Video Lesson: A Jazzy Arrangement of “America the Beautiful”

As with learning anything new, when tackling this jazzy arrangement of 'America the Beautiful,' take it slowly and work on getting a beautiful tone in both hands.

The simple yet evocative melody of “America the Beautiful” has always moved me. When I was preparing to record my most recent album, This Bird Still Flies (Origin Records), I wanted to come up with an arrangement of “America” that would be fresh and personal while retaining the original song’s beauty and simplicity. As an arranger and improviser, there were many routes I could have taken, but I chose to keep the tempo relatively slow and stately, so that the melody would really stand out. And while there are a few tricky passages, I stayed pretty close to the fundamental harmony, so it shouldn’t be too hard to play. I hope you will enjoy learning my interpretation of “America” as much as I enjoyed arranging it.

The Harmonic Language

When I interpret a tune, I always try to honor the composer’s intent first and foremost. In order to do this effectively, I must have a strong connection to the music and then apply my knowledge to the piece. In other words, I let the emotions I feel serve as my inspiration and then approach it with whatever ideas seem most appropriate.

For “America,” I decided not to superimpose too much complex harmony on a relatively simple melody. But I did adjust the original chords slightly, as shown in this transcription, which is based on my original studio recording. For instance, in the intro (bars 1–4) and throughout, in place of a plain D triad I play a Dadd9 chord. It’s a bit of a stretchy voicing—I play it with my first, second, and fourth fingers on strings 1, 2, and 3, respectively, atop the open D string—but it’s worth it for the hint of color it adds.

That Dadd9, by the way, is a very useful voicing in that it’s moveable. Be sure to play around with the shape. You can shift it up to the seventh fret for Eadd9/D (or an E9 chord with the seventh, D, in the bass), to the eighth fret for Fadd9/D, to the tenth for Gadd9/D, and so on. Also, if you take the Dadd9 shape and lower your second finger by one fret (half step), you transform the grip into a m(add9) chord—the type of voicing the great jazz pianist Bill Evans made frequent use of.


Another key part of this arrangement is the frequent use of pedal tones. (Briefly, a pedal tone is a note, commonly in the bass, that remains constant while the chords above it change.) I use pedal tones a lot when playing solo guitar, like on versions of the jazz standards “Caravan” and “On Green Dolphin Street” from my 2006 album, Perpetually Hip (Favored Nations). Pedal tones are also commonplace in classical guitar literature—like what I think of as an inverted pedal, in the Heitor Villa-Lobos piece “Prelude No. 1,” where an E minor chord stays constant while the bass notes shift below it. In any case, you can find lots of open D and A pedal tones in my arrangement of “America.” As you can hear, these tones create harmonic fullness and greatly enrich the sonic experience.

Measures 18 and 19 feature parallel harmony—which is when a single chord type is moved in different intervals. In this case I have taken a basic major triad and moved it from B to C to D with a B pedal. This is a haunting effect that creates a bit of tension in an otherwise fairly consonant passage. You’ll notice that I play the D/B (which can also be seen as Bm7) with natural harmonics, which strengthens and reinforces the haunting effect while providing textural variety.

In measure 25–27, I use two different harmonic devices to render the melody. First, I play an A7b9 chord voicing at the fifth fret and then move the same shape down to the second fret (the second half of bar 26). This can also be seen as a series of diminished seventh shapes moved in minor thirds—a common jazz move for negotiating an altered dominant chord like A7.

In measure 27, in order to accommodate the melody of the song—and for a modern flourish—I harmonize using major seconds. An open-A string pedal throughout makes for a seamless transition between the A7b9 voicings and the seconds.

Finally, in measures 37 and 40, note that, for extra melodic color, I use the D Lydian mode (D E F# G# A B C#), rather than the D major scale (D E F# G A B C#). D Lydian is identical to D major, except that D Lydian has a raised fourth (G#). That one note makes a big difference in mood!


Technical and Improvisational Aspects

As with learning anything new, when tackling this arrangement, take it slowly and work on getting a beautiful tone in both hands. Some of the chord voicings may be new to you, so you’ll need time to get your ears—and fingers!—accustomed. When I am learning a new piece, I like to play just a few measures at a time to really work on playing a passage cleanly and with strong emotion.

Many students ask me about my picking-hand technique. I prefer a hybrid approach, using a pick and my middle and ring fingers for additional notes. However, this arrangement also lends itself to fingerstyle play. It’s a good idea to experiment with picking approaches because they will reveal different qualities of both the guitar and your musicality. Switching up techniques is also a good way to avoid repetitive-stress injury.

Another thing that students often ask is if there’s a trick to get a piece to really come alive. The truth is that there is no trick at all. Just let your life experience and your humanity guide you. And, though this is an instrumental arrangement, keep in mind the song’s beautiful lyrics as you play it. (Google the lyrics if you don’t know them.) For example, “amber waves of grain” is vivid imagery. I might choose to play the music that corresponds with that particular phrase (measures 10–11) with vibrato to really bring it to the forefront.

When I arranged “America,” I chose some pretty fixed harmonies but naturally left plenty of room for improvisation. You can hear this by comparing the first and second passes through the form on my studio recording, or by comparing that album version with the video I filmed for this lesson. If you’re new to improv, you might find it too intimidating, so you have my blessings to play my arrangement exactly as written. However, I want to encourage you to try playing a few things off the cuff, even if minimally. In measures 36, 37, and 40, use your own D major or D Lydian lines instead of mine, and do the same wherever else you feel inspired to do so.

Mimi Fox is a guitarist, composer, and educator/clinician based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has performed with Branford Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, and Joey DeFrancesco, among other prominent jazz musicians.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Mimi Fox
Mimi Fox

Mimi Fox was named a winner in six consecutive DownBeat Magazine Critics Polls and has been recognized as one of the most eloquent guitarists on today’s scene.

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