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Notes on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song
Notes on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
KEY a minor/Major METER 4/4 FORM Intro -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Verse (solo) -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (fadeout)
General Points of Interest
Two very different versions exist of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." One, the official release on the White Album, is loud, heavy, wailing, and arranged in successively recorded thick layers of sound. The other version, take 1, available for years in bootleg and finally released officially on _Anthology 3_, is very much the opposite in tone; introspectively quiet and quite simply arranged, essentially for solo voice and acoustic guitar, with just a hint of harmonium toward the end.
And yet, one might say that the expressive core of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is to be found more deeply embedded in the musical elements which are in common between the two versions than it is to be found among the details of their contrasting arrangements, no matter how interesting it may be to explore and compare their details.
Within the melody, chord progressions, and formal phrasing of the song we discover a thoroughly sad lament in which there is ironic tension on at least two levels: first, the contrast between the ploddingly slow tempo and continually restless progression of chords; second, the predominance of downward-moving gestures which conjure a mood of pessimism, despite the intermittent appearance of upward gestures that you would half-expect to lighten things up a bit.
While the emphasis in this article will be on the so-called common musical elements, we will also take a close look, along the way, at the difference between the two versions.
In between these two extremes, by the way, was yet another arrangement which has not been released officially or otherwise. From Lewisohn's commentary it sounds rather similar to the official version would appear to have been scrapped as a matter of its having become overdeveloped with too many overdubs and manipulations of tape speed.
Crying, Waiting, Hoping ... For A New Blue Moon
It may be fashionable sport these days to pick on the supposed Quiet One for being rather noisily complaining in his song lyrics, but it's a game with some basis in fact; whether the topic be lost love, the materialistic blindness of society, or even late-arriving friends, the Beatle George would always let us know his opinion of others.
Even so, there is an unmistakable shift toward happier songs from him, or at least ones with a more positive world outlook, starting from around the time of the White Album. With the exception of "Only A Northern Song" and "I Me Mine", there is a clear trend, starting on the third side of "The Beatles" with "Long, Long, Long", that carries on through the remainder of the Beatles canon with such upbeat tunes as "Old Brown Shoe," "Something," "Here Comes The Sun", and "For You Blue." The biographical and spiritual parallels to this musical transformation of George during the last phase of his tenure with the Beatles are fascinating but unfortunately also outside the scope of this already long article.
Amazingly, before the appearance of "Long, Long, Long", there was virtually nothing among George's songwriting credits that might be called cheery, optimistic, or fanciful. Even when the topic is one of transcendental enlightenment, as in "Within You, Without You", the underlying tone is one of peroration rather than encouragement.
Seen in this light, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" sits on a cusp between two eras. It is more or less the last of a chain of songs similar in tone and attitude. Perhaps closest in spirit is "Think For Yourself" though the rancor of that earlier song from Rubber Soul, which would appear to be personally directed at an individual, is replaced here in the later song by sad regret that is targeted more diffusely and ambiguously.
The form of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is deceptively familiar, representing on one hand the two bridge model with two verses intervening, one of which is an instrumental. On the other hand, the double verse we've come to expect at the beginning of Beatles songs is conspicuous here by virtue of its absence.
This latter move is likely warranted by the slow tempo, the unusual length of the intro and outro, and the internal structure of the verse section itself, as we'll see shortly when we pull it apart below.
Aside from the refrain-like frequent reprise of the title phrase, the lyrics of every section are more or less different. The use here of different lyrics in each bridge, instead of the more familiar verbatim repeat, is particularly unusual. Even the final verse, which starts off with the same line as the first verse, presents some new/different material before it is done.
The odd lines of the verse rhythmically commence with a pickup to the downbeat. The even lines of the verse as well as all the lines of the bridge begin on the 2nd beat following the downbeat; the latter effect becoming a subtle signature of the piece.
There are a couple of differences between the official version and the outtake worth noting at the macro level. The outtake features all new words in the final verse whereas the official version presents a clever variation of the first verse in this spot. Also, the outtake is in the key of g minor while the official version is in a. Both of these keys force George to sing the bridge section in a breathy, partly falsetto tenor, an effect that he must have liked very much because he chose to go with the higher of the two keys for the official version. In spite of any strain on his voice, it's actually an effect he's sought after throughout his career; songs running all the way from Don't Bother Me to "Heading For The Light" all keep him singing for long sections in a range that is several notes above middle C.
