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The Blue Danube
Difficulty Rating: Intermediate-Advanced
Lesson by: Kirk Lorange

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Here is the Queen of Waltzes, The Blue Danube. To me, it's the epitome of a waltz, almost a cartoon of three-four time. When I first thought of doing it as a lesson, I thought "way too corny", but the more I experimented with it, the more I realized why this piece has lasted through the centuries. The way it's put together really is a stroke of genius. It was, of course, composed by the Waltz King Johann Strauss II back in the late 1800s. It had a resurgence of popularity in our era when it was used in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", but I'm sure you've all heard it many times before.

I did it in dropped D, so before you do anything, lower that bass E string down to D. It's a great tuning and it lends itself perfectly to this beautiful piece, as you'll see and hear.

There are a few things that struck me about this tune when I was arranging it for guitar. It uses a couple of elements of composition in a very blatant manner: one is repetition, the other "question-answer" and it blends them very cleverly. It's also a great example of the power of the "related chords", as I call them those chords that arise naturally from the underlying scale. In this case, it's almost exclusively written around the I-IV-V chords, the primary major chords of the key. There's just a couple of measures of Em, the ii chord.

You'll see in tab that I've color coded the repetition elements. They are the simple melody lines that keep asking the question. There are three main melody lines, each repeated once. The question posed by each melody line is answered each time by the chords, which are different each time. For example, the first blue melody line is answered with a I chord, the second with a V chord; the green melody line does the opposite; the orange melody line is answered first by the I, then the IV chord. The effect is this rock-solid structure, one of the most basic in music (the I-IV-V chord relationship) broken only by the momentary vi chord that arrives near the end to add that little bit of interest to the ear. The question/answer period also ends and we feel and ending coming on. I love it! If you really listen to those changes and let your brain register the 'flavor' (wish there was a better word) of those Roman numerals, you'll be doing yourself a favor because they are about as basic an example you'll ever hear of this fundamental "core" of western music.

D=I, G=IV, A=V, Em=ii ... remember that you're not listening for the chords so much as the relationships between them, how they compare to each other, when you're listening to Roman numerals.

In the tab, I've only indicated the main flavor of those chords (D, G and A) but you'll notice that the chords vary here and there according to the melody line. That B note in the green melody line turns the A7 into A9 and D into D6. You can clearly hear the tension set up by these chords in that section.

Playing wise, it's a good one to get down. There's a lot of moving up and down the fretboard and you need to be quick and accurate to keep it all flowing, you need to be thinking ahead. The thumb is taking care of those bass notes, those little chords are plucked with a three-finger combo, always on the top three strings.

Remember, when you're in dropped D, all notes on the bass string are two frets higher than normal. That's why the roots of the Em and G chords are on the 2nd and fifth frets respectively.

That ending is a natural harmonic played on the 4th string at the 12th fret.

There are other parts to this tune. I may have a look at adding them in future lessons so you can have the whole thing mapped out. Meanwhile, this main -- and most well-known -- section is a great one to master, even if it is just a little corny. Posted Image

PS: whether you're into rock, blues, jazz, shred, folk, flamenco -- whatever -- flick your taste bias switch to Off, give your ears a ten minute treat and listen to the full version performed by a symphony orchestra turned up LOUD. For a couple of bucks I downloaded the Vienna Symphony Orchestra version which is just stunning.