Rock and Grohl: An Introduction to the Foo Fighters

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One of the most inspiring and emotionally charged live performances I have ever seen happened last June when Foo Fighters ushered in a post-COVID comeback of live music at the legendary Madison Square Garden. Armed with his signature Gibson DG-335 and a quarter of a century of anthems and fan favorites, Foos frontman Dave Grohl and his cronies kept 20,000 ecstatic New Yorkers on their feet for two and a half hours with barely pause. The magnificent engine that powers this iconic band is an obvious but perhaps underestimated ingredient in their sound, namely Grohl’s propulsive, hook-laden rhythm guitar playing. And just like his drums during his tenure with legendary grunge pioneers Nirvana, Grohl’s rhythm guitar skills are a powerful foundation to build on. In this lesson, we’ll explore some of the guitar techniques from the Foo Fighters’ epic fist-up banger catalog!


Flying lessons

Let’s start with the two chord handles shown in Ex. 1. Grab a garden variety open E chord using your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers. This fingering allows you to move the shape up the neck while leaving your 1st finger free to grab the root note of the 6th string while letting the two highest strings resonate. Like a barre chord, this voicing can be slid up and down the neck. This round strategy was a favorite of Rush’s Alex Lifeson and it’s no secret that Dave Grohl is a die-hard Rush fan.

Play through Ex. 2 to get a feel for how Grohl appropriated this cool chord stuff to liven up Foo tunes like “This Is a Call” and “Learning to Fly”. Remember to keep your hand in place and let each chord resonate throughout the arpeggio of the measure.

Ex. 2

Foo Fighters – Learn to Fly (Live At Wembley Stadium, 2008)

Octave-eaten

A recurring sonic weapon in Foo Fighter’s powerful arsenal is the use of sliding octave shapes that are often played against open 6th and 5th string drones. Familiarize yourself with the two-octave fingerings of Ex. 3. The first involves a two-fret stretch and the second uses a three-fret stretch. I recommend using your 1st and 4th finger for both.

Once you have them in your muscle memory, try Ex. 4, which pits shapes against the buzz of open strings, transforming what might have been an otherwise pedestrian E to A change into a melodic riff with major 6, major 7, and major 9 color tones. all low blows, either alternative strummings to help capture the mood of the pre-chorus of “Everlong”, the chorus of “Best of You” and “My Hero” or the main riff of “Learning to Fly”.

Ex. 4

Foo Fighters – My Hero (Reading + Leeds 2019)

(Odd) moments like these

One composition tactic that Grohl seems to have mastered is the use of tension and relaxation. More precisely, the juxtaposition of a disjointed dissonant part against a harmonically / melodically satisfying part. This is often accomplished with a highly syncopated or odd rhythmic attack or the deployment of a harmonically ambiguous chord such as the Dm7 (no.3rd) in Ex. 5 which can be slid up or down chromatically for more angst.

To hear these techniques in action, listen to the opening chord burst and 7/4 groove of the soaring intro of “Times Like These”, or the brutal thumps of the rhythm guitar during the verses of “All”. My Life ”. Then play Ex. 6 to see how they can be easily applied. As you listen to the recorded example, notice that the guitar is silent on the first beat of bar 7/4, letting the bass sound the downbeat, creating an evocative “call and answer” effect.

Ex. 6

Foo Fighters “All My Life” on the Howard Stern Show

Colorful chord shapes

The Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album in 1995 – which was essentially written and recorded entirely by Grohl – proved more than just an outstanding drummer, but it was the follow-up to 1997. Color and shape which has firmly established them as one of the great rock bands of their generation. Unsurprisingly, “Everlong”, a song from that release, became the band’s “de facto” anthem. In order to deconstruct this modern rock masterpiece, you will need to be in drop-D tuning, which requires lowering your guitar’s 6th string a notch (doing its DADGBE chord, low to high). Most of the chord forms during the song’s verse are a variation of the standard D5 shown in Ex. 7.

Slide it to the 9th position while extending your first finger for a partial bar of the two lower strings to sound the Bm (sus2), then slide it down another step up to 7th position while lifting your third finger to grab the A5.

Once you have mastered these three basic variations, use them in several positions to play Ex. 8. While not a note-for-note transcription, playing this example downward should put you in the right direction to experience the unmistakable iconic intro of “Everlong”.

Ex. 8

6 strings stacked and (not stacked)

While the Foo Fighters are a quintessential rock band in many ways, something you won’t really find in their music is free guitar solos. Instead of handle gymnastics, Grohl’s 6-string co-conspirators (Chris Shifflett since 1999 and Pat Smear since 2010 who joined the group after touring with the group in their first incarnation) typically focus on the addition of complementary melodic lines expressed on the high strings. This less is more approach is demonstrated in Ex. 8 — a one-note melody articulated against an open E-treble drone.

While this melodic line might sound nice enough on its own, it really comes to life when layered. You can hear this juxtaposition on the audio sample rehearsal or you can check out general technique in action on Foo Fighter essentials like “Everlong” Monkey Wrench “,” My Hero “and” Walk “.

Foo Fighters – Everlong (Live at Wembley Stadium, 2008)

Grace Notes

After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, the Foo Fighters can rightfully take their place alongside the great hard rock bands of all time. And like many greats of all time, the Foos are just as adept at swinging on acoustic steel strings as when pushed through high gain stacks. A particularly poignant acoustic moment of the album Echoes, silence, patience and grace is the instrumental “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” which was inspired by two miners in Australia who requested that an iPod loaded with Foo Fighters songs be sent to them during the rescue mission after the mine collapsed in which they were. (They were eventually released unharmed and encountered a visibly moved Grohl who performed the song for them personally.) Ex. 9, and was originally recorded as a duet with guitar virtuoso Kaki King.

Ex. 9

Foo Fighters Sydney 2018 – Beaconsfield Miners Ballad

When it comes to songwriting, Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters are arguably the standard bearers of modern rock. Hopefully, this deep dive into some of their songwriting techniques won’t just give you a greater appreciation for the band, it will inspire you to incorporate new ideas into your own writing and acting.

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