Melody and Harmony
The melodic content is shapely and far ranging. The verse stays within the natural minor mode while the bridge shifts to the diatonic parallel Major mode.
Many, but far from all, of the chords from both minor and Major modes of the home key are used. No more exotic chords appear though the slowly descending bass line against a static chord in the odd lines of the verse, and the hint of a modulation to c# in the bridge bear some interest.
The use of harmony is a key element in the song's evocation of a mood that is paradoxically slow and measured, restless and fretful.
A somber, languid processional is suggested, on the one hand, by slow harmonic rhythm and moderate tempo; nowhere in the song do the chords change more frequently than once a measure, and in a number of places, the rate of change is even less frequent.
On the other hand, this static, plodding tendency is more than amply balanced out by the way in which the chord progressions themselves always seem to be going somewhere, yet never truly find rest for long. From the home key of A minor there are excursions toward the relative Major key of C, the parallel Major key of A, and even the comparatively remote key of c# minor, yet none of these keys are strongly established, with the music always moving on ("like a bird that flew") almost as soon as it has touched down.
The arrangement is a pretty thick, heavily layered affair typical of the period in which it was produced, yet demonstrates overall careful organization, some of which must have been superimposed later rather than sooner in the process. We'll track it section by section.
By the way, how they ever kept Eric Clapton's guest appearance on lead guitar any kind of secret is beyond me by the way. Ask yourself when it was you first suspected it, no less had it confirmed.
The introduction is an unusually long one of eight measures in which the entire first half of the verse is presented instrumentally. This length sets an expansive tone for the song at the outset and the ending of this phrase on V nicely motivates the verse that follows. Note that the intro to the outtake, though also eight measures long, does not use the the exact same chord progression; instead of ending on V, the VII chord of measure 6 is simply resolved to the "i" chord which fills both measures 7 and 8.
The arrangement of the Intro is attention grabbing, starting right off with the seemingly stray "hey up!", but also containing two details of greater substance, neither of which curiously lasts much beyond the intro itself. We have a simple yet effective precis of what will emerge as the melody of the verse played percussively on the piano, and syncopated cymbal slashes on the syncopated offbeat between 2 and 3, which sound as though recorded backward though they likely were just deftly damped by hand. Strangely, the piano never reappears with equivalent prominence in the remainder of the song, and the cymbal slashes continue, but only through the first eight measures of the first verse before the percussion switches over to a different texture for the rest of the song.
Of course Clapton makes his own dramatic entrance in the measure 7 of this intro with an obbligato-like riff, the likes of which not only repeat leitmotif-like throughout the song, but the melodic style of which, heavy on arpeggio outlines, appoggiaturas, neighbor tones, and evenly played eighth notes, serves as the basis of his incredible solo in the middle section.
There are two other instrumental details that are employed throughout the song and become emblematic elements of its sonority: the very heavy bass that often sounds as though more than one string has been plucked, and the Wilbury-like use of a steely-sounding acoustic guitar in an otherwise exceedingly electric, hard rock texture.
All the verses in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" are a square sixteen measures built from four phrases of even length. Internally, the form of this verse is more precisely that of a double couplet; i.e., AB-AB':
|a |- |- |F | bass line: A G F# F-natural a: i VI |a |G |D |E | i VII IV V |a |- |- |F | i VI |a |G |C |E A i V-of-III III V I
I believe it is this repeat-like structure within the verse itself is what discourages the use of two full verses in a row. In the case of the guitar solo verse, note by the way, how the structure of Clapton's solo blurs the distinct articulation of the double couplet.
The couplet structure is articulated by both words and music. Lyrically we have the pattern in every verse of an alternation between lines which begin with "while" and "still". Musically too, there's clear parallelism between phrases 1/3 and 2/4.
The first and third phrases prominently feature a descending bass line whose downward gesture permeates the song by virtue of its constant repetition. This is nicely balanced out by the symmetrical arch shape of the vocal melody.
The partially chromatic bass line moves against an A minor chord which is sustained for three measures above it. From a guitar player's perspective, this makes for what look like different chords in every measure, but analytically it's all one harmonic "event" and the novel sonorities of measures 2 and 3 are byproducts of the contrapuntal motion of the bass. Similarly, the chord in measures 4 and 8 may appear on paper as though it's a D minor chord that quickly changes to F Major, but the more proper analysis is to call it F Major with a melodic appoggiatura of D->C on the downbeat; "proper" to the extent that the analysis matches one's experience of the music.
