guitar heroes

A Tribute to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’’: The Guitar Part Everyone Learns How to Play

Photo: MCA Records

“Okay, now just place your pinkie on the bottom string, third fret. Strum. Strum again. Pull off the pinkie and strum again. Now do you remember how to play an A?” I don’t remember who taught me how to play the simplified version of “Free Fallin’” on the acoustic guitar that had been in my house since before I was born. It might’ve been my dad. It might’ve been my friend Mike, whose friend Jason from camp taught him. I just remember the instructions and the way my fingers moved. Right now, my fingers are fixed in the riff’s three positions, despite the fact that I haven’t thought of or played the song much in the over 15 years since I learned it. I am certain I am not the only one. With one incredibly simple strum pattern, he inspired generations of budding guitar players — hobbyists and gods alike. He’s not the Velvet Underground, who can claim that everyone who heard their record was inspired to start a band, but his influence was similar. With “Free Fallin’” he inspired budding guitarists to keep going.

The thing most people will tell you when you start playing guitar is that it hurts. The strings are metal, your fingertips are a bundle of nerve endings covered by the thinnest of flesh. It is a very easy instrument to quit. The thing guitar has going for it is how quickly you can start playing songs. There are only so many open chords, so mix and match and you’ve got “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” — which is often one the first songs guitar teachers teach you. The thing is, who gives a shit about that third-, if not fourth-tier, Bob Dylan song. No one’s going to recognize it, and it has, for a beginner, an unfathomable number of chords: four.

“Free Fallin’” is two. Basically. Technically, it’s three, but the second is a very simple variation on the first — the aforementioned pinkie on the bottom string. And they are likely the first two chords you’re going to learn, give or take. But the real reason it’s so easy is the strumming pattern. You know it. You’re thinking about it right now. Strum Strum strum-strum Strum. It is very slow, with extra time for the part where you have to change from a D-chord formation to an A. This is the key. The pause is built in there, so even if you take an extra second to figure it out, it still kind of sounds like it and your mom will be so impressed and proud.

And you keep on playing it. And now your mom is annoyed, but she’s happy you’re sticking with a hobby. And the changes start coming faster and it sounds like the record enough that you think maybe you should buy a capo to get it exactly right. And your fingertips, with the callouses that’ll last the rest of your life, don’t hurt anymore. So you think you want to learn how to play bar chords now or power chords or “Dammit” by Blink-182. Soon, you’re on a roll, learning blues scales and jazz chords and the guitar solo from “Hotel California.” But you never forget how to play that chord pattern. Years later, you’ll realize you didn’t even learn to play the chorus. Because for that week, two chords and a pinkie on the bottom string was all you needed.

A Tribute to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’’ Guitar Part