“What’s Going On”—Learn an Unplugged Version of Marvin Gaye’s R&B Masterpiece

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” has nary an acoustic guitar in its swirling arrangement, but the song, in the guitar-friendly key of E major, lends itself nicely to an acoustic treatment. 
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In a recent AG reader survey, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was among the top 20 most requested songs. It came as a bit of a surprise, given that this R&B classic has nary an acoustic guitar in its swirling arrangement, featuring members of Motown’s in-house band, the Funk Brothers, as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But the song, in the guitar-friendly key of E major, lends itself quite nicely to an acoustic treatment. 

“What’s Going On,” from the 1971 Tamla/Motown concept album of the same name, almost never existed. The label’s founder, Berry Gordy, initially feared that the record, with its political and societal commentary, would ruin Gaye’s career. Instead, of course, both the song and the album became widely celebrated as the singer-songwriter’s finest work—and an undisputed masterpiece of the entire R&B canon. 


The arrangement here is based on the supportive part Robert White played on electric guitar on the original recording, which works just as well on acoustic. As shown in the notation, try playing just the chords’ root notes at strategic points, for a syncopated effect—a rhythmic pattern that you can play throughout the song. 

Note that White avoided some of the guitar’s lower notes, presumably to stay out of the way of the active lines played by the electric bassist James Jamerson. For instance, during the verse, White strummed just the top three notes of the F#m7 chord (A, C#, and E, incidentally an A major triad) and in the chorus, he played another compact form of F#m7 at the second fret on strings 4, 3, and 2 (the notes E, A, and C#, respectively). Similarly, on the B13 chord, he omitted the root (B on string 6, fret 7). But in the absence of a bass instrument, you might prefer to use the fuller voicings shown in the chord frames. 

As always, you can play this arrangement exactly as written, but better to use it as a reference for creating your own take on this R&B classic.

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 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 54.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 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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