Learn Sophisticated Chordal Ideas Through Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”

This gently rolling ballad is not only satisfying to play, it shows the musical benefits of learning pieces not originally composed for guitar.

When you think of an acoustic classic, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is probably not the first or even the tenth song that comes to mind. But Stevie Wonder’s gently rolling ballad, from his 1972 album, Talking Book, is not only satisfying to play on the acoustic guitar, it shows the musical benefits that can be gleaned from learning pieces not originally composed for your instrument. 

Cover art for the Stevie Wonder album ‘Talking Book’

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” starts off in the key of B major, modulating up to the more guitar-friendly key of C in the outro-chorus. This arrangement is built from chord shapes that stick closely to the voicings Wonder plays on his Fender Rhodes electric piano, including the memorable intro, in which syncopations of a lovely Badd9 chord are followed by a series of dyads within the whole tone scale. These double-stops, which climb to the uppermost frets, might be difficult to execute on a 12-fret guitar without a cutaway, so feel free to play them an octave lower than indicated.


The song offers an interesting study in jazz harmony and smooth voice leading. Note, for instance, how, starting in bar 6 (in the chorus), the F# triad on the top three strings shares the same upper notes as the D#m7 chord that follows. The shape on strings 1–3 is then moved down a half step, revealing a neat trick: Playing an F major triad (F A C) over a G# bass note creates a tense-sounding G#7b13. That’s because the note F (E#) is the chord’s 13th; A, the flatted ninth; and C (B#), the third. 

As for the picking hand, I’ve suggested an accompaniment pattern that approximates the groove heard on the original recording, best played with the thumb on the bottom two strings and the index, middle, and ring on the top three. This isn’t quite the typical fingerpicking pattern, but if you study where the chords and bass notes line up, then it should fall into place quickly. But of course don’t feel locked into it—ideally, come up with your own accompaniment patterns and variations. 

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 March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 54.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 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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