As a jazz guitarist, I’ve always had a soft spot not just for tunes from the Great American Songbook, but also for American repertoire in general. Songs like “America the Beautiful,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” really speak to me, as do guitarists like Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, and Pat Metheny, whose voices are unmistakably American.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the Civil War, as well as the music of that era, especially the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which chronicles families awaiting the safe return of their loved ones. I also love “English Civil War,” a version of “Johnny” that the English punk-rock band the Clash released in 1978, and have worked up an arrangement that merges its pulsating bass line with my own harmonic ideas.
Some General Pointers
My arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is in the guitar-friendly key of E minor. Here I run through the tune twice, both times including a steady eighth-note bass line that nods to the Clash version.
You can play the piece either fingerstyle or with hybrid picking. Use your thumb or pick for the down-stemmed bass notes and your other fingers on the up-stemmed notes. Whichever approach you choose, the most important thing to do is to really make the melody notes sing. You can do this by playing them with more emphasis than the bass notes, but be careful not to pick with too much force, or it will sound clunky. It can be especially tricky to bring out the melody when it’s part of a chord, but with a bit of careful practice, you should get the hang of it.
As for the bass line, be sure to maintain a rock-solid groove throughout. Listen to the Clash version to get a sense of how this should feel and sound. If needed, practice the up- and down-stemmed parts separately before combining them.
The First Pass
Texturally speaking, the first section (bars 1–20) is relatively sparse. It starts out with two independent parts—the melody expressed in single notes, supported by the bass line. In the first six bars, the chords are implied through the interaction of the melody and the bass notes. For instance, in bar 1, on beat 1, the notes E and B belong to an E minor triad (E G B). Then, in what’s known in jazz parlance as a line cliché, the notes D#, D, and C# suggest Em(maj7) (E G B D#), Em7 (E G B D), and Em6 (E G B C#) chords.
I switch things up in bars 7–8, where I use the open G and B strings for a hint of harmony and color, not to mention a banjo-like sound. The open strings offer a nice timbral contrast to the fretted notes, and in bar 8, the note G—the raised fifth in the Baug/D# chord—adds some tension that is resolved in the next measure, where I return to the single-note melody on the Em chord.
At the end of bar 12, I slide up the neck to play double stops through measure 18. In this portion of the arrangement, I harmonize the melody mostly using thirds, but in bars 15 and 16 I use perfect fifths, which form Bm7 and Am7 chords when played in conjunction with the bass notes.
I work my way back down the neck to arrive at a surprising chord—Fmaj7#11 (the bII in the key of E minor). I love the rich sound you get in that register with the open E and B strings, the seventh and sharp 11th of the chord. I then resolve the Fmaj7#11 to a nice open E minor chord.
The Second Pass
My second time through the melody of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” begins at bar 21. This time through, I add excitement by using more chords and fuller voicings—both open-position grips and four- and five-note block chords higher on the neck. In bar 21, I create a sense of continuity between the sections by playing a portion of bar 1’s line cliché, E–D#–D, as an inner voice between the chords. I do a similar thing, but in a higher register, in bar 29.
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In this section, I use a bunch of jazzy chords, like the Gmaj7 in bar 23, where the seventh (fourth-fret F#) rubs against the tonic (G) on the open third string. I also make good use of a D/F#) chord; for instance, in bars 23–24, this makes for a neat descending bass line—G–F#—F) between the G, D/F#), and Fmaj7#11 chords.
Beginning in measure 33, I play meaty chords—a mixture of triads and jazzier voicings—in the middle of the neck for a solid finish. I tend to begin this last part softly on the G chord, gradually increasing the volume so that I play that final E minor chord in bar 40 as loudly as possible—a fitting ending for this spirited Civil War tune.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.