In the last article, I told the story about how I got my first guitar. It was a slow but exciting at at times uneven progress from there. Let me explain….
1) Finding Song Chords: The vast amount of quality content available now is just amazing which is a product of the evolution of our technology that led to the ease of creating contents and obviously amount of contents being published per year. We are now living in an era where we get surprised or disappointed if a particular song we want to learn doesn’t have a YouTube tutorial or does have the chords on popular guitar sites.
This obviously was not the case back in 2007. To be fair, the amount of song chords were burgeoning at the time. They were however concentrated toward the pop genre (pop ballad, pop rock). Needless to say, most guitar sites didn’t have a lot of R&B songs. In addition, YouTube was only 2 year old at the time so the amount of tutorials, let alone R&B tutorials were scarce. You can verify this by googling tutorials for R&B songs and see how many were published 11 years ago or earlier as of 2018. If you were to find some R&B tutorials, they were not always the most accurate (keep in mind whoever published it at the time likely would have had to learn the whole song by ear so the inaccuracies here and there were totally understandable).
2) R&B songs use a lot of barre chords: This is not always obvious when you just listen to the songs. Take a listen to Brian McKnight’s hit “6 8 12” (tutorial in-bedded in the link for those interested in the chords)
The music can seem deceivingly simple enough from a quick listen . Brian, being a great guitar player (and musician for that matter), actually regularly plays this song with just his acoustic guitar….so here is a video of him performing the song live in Seattle where you can actually see the chords being played:
You will notice that virtually all the chords are actually barre chords. No beginner is gonna touch that song…at least not in the early learning. This was to me the toughest thing to get over. I was quite excited to learn all those 90s-2000s classic R&B songs and initially was under the impression that the chords would be regular chords like G C D. When the first few R&B song chords and YouTube tutorials or live performance of songs first appeared, it became obvious that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Unlike pop or rock which tends to use beginner-friendly chords, the average R&B song has between 70-100% barre chords…and the little bit that is not barre chord tends to be chords that requires gang sign-like fingering. This can make the genre impractical to beginners…..R&B tend to us chords with minor 7th and major 7th so you tend to see a lot chords with names like C#m7, G#m7, Abmaj7, Ebmaj7, Dm7b5….which can be quite intimidating…I mean as a beginner, we generally tend to flee even at the sight of a single barre chord in a song, let alone an entire song that doesn’t have a single non-barre chord.
But….you can do it.
Like anything else worth having in life, with determination and hard work, virtually anything is possible. Learning R&B is no different. I don’t want to give the impression that the genre is impossible to play or is reserved for people with natural talent or requires unreasonable amount of time to learn. In no way are my comments above intended to discourage anyone in learning to play this beautiful genre of music. Keep in mind things have greatly involved since 2007 (many of you are probably reading this from smartphone…which was not the norm then).
It is true that there is no getting around learning the barre chords (there are YouTube videos that are more than 20 minutes long that simply deal with barre chords). This can take a few weeks to learn and getting used to (typically the F chord will be the first chord you will learn). Then, you will progress to play other barre chords such as Fm, Cm, B, Bb. Then you move on the minor 7th and major 7th which are common in R&B (e.g. Dm7, Am7). This can take a few additional weeks.
However, once past this, your learning will be much faster than mine for the simple fact that quantity of contents available now. The amount of R&B song chords are ever growing and if the song is popular enough or recent enough (anything from 2010 onwards), the chances are greater that you will be able to find the chords of any song that you like. The same thing goes for YouTube tutorial. It is night and day compared to the dark ages of 2007. The quality of the contents has greatly improved as well. I credit those great YouTube videos for inspiring me to do chords for R&B songs which you can find here: ( I will discuss more in the future about this site came about and the directions it took to get here)
As for my own learning, I re-adjusted and started with simple songs from Madagascar and Western pop/pop rock . This wasn’t that big of deal since I did have plenty of good songs in that genre that I enjoyed when I was a kid. One of the first songs I learned was in Malagasy (the official language of Madagascar). Although the chords in the videos seem complicated, sonically, it’s just a bunch A D and E chords so everything is playable in the 1st and 2nd fret.
The title of the song “Havako Mamomamo” loosely translates to a lightly inebriated relative, but actually refers to a love interest of the songstress. She is essentially saying she prefers when he had a bit to drink (NOT drunk) because he opens up (talks) a bit more about his feelings. It seems the guy is an introvert (when it comes to his emotions to her) when fully sober. The lyrics can be hilarious and during our childhood we had fun singing them out-loud. Though I can’t relate to any of the lyrics’ message then (or now for that matter), the melody was catchy enough and the chords were easy enough that I wanted to learn it on the guitar.
Another interesting fact about the song is that the singer, Samoela, who is now one of the most successful artists in Madagascar), wrote this song and made it the lead single of his debut album in 1997, but he actually does not sing in the song (for the record, he can sing). Instead, he had two vocalist ladies sing. This is unusual for the fact that a solo artist who is up and coming would generally sing his/her own song so that his/her voice can be recognized especially if it is going to be the lead single to promote an album, and especially if said album is the debut album to introduce him/herself to the public…The song was a huge hit but I can’t think of any example in Western music where this was done successfully…(imagine a young Bruno Marks having just written, his first single, Just The Way You Are for his Doo-Wops & Hooligans debut album and having someone else sing that song..the amount of confusion it will cause to the public when his next single “Grenade” from same album gets released on the radio with him actually singing this time).
The first English song I learned was “Don’t Cry” of Guns N Roses (simple chord progression: Am Dm G C though it had to cool transition from G C).
If you try to just follow the song with your guitar, you may notice that your guitar won’t sound like the song…this is because their guitars are tuned half-step down (so the Am sounds like a Abm, and the Dm like a Dbm ,etc…)…This is quite common in Rock and makes it easier for the lead guitarist to bend the strings for those cool solos and can give the song a darker feel if needed (I am not saying this is why Guns N Roses tune down their guitars but those two are common reasons I found from my experience).
Another fun fact about the song, they have a 2nd version with alternate lyrics (with only the chorus being the same as the 1st version), and the band actually even recorded a music video of it:
And this is the first song that had barre chords that I learned: Cryin of Aerosmith. It has a F#m and a C#m. I thought the song had a great melody.
As I progressed, I started learning a bunch of Guns N Roses, Bryan Adams, Westlife (Irish pop band that were quite popular in Madagasccar in the 2000s), Scorpions (German rockband with lots of hits in the 80s and 90s). To my peers and the older crowd, I feel silly to even add description or links to some of those artists given their resume but I recognize that someone born in the late 90s or 2000s may not know who they are.
To close this article, I realize the direction of it went from R&B to Rock towards the end, but the point is, our learning can take various directions to get where we need to get to. In order to play R&B on the guitar, one has to actually be able to play the guitar and the fact is pop/rock provides is a great way to learn the guitar (chords are easier, there are more songs available to learn and more tutorials available). In addition, it gives you exposure to different types of music. The fact is our favorite musicians/singers listen to and get inspired by music outside their genre all the time….if they listen to different genres, we should do consider doing the same thing…you will find you it will expand your choice of music significantly and will make you a more well rounded musical person.