Published On: Wed, Dec 4th, 2013

Guitar Techniques – Play Like: Bad Company

Mick Ralphs’ work on Bad Company’s 1974 debut LP mixed great riffs and harmony leads and also employed a very unusual tuning. Douglas Noble explains everything


Bad Company’s self-titled 1974 debut album opens with Can’t Get Enough, and immediately gets guitarists scratching their heads. How did Mick Ralphs get that sound?

It was all a partial accident, thanks to singer Paul Rodgers’ vocal range. ‘When we did Can’t Get Enough and Movin’ On, Paul liked the songs but he wanted me to change the key,’ Ralphs explained, ‘so we ended up doing them in the key of C. I used a Strat or a Tele and I had to put really light strings on it and tune it up to the key of C – C, C, G, C, E, C. That’s quite high, but it gives it a very unique sound. It needs the open C to have that ring, but it makes the tension on the strings feel really tight.’

So, both Mick Ralphs’ bottom and top strings were tuned down to C’s, while the middle four strings were tuned up to the required pitches. The top string, a C, was lower than the second string, which was now E – the same pitch as a top string in standard tuning! Note that although Ralph’s open strings still spell out a C chord, his open C is different from what is normally meant by ‘open C tuning’, which is CGCGCE.

Early in his career, Ralphs liked the tuning made famous by Rolling Stone Keith Richards – open G tuning, or DGDGBD, from bottom to top. ‘I liked the idea of having open G because it gives you different sounds, and for rock’n’roll songs it restricts you from going too posh.’ Ralphs preferred writing in open tunings because it put a limit on his choice of chords, and he preferred to write songs based around three or four chords. Indeed, the intro of Can’t Get Enough, explored in Exercises 1 to 4, is based on three chords, and the main progression of Seagull, as you’ll see from Exercises 10 and 11, is also based on just three chords.

The Ralphs-penned songs Can’t Get Enough and Movin’ On are key songs on Bad Company, with Can’t Get Enough becoming a rock classic. Exercises 1 and 2 look at this tuning as used by Ralphs, whereas Ex 3 and Ex 4 look at the same chord voicings and techniques in open G as an alternative for those who don’t fancy radical retuning.

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1: Ralphs uses his variation on open C tuning for Can’t Get Enough and Movin’ On; from bottom string to top string, the strings are CCGCEC, as previously described, with bottom and top strings being tuned down in pitch and the middle four strings tuned up in pitch. In order to get close to Ralphs’ sound on these two songs it’s necessary to use his tuning, preferably with lighter gauge strings fitted to your guitar – although the Mick has claimed he used .009 to .042 strings instead of his usual .010 to .052 set… many use .009 to .042 for regular tuning!

Pragmatically, since neither the top nor bottom strings are used in these chords, you could leave these strings tuned normally – but if you fear striking these strings by accident, it’ll sound better if they are tuned accordingly. Keith Richards famously got around this problem by removing the bottom string from open G tuned guitars, since he didn’t use it. While both the C and the F voicings can be played in standard tuning, the Bb/F voicing cannot be played in standard tuning.

If you don’t fancy risking Ralph’s personal C tuning and cranking the middle four strings considerably higher than normal, then simply fast-forward to Exercise 3, where we’ll use a commoner and practical alternative to this tuning – open G tuning.

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2:Here’s a progression similar to the start of Can’t Get Enough. Listen for the natural resonance of the open string C chord, and listen for how the tightness of the strings has an affect on the tone. This three chord progression in the major key uses chords I and IV, or C and F respectively, plus the major chord built on the flattened seventh degree of the scale, Bb, with the fifth in the bass.

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3:The chords from Exercises 1 and 2 can be played in open G tuning without the need for drastic retuning and/or restringing. The common version of open G tuning is D G D G B D – but just as Ralph’s open C tuning is not the same as common open C, to create the equivalent tuning in open G the strings would have to be G G D G B G, with the bottom and top strings being tuned way down. Again, to be practical, since the chords we’re going to be using don’t use the bottom or the top strings, let’s forget about these ones and leave them as they are in standard tuning. So, the only string you need to change is the fifth string – down a tone, or two frets’ worth, to G. These voicings are the exact same pitches as the chords in Exercise 1.

