Unlock this crowd-pleasing song, and iconic Clapton style with this lesson on how to play “I Shot The Sheriff” on guitar.
In this post, you’ll get a breakdown of tips and tricks for playing this classic tune as well as diving into some signature Eric Clapton guitar techniques and tones. So get tuned up and let’s dive in!
"I Shot the Sheriff" was originally written by Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley. It was first released on the album Burnin’ in 1973 with his band Bob Marley and the Wailers.
A year later, Eric Clapton recorded the song and released it on his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Both Clapton’s version and the original Marley version are in the key of Gm, so the chords are the same however in this post, I’ll be focusing more on Clapton’s version.
To play “I Shot the Sheriff” you’ll need to know 4 core chords, Gm, Cm, Eb, and Dm. These chords are going to be bar chords and here’s how I would play them:
Gm at the 3rd like this:
Cm can be played from the 5th string down like this:
Eb moves up to the 6th fret but still keeps the root of the chord on the 5th string like this:
And finally, Dm can be played the same way as Cm just shift the chord up two frets to the 5th fret like this:
Those chords would be the essential bar chord shapes however in the video above I expand on these chords and make them all 7th chords.
Here’s how you can do that:
This sound gets a slightly jazzier sound. Ideally, it is great to know multiple ways to approach a chord progression. Having multiple chord variations on expands your sound and gives you more options in your music.
To play the chorus you only need two chords. The chorus section is 4 bars long and repeats. Here we’ll use the Gm7 and Cm7 chord shapes from above. Start by playing one bar of Gm7 and then one bar of Cm7. After that play 2 more bars of Gm7 and then repeat everything.
Gm7 (1 bar)
Cm7 (1 bar)
Gm7 (2 bars)
This progression happens over the lyrics:
“I shot the sheriff…but I did not shoot the deputy…”
The verse section is primarily just a 2 bar chord progression and then it ends with the signature lick based out of the G minor pentatonic scale.
Start off by playing 2 beats on Ebmaj7 and then 2 beats on Dm7. That is the first measure, and then the second measure is just Gm7.
Ebmaj7, Dm7 (1 bar)
Gm7 (1 bar)
The measure with Ebmaj7 and Dm7 is the only measure there is a split bar in the progression. This is essentially where you have 2 chords in 1 bar.
The signature lick of this song is used as an interlude to go from the verse to the chorus section. This riff is based on a scale called the G minor pentatonic scale and can be played at the 3rd fret like this:
Those same strings and frets can also be thought of like this:
6th string = 3, 6
5th string = 3, 5
4th string = 3, 5
3rd string = 3, 5
2nd string = 3, 6
1st string = 3, 6
Clapton has an incredible live version of this song from the Crossroads Festival in 2010.
Next, let’s look at a few examples of licks in Clapton’s soloing style using the G minor pentatonic scale.
Example 1 starts off on the 13th fret of the 2nd string with a big full-step bend. The bend is released down and then you play the 11th fret on the 2nd string, followed by a couple more notes out of the G minor pentatonic scale.
Example 2 starts in a similar range but then works its way down the neck all the way to the lower strings. Clapton does this by weaving his way through the notes of the G minor pentatonic scale but in a musical way using slides and blues phrasing.
Example 3 is played down lower on the neck closer to the pentatonic pattern above. In this lick, Clapton combines his iconic blues phrasing with also double-stops a signature trait of his solos and guitar style.
To get an Eric Clapton-style guitar tone, like the one heard on "I Shot the Sheriff," try some of these tips as a starting point:
Remember, while these tips are just a starting point, achieving an exact replica of Clapton's tone is challenging. Experimentation, attentive listening, and personal interpretation will help you develop your unique Eric Clapton-style guitar tone.
Look at how far we’ve come. From the beginning, with learning the background of the song, its origins, and its significance in Clapton's repertoire. From there, we explored the chords that form the foundation of "I Shot the Sheriff," dissecting each progression and highlighting the nuances that contribute to its distinct sound.
We then examined the song's two sections, noting their contrasting dynamics and the importance of transitioning seamlessly between them. Understanding the structure of the song allows us to navigate its twists and turns with confidence.
Of course, we couldn't ignore the iconic signature riff based on the G minor pentatonic scale. And lastly, we worked on some soloing ideas to help you express yourself and jam leads on top of the progression.
Now that you have all this knowledge and new techniques, it’s time to put it all together and jam with the song. And for another great Clapton lesson check out “Crossroads” next!
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