Both couplets in this verse are harmonically open ended on the V chord, yet there is a subtle difference created by the simple use of a different chord in the penultimate measure of each couplet (i.e., measures 7 and 15 respectively). In the first couplet, the approach to the E chord at the end by way of G and D chords is one of what you might describe as continual motion. In the second couplet, the resolution of the G chord to C (instead of D) creates a articulative break in the motion because the dominant-tonic relationship of the G and C chords creates a definite albeit short-lived sense of having arrived somewhere new.
But we're not yet finished with harmonic motion in this verse even though we're already at measure 15; there are still two small surprises to come in short order. When the E chord appears in measure 16 you think to yourself, "oh well, so much for a modulation to C, it's straight back to the home key of A minor now." Yet when the bridge begins, we're given not A minor, but rather the parallel *Major* key of A. It's not so much a big surprise per se, but it is sufficient to add to that sense of restlessness; "hey George, either sit still, or let's really go somewhere, harmonically, for a change!"
The first eight measures of the first verse feature George singing by himself but double-tracked. The second eight measures present a different vocal arrangement, one that persists for most of the rest of the song: in the third phrase, George sings the melody part while Paul sings in harmony with him in parallel thirds unusually placed *above* the melody. The fourth refrain-like phrase reverts to just George. Although George does have the melody in that third phrase and Paul sounds as though mixed less prominently than George, I can't help but wonder if Paul might have been trying to horn-in or upstage poor old Hari in his own song by singing the upper part.
In the backing part, we find Clapton interjecting his brief comments in the final two measures of each couplet. Starting in the second couplet of this verse (m.9, ff.) the cymbal slashes are abandoned in favor of bass and snare drum work plus a "dum-ditty-dum" sort of quiet tapping on what sounds like a wood block, mixed far to the left.
This second verse is built on the same musical structure as the first one. The primary difference aside from the new words is in the way the vocal duet introduced in phrase three of the first verse is now repeated in both phrase 1 and 3 of this one.
Harmonically, the bridge further adds to the paradoxical mood of expansiveness with its sixteen-measure length, and the restlessness with its chord progression. Structurally, it is a verbatim repetition of the following eight measure phrase:
|A |c# |f# |c# |b |- |E |- | A: I iii iii ii V c#: I iv I
Just like the ending of the verse, no sooner have we arrived with some sense of decisiveness in A Major then we appear to be off yet again; this time apparently for the comparatively remote environs of c sharp minor. But the establishment of this key, as with both C Major and A Major before it, is not only short-lived, but also weakly established via its IV chord instead of with a stronger I-V-I cadence.
As with any good bridge section, this one provides both sharp contrast to the surrounding verses as well as further development of the essential thematic mood of the song. Overall, this bridge provides some well needed upward gestures as well as an opening up of the melodic and harmonic space. In keeping with the rest of the song though, this initial feeling of new energy is quickly dissipated by section's end with a sad descending which is reminiscent of that of the verse.
Melodically, the bridge starts off with a dramatic swing upward. The melody of the verse had been constrained to the small melodic range of A to E (actually, E and G just below the A also make brief embellishing appearances though they are not a key part of the action). The first part of the bridge extends the range all the way up to G#, though in keeping with the inevitably sad nature of the piece, the melodic range of the second half of the bridge tends back downward to where it overlaps with that of the verse.
In parallel to the melody, there is a lifting of the harmonic root motion at the beginning of each bridge phrase that suggests a momentary flash of optimism but it quickly fades in the stepwise-downward motion of the c#->b chords which follow, and the eventual faltering of the harmonic rhythm in the remainder of the phrase, suggestive of a loss of energy as well as hope.
Note how the official version tries to counterbalance this suggestion of lost vigor at the end of each phrase by a scale-wise pumping up based on the V chord that makes the music drive forward into the next phrase. By contrast and with greater pathos, the outtake version leaves this wilting gesture more simply exposed.
The arrangement of the bridge features George singing double-tracked by himself again, without the help of Paul. The drumming in this section is slightly different yet again from what preceded it.
Just as with the successive verses, the second bridge is musically identical to the first one but for the use of different lyrics and minor tweaks to the backing track. Also note the subtle addition in this section of a clanging sound on the offbeat in the percussion; what could it possibly be, finger cymbals miked very closely ?
Note how cleverly the relationship between the "why" and "how" of the two bridges seems to parallel the "while" and "still" of the verses.
