Neil Young was once asked about his perspective on his musical career, and his response was…
"It's all one song."
I thought that was an interesting way to look at it…
Now sure he’s had continuous themes and emotions in his vast discography.
But there are a handful of his tunes that have REALLY resonated with audiences more than others. Ones they’ve latched on to for decades.
And today I want to share one of those with you.
In this lesson, you’ll discover how to combine syncopated rhythms with quick chord changes. How to play folk-style chord embellishments, and even how to add walk-ups and licks in the middle of your rhythm playing.
Plus if you are a singer yourself, or you want to accompany others, this song is a great example of how to do that with just one guitar.
So tune up, and let’s dive into this “Old Man” guitar lesson.
"Old Man" is a classic song by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. Neil Young wrote and recorded the song, and it was released on his 1972 album Harvest. The album was recorded at various locations, including Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and Barking Town Hall in London, England.
"Old Man" received critical acclaim and has become one of Neil Young's most beloved songs. It is a folk-rock ballad that reflects on the passage of time, the complexities of life, and the relationship between the young and the old.
The song features Neil Young's signature acoustic guitar work and distinctive vocals.
"Old Man" performed well on the music charts, reaching No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States. “Old Man” earned Neil Young a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1973.
"Old Man" continues to resonate with audiences to this day for its timeless theme and Young's heartfelt performance. It remains a standout track in his extensive discography and a classic in the folk-rock genre.
“Old Man” is in the key of D major. However, the main riff dances between a Dm sound and a D major sound, in the guitar part. But when the song ends it finally concludes to the D major chord.
To play “Old Man” on guitar you are going to need to know 7 chords. Those chords are Dm9, D, F/C, C, G, Am7, and Em7.
Let’s take a look at these shapes on the fretboard next.
Dm9 is played from the 4th string down and looks very similar to a D major chord but moved up to the 5th position like this:
D is played from the 4th string down like this:
F/C is a common folk-style chord voicing for F. It has a strong sound. And can be played without needing to do a full 6-string bar chord. It’s played from the 5th string down like this:
For C, we’ll play this in open position from the 5th string down like so:
G is played using all 6 strings and the fingers ring, middle and pinkie in the fretting hand. This is a folk-style fingering Neil would use all the time (see the above video for a demonstration):
Am7 is played in open position just like an Am chord. However we’ll open up the 3rd string to include the note G like this:
And finally, we have the Em7 chord. This is played using all 6 strings like this:
Now that you’ve got the chord shapes down…Next, let’s talk about the overall groove of the song.
The main strumming pattern is a 2 beat rhythm that starts with 2 eighth-note downstrums on beat 1:
And then 1 eighth note downstrum followed by a down up pattern of 2 sixteenth notes like this:
The underlying rhythm that I feel as I play this song is a sixteenth-note count.
1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a
If we look at the main groove and strumming pattern directions against a 16th note grid we would see this:
d d d d u
1 e + a 2 e + a
Then it would repeat for beats 3 and 4:
d d d d u
3 e + a 4 e + a
This pattern can then be applied to the chord changes like this:
And so on…
Once you get to the Chorus (this is where Neil sings up in the higher octave):
“Old man, take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you…”
Here we have some rhythmic syncopation and a 2 bar strumming pattern. The chord progression here starts with 1 bar of D, and then Am7, Em7, and G all in the 2nd bar.
The first part starts with the same rhythm as the main strumming pattern…
Then we’ll add a down-up strum of two sixteenth-notes on beat 3, followed by another eighth-note downstrum on the + of 3 like this:
Then beat 4 is exactly like beat 2:
So altogether measure one goes like this:
Then in measure 2 of this Chorus groove we have more chords, more syncopation, and some rhythmic hits. Let’s break it down beat by beat. Beat 1 is 2 downstrums on an Am7 played as eighth notes.
Right after this, we will rest with our strum hand, and then play Em7 as a downstrum on the + of 2 and let it ring until the + of 3.
After this, we’ll play yet another downstrum on the + of 3 and rest until the “e” of beat 4 where will drop a quick downstrum on the G chord.
So measure 2 goes like this:
And altogether the syncopated chorus strumming pattern goes like this:
This rhythm can be tricky but it really aligns with the band and will help you develop your rhythm and counting.
"Old Man" by Neil Young stands as a timeless gem in the world of folk-rock music. Neil Young's heartfelt songwriting, emotional vocals, and masterful folk-style guitar work have created his iconic sound.
Use this lesson to keep honing in on those intricate strumming patterns and your timing…
And whether you're a seasoned guitarist or a beginner, this classic Neil Young song offers a rich learning experience and a glimpse into the heart of a true musical icon.