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4:So here we’ve got the same progression and note pitches as in Ex 1 and 2, but using the chord shapes from Ex 3. Now, because we’re using fretted notes for the first C chord instead of open strings as in Ex 1 and 2, this chord won’t have the same ‘resonance’ – and since we’re only changing the tuning of one of the strings to get these chords on the middle four strings instead of tuning strings up, the strings aren’t as tight as they would be in open C tuning, which also affects the sound. Incidentally, this three-chord riff could also be played with a capo at the fifth fret, so the opening chord is now played as open strings provided by the capo.

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5:At the end of Can’t Get Enough, Ralphs plays the solo at the end in the open tuning. Just to simplify matters we’ll look at this in standard tuning, for unlike the chords, these phrases don’t really gain anything from being played in open tuning. Bars 1 and 2 show a phrase using the C mixolydian mode, which could be thought of as the C major scale with a minor seventh (C D E F G A Bb C). This is similar to one played at 1:43. Ralphs harmonised this phrase a third higher, as shown in bars 3 and 4. Play both at the same time, either by recording one of the parts of by roping in a mate. You could cleverly combine the parts on one guitar, but it won’t have the same tone.

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6: The voicing of Am7 shown here is simply the basic open Am chord minus the third finger’s note, giving an open G string for the seventh. Shift this Am7 shape two frets up the fretboard, and we get Dadd4/A; the ‘add 4’ note is the open G, which is a fourth above the root note of D – which is not actually included in the chord, although there is a D on the second string.  The power chord here consists of the root, fifth and octave, fingered with fingers one, three and four respectively.

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7:The Mick Ralphs-penned Ready For Love starts with the Am7 and Dadd4/A shapes played as arpeggios – that is, picking notes out from the chords. Bars 3 and 4 are similar to the chorus riff, heard for the first time at 0:52. A5 is the G5 shape moved two frets higher, then this riff is moved a string higher. Note the similarity between this riff and the verse riff in Free’s Fire And Water – Bad Company was essentially a ‘supergroup’ including Mick Ralphs, formerly of Mott The Hoople, and Paul Rodgers, formerly of Free.

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8:This exercise illustrates some of the harmonic techniques used in the intro riff of Rock Steady, penned by singer and occasional guitarist Paul Rodgers. This riff solely uses the A pentatonic minor scale (A C D E G E). Note how the two note diads (chords, basically) are ‘bent sharp’ – raised in pitch by approximately one quarter tone, giving a bluesy effect. Try fingering these two notes by lying the first finger flat across both strings, and for the quarter-tone bend pull the strings towards the top string for a slight raise in pitch.

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9:The first three bars of our ninth exercise show the A pentatonic minor scale (A C D E G A), and then the following four bars show phrases using this scale similar to licks used by Ralphs in Rock Steady.

Bar 4 involves striking the fourth degree of the scale on string three, then bending it up to the fifth, then striking the flattened seventh degree above on the second string – a stock rock lick. Bar 5 starts with the same bend, followed by a repetition of the fifth on the second string and the octave on the top string – another classic move.

The second line uses the A pentatonic minor scale higher up the fretboard. Bar 6 starts with the same three notes as bar 4, but one octave higher. Bar 7 starts with the same three notes again, but in reverse order.

Also, there is a ‘pre-bend’ on the second string. Bend the second string, 15th fret, up two frets’ worth before striking the string. Then, once the note has been sounded, gradually release the bend or ‘bend downwards’ back to the 15th fret.

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10: Here we begin with the basic open D chord. The other two chords, Csus9#11 and Gmaj7/B, are more interesting harmonically, and both involve deadening the fourth string. Notice that the second chord here is a major chord (albeit with an augmented or sharpened fourth and a suspended ninth) built on the flattened seventh degree of the scale, C. So, this is essentially the same ‘family’ of chords, D, C and G in the key of D major, as those used in Can’t Get Enough – C, Bb and F in the key of C major.

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11: Seagull, the only acoustic-based song on Bad Company, is also played in 3/4 time. The exercise below is similar to the intro of the song, played with a plectrum on an acoustic guitar. As noted in Exercise 10, it uses the same ‘family’ of chords as Can’t Get Enough, although being played on acoustic and in a different time signature and with a different tempo, it has a totally different feel.

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