Guitar Solo Verse
Even without the all the flanging and bent notes, this would still be one gem of a guitar solo. I'll resist the temptation to supply a complete transcription of it for now but will at least sketch it out.
Above all, it is an extraordinarily melodic, even vocal sounding solo in which the 16 measures are treated not as a couplet, but rather are broken up into two slow, deep and contrasting phrases of eight measures each. The solo achieves some unity with the rest of the song by virtue of Clapton's starting off with a retracing of the melodic outline of George's sung melody, as well as the fact the style of guitar figuration used in the solo had already been consistently presented in obbligato licks starting as early as the introduction.
While the vocal melody of the verse presented a full arch shape in the space of only eight measures, Clapton spreads the arch of his solo out over most of the full sixteen measures of the section. He works his way up a full octave in measures 1 - 8, suspensefully sustains the high note in measures 9 & 10, ambles slowly back down the octave in measures 10 - 14, and then, with breathtaking surprise in the final two measures, passes delicately below the low end of the octave and very quickly finishes up with a flourish that takes him all the way back up the octave to end on his earlier high note as the second bridge begins.
The high A of this guitar solo is not only the single highest melodic note of the entire song, but on some subliminal level it provides ultimate resolution of the high g# left hanging in the bridge section. Even more significantly, the ending of this solo is very much *the* climax of the song because it is the single moment in the song where a positive, upward gesture has the last word and appears to stick; at least for a moment. Whatever follows this section more or less provides ballast and an emotional unwinding from this high point.
The last verse presents still more fiddling with the words and arrangement. Though the official version essentially repeats the lyrics of the first verse, the third line is unusually truncated. In the vocal part, Paul's accompaniment of George at a third above is now extended even to include the fourth phrase.
In keeping with both the spirit and scale of the song to this point, we are given an unusually long outro consisting of almost two full iterations of the verse section; close to 32 measures of instrumental music into a fadeout that is accompanied by moaning, both vocal and Claptonesque.
In equally consistent contrast, the outtake makes a small musical change in the final verse so that its final two measures make a neat I-V-I cadence into a comparatively brief eight-measure outro with a complete ending that is followed on the original studio tape by a candid snippet of George asking to have it played back. This outtake was unfortunately tampered with, originally for the _Sessions_ project, to have a fadeout ending based on the I and flat-VII chords. It's this latter version that appears on _A3_, but the original is worth seeking.
Incidentally, for those who like to follow this sort of detail, there is what sounds to me like a glitch near the very end of the official version. In the last repetition of the verse section (at which point we're pretty well into the fadeout) it appears as though Paul and the rest of the group are out of step, chord-wise in both measures 7 and 15. To give all concerned the benefit of the doubt, it's hard to tell if it's a mistake outright, or more a matter of Paul's suddenly trying out a new improvisatory trick with the bass line based on his assumption that the finished track would be fully faded out by this point.
Some Final Thoughts
Having paid insufficient attention to the words, I've been walking around for years thinking that this song is obviously about a love that George has lost or given up because he has grown apart from her on some spiritual, intellectual level; as if it were his version of John's "And Your Bird Can Sing" or even perhaps a Harrisonian adaptation of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's *NOT* (sic! :-)) Alright." But then I finally noticed the enigmatic use of the word "all" and for the first time realized that this song has as much in common with "Within You Without You" as it does with "Think For Yourself."
Alas, poor George cries for us all, but more's the pity that his insight here is one that enervates him to a walking-in-circles inability to act rather than infusing him with the energy to do something about it. It's rather comforting to know that in retrospect, it would be only a relatively short time after "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that this same Mr. Harrison would be capable of finding some joyful inspiration for "Here Comes The Sun" in the clear light of the backyard belonging to the same Mr. Clapton.
Returning to our two different arrangements, you might say that, to the extent that tears come to reflect a broad spectrum of moods, both versions are on some level a legitimate rendering of the words to our song. For some, the official version may seem a bit maudlin, while for others, the outtake will be lacking in production values. In the final result, whichever you prefer is likely to be a matter of your own sweet taste.
Regards, Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright (c) 2001 by Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved
This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.
These articles were originally posted in the News Group rec.music.beatles. The content from this newsgroup is archived at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.
If you want to learn more about the musical side of song writing, chord progressions, harmony and theory through The Beatles songs (and/or The Beatles in particular), I recommend the following book:
Artist: Dominic Pedler
Arranged by The Beatles
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