Steve Earle

Hints on playing Steve Earle guitar parts

by   Andrew Cushen

Last updated:  13 November 1997

When trying to learn the rhythm guitar parts to Steve's songs, remember something I heard Steve jokingly say at a show once: "The only key I know is 'G'."

If the song doesn't appear to be in "G", consider that Steve is probably using a capo so that he can use his favorite open position "G","C", and "D" chord forms. This is especially true on those songs where the rhythm part is played on an acoustic guitar- which is almost all of his songs, except a few on "I Feel Alright"!!

He takes this to an extreme in "Little Rock 'N Roller", off the first album, "Guitar Town": the song is in the key of "E", but when I saw him recently, he capoed *all the way up behind the 9th fret*, so he could use the open position "G" chord form!! If you really want to get the sound Steve gets, using the capo is the only way. I've found that placing the capo directly *on* the fret itself, rather than behind it as most people seem to do, helps keep the guitar in tune, and can minimize retuning when using the capo..

Some more thoughts:

Brush up on your basic fingerpicking technique. Steve has gotten really good at this, and trying to play a song like "Goodbye" off " Train A Comin'" without fingerpicking the guitar part just doesn't do the song justice.

Another one of Steve's favorite techniques, this time a flat-picking technique, is to hold down an open chord, like "G", while picking out a melody on the bass strings. He then alternates the single notes of the melody with full-chord strums. He uses this to great effect on songs like "Someday", from "Guitar Town". You can hear him transfer this approach to his mandolin playing on "Copperhead Road", although he's playing in the key of "D" on that song. Look in the Tablature area of this Web site to see my transcription of that Mandolin part.

As far as actual chord progressions go, Steve is very fond of the standard I-IV-V progression, though he rarely plays it in a straight, "12-bar blues" fashion. For those of you not familiar with this terminology,a I-IV-V, or 1-4-5, progression in the key of "G" would mean using the chords "G", "C", and "D". You'll sometimes hear him go back and forth between the "C" and "D" chords, or go from "C" to "D" to "G", rather than "D" to "C" to "G". Steve also likes to add a little "drama" by throwing in the Relative Minor chord, which in the key of "G" would be E minor. There's a good example of this, also on "Someday", in the key of "G", from the "Guitar Town" album. Listen to the chorus - "Em" to "C" to "D" to "G".

In fact, the chord change from "G" to "Em" using open position chords allows you to use a common riff in country music: hit the "G" note, bottom string/3rd fret, strum the full "G" chord, then, again, on the low E string, play the 3rd fret, then the 2nd fret, then the open string - at which point you finger the open "Em" chord, then play it. Neat little chord change lick, eh?? You'll hear many variations of this in country and country/rock rhythm parts: "Freebird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Willin' " as done by Little Feat, "Love Hurts" by Gram Parsons, the chorus of "Wheels" by the Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. etc.

Obviously, on many songs Steve combines the capo with his fingerpicking or "pick/strum" methods. "Little Rock 'N Roller", as stated above, uses the capo at the 9th fret with some nice fingerpicking.

You may also catch him using a "dropped-D" tuning: take a standard-tuned guitar and tune down the low E string, the equivalent of 2 frets, until it sounds like the 4th (D) string, only an octave lower. On "CCKMP" off "I Feel Alright", Steve plays an "alternating bass" part- he uses his thumb to go back and forth between the 2 strings that are now tuned to "D": the 4th and 6th strings. Meanwhile, with his first finger, he simultaneously plays a melody that goes from the 2nd to the 4th to the 5th fret on the 3rd (G) string. It takes awhile to get used to keeping the thumb/bass part going steadily, while playing notes in a different rhythm on the high strings. Start by playing the parts r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-l-l-o-o-o-w-w-w-w. Gradually speed up as you get used to it.

Using the above information, and your ears, any guitar player should be able to figure out most of Steve's guitar parts without too much trouble. Just remember to have fun with it, and don't be afraid to change the parts slightly - either to make it easier to play, or because you've found notes that sound good to you when added in. Unless, of course, you're playing in a Tribute band!!

If you have any questions or comments, you can reach me, Andrew Cushen, via E-mail:

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