note. Regardless of the nomenclature, this chord upends the harmony every time it comes around.
E7/D, the second “mystery chord” in “World Gone Wrong,” comes into play in bar 4 With its ear-tugging tritone interval (G#-D), the chord sounds unresolved and misplaced. As in Dylan’s original, the E7/D here seems to be justified when you get to the F chord in bar 5.
One more harmonic oddity appears in bars 15 and 16. It’s unusual to find any major seven chord in a blues song; in this case, it’s an unexpected chord in an unexpected voicing, with the open second string (B) rubbing against the fretted C a half step away on the third string.
Are We Tuning, Bob?
As interested as Dylan is in the novel effects of unusual chord voicings, it’s no surprise he uses alternate tunings from time to time. His early work features several songs in drop D (D A D G B E), including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He also favored double-drop D (D A D G B D), as you can hear in “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and drop C (C A D G B E), in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Desolation Row,” and other songs. In addition to those, Dylan has used a handful of open-chord tunings, among them open G (D G D G B D), used on “I Was Young When I Left Home,” and open D (D A D F# A D) or open E (E B E G# B E), which he used extensively on Blood on the Tracks. The final few examples in this lesson illustrate some of these tunings.
Ex. 8 is styled after Dylan’s take on the folk-blues tune “Corrina, Corrina,” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It is played in open D (D A D F# A D) with a capo at the third fret, sounding in the key of F. The chord voicings in bar 2 reprise two Dylan-centric moves that you’ve seen throughout this lesson—G/D is a triad with its fifth in the bass; Aadd4 is akin to the unsettled (add4) chords used earlier, in Ex. 2a and Ex. 7. Note that the guitar part is more active in bars 3 and 4—in between the vocal phrase—and less active while Dylan is singing. This helps the music feel conversational, with the voice and guitar exchanging phrases back and forth as the song
On Blood on the Tracks, Dylan pushed this same tuning style (though in open E) far beyond the folk-blues idiom, playing each of the album’s ten songs in the same tuning (sometimes transposed, via capo). “Simple Twist of Fate” is an example of how he developed a chordal vocabulary rich enough to match his narrative prowess. In Ex. 9, you can trace some of his “Simple Twist of Fate” maneuvers. (This example is written in open D with a capo at the second fret, so that you don’t have to tighten your strings up to open E.) What’s so different from the previous example is that this time the I chord is not made by simply sounding the open strings; instead, it is played a few frets above open position, in two variations. “In bar 1, the D chord’s fifth (A) is doubled on the fretted third string and on the open second string. Note the slightly different harmony in bar 11, where the D chord’s third (F#) is doubled instead of the fifth. This two-finger version of D makes it a little easier to get to the next two-finger chord shape, the colorful Dmaj9. Check out the two deceptively simple moves in bars 12 and 14. Lifting your finger off the second string in bar 12 changes G/B to Gadd9/B, while the same lift converts A9sus4 to A7sus4 two bars later.
Finally, Ex. 10 is reminiscent of “One Too Many Mornings,” from The Times They Are A-Changin’. The open-A tuning (E A CG E A CG) is novel, one that Dylan rarely uses. You may be unfamiliar with it—most players are—but it’s pretty intuitive once you get a few simple shapes under your fingers. Once again, the use of A/E (triad with fifth in the bass) has Dylan’s fingerprints on it. The harmony in the last few bars (Bm11-A/C#-Bm11) is also elusive. There’s a slight similarity between the melody and structure of this song and that of the title track. Thanks to the alternate tuning in “One Too Many Mornings” (“The Times They Are A-Changin’” is in standard) and a burbling fingerpicking pattern (“The Times” is strummed), the two songs have an entirely different feel.
As Dylan has shown time and again, it’s not the broad strokes that make a song special. It’s the details. Some details aren’t meant to be noticed, but they can shine like diamonds once you know where to look.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.