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[2020-02-12] How to Play Green Day - THUMB

HOW TO PLAY: “American Idiot” by Green Day

02/12/2020 03:00 PM

Billy Joe Armstrong in 2013


By Leila Abdul-Rauf & Greg Barr


Released in September of 2004, Green Day’s “American Idiot” uses just four chords for the entire song: Ab5, Db5, Gb5, and Eb Major. The band gets a lot of mileage out of these simple materials, primarily by varying the harmonic rhythm over the course of the song.



Harmonic rhythm is the rate at which chords change. In “American Idiot,” the verses are dominated by lead vocals over a solitary bass drum, punctuated by a repeated power chord riff, the root of the first chord Ab5 played on the fourth fret of the bottom (low E) string.


Ab5 – Db5 – Gb5 – Db5 – Ab5 – Gb5

 

This gives us a very lopsided harmonic rhythm, with two bars of no chords followed by two bars where they cram in six chords in a row. In this way, the sections are static and spastic at the same time: lots of space alternating with lots of movement that doesn’t really go anywhere.


Billie Joe Armstrong, live with Green Day in 2013


It's the unique strumming pattern that drives the aggressive energy of this song, so pay close attention to where the downstrokes (D) and upstrokes (U) fall for each of the six chords in the verse. Notice how the last three chords only get one downstroke each, placing more emphasis on these chords:


D U D – U U D – U U – D – D – D

 

The chorus slows things down by resting on each chord for two measures instead of rattling them off in quick succession as in the verses. This riff begins on the fourth fret of the A string (second string from the bottom), which is the root of the first chord, Db5:


Db5 – Ab5 – Eb – Ab5

 

The strumming pattern in this section is even and consistent, a stark contrast to the lopsided rhythm of the verse section. Each chord of the chorus plays for two bars each, repeating the strumming pattern below:


D D D U D U – U D U D U D

 

The four chords of the chorus form a common rock-and-roll chord structure, often expressed in Roman numerals:


IV – I – V – I

 


In the chorus, not only has the pace of the chords slowed down in relation to the verse, but the progression itself is now much more constrained. IV-I and V-I are two of the most stable, key-defining chords changes possible, and here we get both. The juxtaposition of the frantic verses against the relatively serene choruses – combined with the aggressive strumming pattern ¬– is the driving force behind the structure of the song, and that's largely due to these variations in harmonic rhythm. Give it a try!


Leila Abdul-Rauf is a multi-instrumentalist and composer based in Oakland, CA. A private guitar and voice teacher, Leila has also recorded and performed locally and internationally for two decades in countless music projects.

Greg Barr joined the Rocksmith team as a notetracker and composer in 2012. Greg received a BA in music from UC Santa Cruz, studying jazz and classical guitar, as well as composition. He is currently an independent guitar teacher and singer-songwriter, and the owner of Pinebox Studios in California.

"RiP2013 GreenDay Billie Joe Armstrong 0004" and "RiP2013 Green Day Billie Joe Armstrong 0013" by Sven-Sebastian Sajak (Sven0705) are licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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