From the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM LEVY (video by Paul Geller)
Whether you think of Paul Simon as the guitar-playing, songwriting half of the duo Simon & Garfunkel or as a solo artist with world-music leanings may depend on your age. Both characterizations are true—if vastly oversimplified. Simon is a songwriter and guitarist who has made many iconic records—with Art Garfunkel and without—and has composed some of the most beloved songs of the 20th century. Along the way, he’s experimented with all sorts of musical styles and recording techniques—and guitars.
Simon is known to be particular about the instruments he plays and is a bit of a six-string connoisseur. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented the exhibit Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York, in 2011, Simon lent his 1975 D’Aquisto New Yorker Special oval-hole archtop to display. He has played several Martin models over the years—including a D-12-28, D-35S, and OM-42PS signature model. He has also favored an early 1970s SB3 built by luthier Michael Gurian, as well as assorted Guilds and Yamahas.
What’s been consistent throughout Simon’s long career is that he’s always pushed himself to explore the guitar beyond typical folk and folk-rock styles. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Water) bears an obvious bossa-nova influence. “Something So Right” (from Simon’s 1973 solo record, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon) is peppered with jazz-tinged passing chords. “American Tune” (from the same album) was partially inspired by a J. S. Bach melody. Simon explored South African musical styles on his 1986 Graceland album and Brazilian and Cameroonian rhythms on Rhythm of the Saints (from 1990). On the albums that followed—including You’re the One and Surprise—Simon continued to use rhythm as a prime source of inspiration.
Simon’s latest album—In the Blue Light, released last September—features new recordings of ten songs spanning his solo career. Each song’s arrangement has been completely overhauled. Many are orchestrated with no guitar at all, or with guitars played by other fine players—including Sérgio and Odair Assad, Bill Frisell, Mark Stewart, and the late Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, who worked with Simon since the late ’80s. Simon recently announced his retirement from touring, so his summer 2018 outing—Homeward Bound: The Farewell Tour—was (supposedly) his last. It remains to be seen whether he will continued to record.
In this lesson, you’ll study a trove of examples inspired by Simon’s sophisticated, evocative acoustic-guitar work—with Garfunkel and on his own.
Deft Fingerpicking and Creative Chording
Example 1 is in the style of the intro section to “Kathy’s Song” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, released at the beginning of 1966. (A solo performance of this song appeared on Simon’s 1965 debut, The Paul Simon Songbook. The Sounds of Silence recording is the reference point here.) To match the recording, tune each of your strings down a half step.
Though this song is in the key of G major, the moody opening measures suggest a darker atmosphere via an incomplete Em(add9) chord. As with all of the examples in this lesson, play the down-stemmed notes with your thumb and the up-stemmed notes with your fingers. While the first four measures are simple enough, there’s a move in bars 5 and 7 that requires some extra attention to get just right—because your hands will be moving somewhat independently. After hammering into the C/G chord on the and of beat 2, pluck the lone C note on the and of beat 3 and the E on beat 4. Finally, pull off both strings 2 and 4 on the and of beat 4. That last bit is the tricky part, as you’re essentially plucking just one note (the E) then immediately pulling off two (E and C).
The lovely “April Come She Will”—also from Sounds of Silence—is another example of Simon’s deft fingerpicking and creative chording. Example 2 is based on the intro to this song. (As with “Kathy’s Song,” an alternate version of “April Come She Will” appeared on The Paul Simon Songbook. Sounds of Silence is our benchmark here as well.) Before playing Ex. 2, return your guitar to standard tuning and place a capo at the first fret.
What’s notable in this example is Simon’s use of high-position triads on the treble strings in lieu of standard open chords. The G/D chord in measures 1, 3, and 5 is fingered like a familiar D major chord but becomes G/D when played at the seventh fret. Simon gets some melodic variety in measures 2, 4, and 6 by lifting his second finger off of the first string. (The open E turns the chord from G/D to G6/D.) In measure 7, you’ll briefly play a D triad at fifth fret, followed by open third and fourth strings. While that third-string note (G) isn’t part of a D chord, it’s harmonious enough and allows time for a quick shift down to open position for the four measures that follow.
Entering Worldly Territory
Following the commercial success of Sounds of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel released another LP—Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme—before the end of 1966. The arpeggiated guitar figure in Example 3 is similar to the mesmeric opening measures of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. The song is in the key of E minor. To match the original recording, capo your guitar at the seventh fret and play shapes in the proximity of an Am7 chord—though never land directly on it.
Simon’s fingerpicking pattern here is pretty unusual. If you watch some of his live performances of this song on YouTube, you may notice that he doesn’t seem to use his middle finger, opting instead for his thumb (for the down-stemmed notes in this example) in conjunction with his index and ring fingers (up-stemmed notes).
Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio recording, Bridge Over Troubled Water, was released in 1970. It demonstrates that Simon was moving beyond folk and folk-rock into more adventurous, worldly territory. “El Condor Pasa,” for example, is based on a traditional Peruvian song. The album’s title track is influenced by gospel music. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” played on nylon-string guitar, has a bossa-nova feel—with undulating rhythms and jazzy chords. Example 4a is modeled on the verse sections of that tune. If you’d like to match Simon & Garfunkel’s recording, tune down a half step. Note that the guitar part is more melodically active in measures 4, 7, and 8. This is because the vocal melody is relatively inactive in those places. That’s a great lesson to remember.
Example 4b echoes the tangy chords Simon plays at the end of the song’s second verse—juxtaposing a fretted D# against an open E on the C major chord, then similarly playing a fretted A# against an open B on the G major chord. Measure 4 has a similar dissonance, though it’s achieved in a slightly different way. In measures 1 and 2, the fretted note is the chord’s #2, while the open string is the chord’s major 3. Here, however, the #2 (B) is open and the 3 (C) is fretted.
Jazz-Tinged Harmonies and More
The remaining examples in this lesson are drawn from Simon’s post-S&G career. In these, you’ll see how he has continued to grow as a guitarist and as a composer—with the use of even more colorful harmonies and guitar techniques that definitely don’t come from the folk-guitar tradition.
The first solo Simon song you’ll look at is “Something So Right,” from his eclectic 1973 release, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. To play Example 5, which is in the style of Simon’s recorded intro to this song, tune your guitar up a half step. Alternatively, you could capo at the first fret. (It’s unknown whether Simon tuned up or used a capo on his original studio recording. When he performed “Something So Right” on The Paul Simon Special in 1977, he used no capo, so his nylon-string guitar must’ve been tuned up. If you can find this performance on YouTube, or elsewhere, it’s a worthwhile watch.)
In measure 1, the chord shape is transformed from Esus4 to Emaj7, simply by moving the fretted notes down one fret each. Try playing these note pairs with fingers 2 and 4, as Simon apparently does. Use a barre across strings
1 through 4 to efficiently grab the E13sus4 in measure 2, adding your fourth finger for the high C#. Play the E7 in open position, using your fourth finger for the note D (measure 2, “and” of beat 3). From there, slide the D up to F# (“and” of beat 4). Then you’ll already have your fourth finger on F# in preparation for the A6 in measure 3. Both A6 and A are to be played as full barre chords.
The next two measures are straightforward, technique wise, though the jazz-tinged harmony is fairly sophisticated. In the final measure, you’ve got to quickly get your fourth finger from G# to A on the and of beat 2. This may take some extra practice, if your fourth finger is not particularly agile. The final B chord is played as a full barre.
Example 6a is inspired by the verses of “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” a haunting song from Simon’s 1983 record Hearts and Bones. You’ve already tuned your guitar up and down by a half step in this lesson. For this song, drop down a whole step from standard tuning. Though the tune is in the key of D major, the first three measures vacillate between Bbmaj7 and E—two chords that have little to do with the key of the song, or with each other. The effect of these remote harmonies is appropriately unsettling. (The lyrics of the song reference John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, who were both murdered, as well as the R&B singer Johnny Ace, who accidentally shot himself.)
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Though the verses of “The Late Great Johnny Ace” are played freely, with no fixed tempo, the bridge section settles into a steady-rolling shuffle—as seen in Example 6b. The trick throughout most of this example is that the bass notes (played with your thumb) are played on offbeats, while the two-note chord shapes land squarely on beats 1–4. If you haven’t been tapping your foot in time as you practice these examples, now would be a good time to start! A physical sense of the downbeats may help you keep the chords where they belong, even though the bass is syncopated.
This lesson’s final two examples are back in standard tuning and are inspired by the song “Questions for the Angels,” from Simon’s 2011 release, So Beautiful or So What. Though there’s no fixed tempo in either example, make sure to keep things moving. This song is meant to lilt.
Example 7a is akin to the song’s verses, which employ a Dmaj7 shape rooted on the fifth string at the fifth fret. On the final beat of each of the first four measures, the note B gives the chord more harmonic depth and some melodic energy as well. Example 7b is like the song’s chorus. Here, the harmony drifts further from the tonal center (D major) and the meter alternates between 2/4 and 3/4. The effect is dreamy, as is surely Simon’s intent. Play the Cm7 (measure 1) as a half-barre across strings 1–4. The rest of this example is in open position. Not all of these chord shapes may be immediately familiar to you, but they’re not hard to play.
Now that you’ve had an opportunity to play some Paul Simon-inspired passages, you should have a greater appreciation of his depth as a composer and as a guitarist. If you simply learn to play these examples note for note, you’ll have some intriguing new moves under your fingers. If you’re a creative player or writer, it behooves you to develop Simon’s ideas further and make them your own. He keeps growing—and you can, too.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.