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How to Play “Them Bones” by Alice in Chains
In anticipation of Alice in Chains’s forthcoming studio release (slated for later this year) we’re going to channel our inner metal-rock-grunge beast and learn a classic track from the great Alice in Chains – “Them Bones.”
The second single off Alice in Chains’s sophomore record, Dirt, from 1992, “Them Bones” is a concise and powerful rock tune that incorporates AIC’s unmistakable vocal harmonies, chugging riffs, catchy melodies, and distinct blend of rock and metal.
In this lesson, you’ll learn the main, verse and chorus riffs, as well as the complete solo. Through these guitar riffs and lead lines, you’ll explore aspects of guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s style – namely, his blend of rock and metal riffing and the dynamic characteristics of his lead playing.
Regarding tuning: AIC always tuned in Eb, meaning all strings were tuned down a half step. In this song, however, the bottom sixth string is dropped another full step to a Db. From low to high, the strings are tuned Db, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, and Eb.
Although the guitar is tuned to Drop D a half step down, we’ll refer to all notes as if the guitar were tuned to standard Drop D tuning for ease of note and scale reference.
Figure 1 shows the song’s main riff, which displays the more powerful side of Cantrell’s guitar approach thanks to tight, aggressive palm muted power chords.
Start off with a Dm7 triad (D, F, C) on the open sixth string, the 8th fret on the fifth string, and 10th fret on the fourth string. Attack this chord with a quick, strong downstroke and quickly slide the power chord down to the lower end of the neck while letting the open D ring.
Then, using consecutive downstrokes with fairly tight palm muting, move up the chromatic scale with power chords on the open, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd frets (D5, Eb5, E5, F5).
When starting to learn this riff, you may notice the unusual time signature of 7/8, which gives the riff an “off time” feel. Once you get a hang of the song though, it feels rather natural to play these riffs.
Here, we have the verse riff. Similar to the main riff in Figure 1, Cantrell moves up the chromatic scale; however this time, he opens up the chords more by incorporating additional notes and ceasing to palm mute.
One thing you can do here is let the D note ring by fretting and holding the 3rd fret, second string with your ring finger while you fret each power chord. This adds a bit of dimension to the distorted chords of the verse.
We’ve arrived to the catchy chorus riff, which changes time signature to a more straightforward 4/4.
Again, you’re playing power chords on the 8th, 7th, 10th, and 9th frets, respectively.
In between the two measures is a quick lick that you can achieve by sliding from the 9th fret to the 11th fret on the fourth string and hitting a double stop on the 9th frets of the fourth and third string. You can play around with what fingering feels the most comfortable, but for the most part, it’ll be easier to tackle the slide with your pinky, hit the double stop by barring your first finger, thus being in a comfortable position to fret the power chord on the 10th fret with your middle finger.
Now we’ve come the fun part – the guitar solo.
Jerry Cantrell is a highly competent soloist who incorporates dynamic phrasing, blues-based solo ideas, and a fluid vibrato to bring his solos to life. Like AIC’s songs, Cantrell’s lead playing sings with emotion, vibrancy, and a hauntingly melodic quality.
Figure 4 displays a D minor pentatonic blues lick. To keep it crunchy, try approaching the first measure with exclusive downstrokes, and notice how the ascending notes on the fourth string are not palm muted, while the pedal tone D on the 5th fret, fifth string is palm muted. Using downstrokes here will help keep the note attacks tight, consistent and accurate. Listen closely to the recording and hear how Cantrell juxtaposes these palm muted notes against non palm muted notes, which creates a crunchy dynamic contrast.
In the second measure, fret the slide from the 5th to 7th frets on the fourth string with your ring finger, and fret the C and F notes on the third and second string with your index and middle.
Figure 5 shows two full-step bends on the 12th fret, third string. Apply vibrato for the second bend to make it resonate.
The figure ends with a descending D minor pentatonic lick involving a half step bend on the 10th fret, fifth string, and a pull off to the F on the 8th fret.
Here, Cantrell varies his note choice and moves to the D natural minor scale. Approach the figure with an alternate picking approach, and apply light palm muting to the ascending scale run in the second measure.
Pay attention to the character of Cantrell’s vibrato in this section and see if you can imitate it.
Figure 7 continues utilizing the D natural minor scale, this time involving two bends, including a step-and-a-half bend on the 14th fret, third string (A to C).
In the studio recording, this bended note rings into the next few bars of music while a second lead guitar track picks up the remainder of the guitar solo. To play this solo live though, Cantrell cuts the note short and moves onto the next section of the solo.
Now we’re back to 4/4 timing as this phrase is played over the song’s chorus riff. Again in the D minor pentatonic and D natural minor scale, here the melody is played on the guitar’s high register.
Back in 7/8, we have a quick 32nd note pattern using hammer ons and pull offs. In order to play this fast sequence with accuracy, practice slowly until you’re comfortable synching the hammer ons and pull offs of the picking hand with picking the third and fourth string.
The solo ends with a descending pentatonic lick involving prebends on the 12th fret, third string.
After the solo, the verse and chorus riffs are repeated.
And that’s “Them Bones.” A short and blistering track, the song is a fantastic example of how Jerry Cantrell incorporates several techniques into one song to create heavy, and inspired guitar lines.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more guitar lessons, and as always, happy practicing.
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