In an era when synthesizers and hair bands ruled pop radio, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” from her 1988 self-titled debut, was a startling success—landing the 24-year-old folksinger a spot on the Top Ten and the Grammy stage. And 35 years later “Fast Car” broke ground yet again, as Luke Combs’ reverent cover topped the country airplay chart in the summer of 2023, making Chapman the first Black woman with a sole writing credit for a No. 1 country song.
Even after all this time and many other covers (Passenger, Black Pumas, Jonas Blue), “Fast Car” feels as vital as ever. It is, especially, a brilliant piece of storytelling—a powerful narrative of a woman dreaming of escape from poverty, with a kind of realism and emotional authenticity that few songwriters achieve.
“Fast Car” has a distinctive guitar part, too—it’s a cousin of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” with a melody line that moves up and down the second string over the drone of the open third string.
To play “Fast Car,” capo at the second fret. The song uses key-of-G shapes (sounding in A with the capo), but no chord sequence in the verse or chorus ends on a G, so the harmony feels unresolved until you land on a G for the very last chord—an appropriate choice for a song about seeking elusive stability and comfort. Chapman suggests a subtle resolution in the closing lyrics too, as the narrator switches from wishing for escape with her partner earlier in the song to telling him to “take your fast car and keep on driving.”
The notation shows the eight-bar intro; the first two measures (which repeat) also serve as your verse accompaniment part and as the interludes throughout. Pick the down-stemmed notes with your thumb and the up-stemmed notes with your index and middle fingers. At the end of the first measure, slide your ring finger from the third fret up to the eighth for the Em.
In the chorus, use simple open shapes as shown in the chord library, and switch to a strum with your fingers. The chorus, and its dream of breaking through to a better life, passes quickly, and the song returns to its cyclical verse pattern—and to the day-to-day struggles that Chapman evokes so movingly.
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 November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 50.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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