Learn a Song on Guitar

Added this one because I was trying to answer the question, “what song would you want to hear on acoustic guitar while sitting around a campfire?”. It’s one of those songs that I’ve always found too sad to listen to. Sure, it’s kind of hokey in its literalism, but it speaks to a universal component of the relationship between fathers and sons. I figured if I studied it, I’d potentially confront some of the complexities of the relationship I have with my dad, too. Therapy through music.

I bought a cheap beginner’s guitar, some picks, and a capo. I watched a couple different instructional videos/tab sites and discovered that they all play it differently. So I’m going to stick to one: “How to Play Cats In The Cradle by Harry Chapin on Guitar. Easy Guitar Tutorial and Cover” by
Troy Hawes.

So far I’ve mostly been trying to learn the fingering for the main chords (G, Am, Em, & D), trying to switch between them quickly (I’ll have to add the G/F# in there eventually, but it’s a weird one, so I’m starting with the main four). Thing is, as a non-guitar player, I’m going through that finger soreness from friction burns on the strings. Need to build-up some calluses. Until I do, it’s been limiting my practice.

A few things to note now that I’ve started this project:

  1. I don’t actually like the Harry Chapin recording of the song. It’s not to say it’s not beautiful or well-crafted, or even that it’s not a classic, but my memory of the song was much more powerful than when I listen to it now. It’s way over-produced, a product of its time. This is the echoes of the Wall of Sound, where everything was trying to be Pet Sounds. But it’s all a bit much. I feel the layer-upon-layer approach takes away from its power as a lyrical masterpiece (also learned his wife, Sandy, wrote the poem from which this was created. Credit where credits is due- the lyrics are the song!)
  2. I watched a video of Harry Chapin perform the song live and he comes off as a corny performer, even laughing at his own ‘joke’ when getting to the line about the son coming home from college and asking for the car keys. Different time, I know, but I couldn’t imagine James Taylor or John Denver being that self-aware.

Update: after a few months, I started playing it the way the video instructions performed it and decided I’d rather try to figure-out how to make it my own. I modified the strumming rhythm by dropping the pick and opting to use my fingers for a softer tone. I lost the capo to drop the chords to better match my voice (I’m still pitching-up, but a bit less), I also dropped the bridge, which was no longer a tonal fit (I’m still using it as the intro), and finally, I started strumming the chords with more of a dirge feel. After all, the song is lamenting something lost.


This list item started as something simple- “learn a song on guitar”, but has grown to include, “make a classic song my own” and now I’ve decided another addition would push me further out of my comfort zone: perform it live. At this point (November), I’ve played it for Sylvia a couple times as I was still working on it, and once for my friend Becky. I was nervous each time. Now though, I decided to up the game. My friend, Summer, who was the singer of the band I used to be in, was hosting a dinner party in early December. She’s an amazing performer as is everyone else in her family: her husband, Matt, was the lead singer of a band we used to gig with and is truly one of the most natural ‘rock stars’ I’ve ever known personally. Summer’s brother and sister also used to perform (hip-hop and singing, respectively). So I told Summer I wanted to perform and asked her to make sure I didn’t chicken-out. She’s very persuasive.

If I had to make a list of my biggest fears performing in the situation, there would be 3 big ones:

  1. Too many people. In my mind, this would be a small crowd of just Summer and her family. In reality, the audience was over a dozen. Nearly everyone a talented musician and/or performer. Deep breath. Don’t think about it…
  2. Too loud. The song is now super stripped-down and I think it’s best done very quietly. In fact, I’ve never played it in a way that involved projecting. The house was filled with kids and I was sure they would all come running into the room and interrupt. As it was, there was a lot of noise to compete with, but the show must go on. (note: in the video below, my favorite bit is when Sonny shows up at the door.)
  3. Forgetting. With nerves on overdrive and so many talented people in the audience, it’s my greatest fear to really mess-up. Forget lyrics, play wrong chords, etc.

Below is a video of my performance. You may notice that ALL of my big fears happened (you can’t see the audience, fortunately). It made for perhaps my worst performance I’ve ever done, but I wouldn’t change anything. Getting over my fears and doing something even though I’m not good at it is the point. Self-editing has been a problem for me and I’m proud of myself for having gone through with it, not grading myself for how well I did doing it. It was a good feeling sharing with my friends and they were all supportive, as I knew they would be.


Finally, to officially put this one to bed, below is a solitary performance, devoid of audience or dog, less nerves and noise (but I still find a way to screw it up, don’t worry)