It’s hard to find any good stuff on how to think like a Fugazi guitarist, so one Friday night I sat at home and worked out the “7 Songs” EP for myself. Here’s an analysis of the first song, “Waiting Room”.
There are only four parts to learn: the verse, the pre-chorus, the hook and turnaround, and the chorus. In itself, this simplicity should suggest Fugazi’s key trick: elegance.
The verse is a simple set of two notes being played at a time (F# chord to C# chord). But note that this is played in such a way as to avoid the power chords one might expect. It suggests to me that the actual guitar line came first, not a chord structure. (The intro is also the verse, and in the final line of the verse Ian holds down an E-shaped F# barre chord to drive into the chorus instead of returning to the C#.)
The pre-chorus is three chords (if we exclude the pre-hook and turnaround). The first C# is super-easy to play, just bar your index finger over the three strings on sixth fret, and perhaps put your ring finger on the eight fret. This chord is like an open G chord transposed up and I think it may be a favourite of Ian’s because it allows him to shift between playing the chord and then single muted notes on the E and A strings (check out his playing in Sieve-Fisted Find, for example).
Second chord is the G# octave, which makes it the third of the E chord. Playing it as a slide up gives it a little ‘pop’.
Third chord is the surprising choice of a common E-shaped B barre chord. Don’t be weird always.
Turnaround & hook
Open E chord slidingup by the F octave into F#. This use of an open chord is a common technique in Fugazi. We see a similar common D chord in “Bad Mouth” and “Bulldog Front”. Chords with more than two strings (and open chords in particular) are often used as accent chords. In this case, it first introduces the chorus and next time sits behind the “be-cause they can’t get up” hook.
Back to F# and C# but this time done with a standard E-shaped barre F# chord and then the same C# from the pre-chorus (I told you Ian loved that shape).
(Don’t forget to put the turnaround and hook at the end of the chorus)
There are four lessons to learn from this:
1. Play less. Across the course of the song, Fugazi builds this song by playing very few notes at the beginning (it is very hard to convince guitarists to play a two-note riff like the verse, trust me). They build from these double notes to full chords. Note how each section builds a bit bigger than the last, but often using the same underlying chords.
One reason for this is simply that Fugazi use a lot of distortion, and more notes can sound so messy that it would initially disorient the listener (a trick Fugazi later use to great effect on songs such as “Facet Squared”). Tim Gane made a similar point about this with the Farfisa organ, Stereolab would only play two notes on that organ because three or more sounded too out-of-tune.
2. Have some variety in ways to play chords. Ian has some go-to chord shapes that are ‘his’ that other people don’t usually use (e.g. the G-barre shape from the pre-chorus, the open chord for accent, and the unused octave shape which we can get to later). The Edge makes a similar point in “It Might Get Loud”, he has his own way to play E that sounds good to him.
3. You might not need to write as much as you think. In song-writing school they suggest you write a set of verse chords, then a chorus, then a bridge. This is not how to play like Fugazi. There are repeats all over the place, from the chords in the verse being the chorus chords, to the turn-around being used both out of the pre-chorus and into the chorus. Repetition is a friend.
4. From figure to straight. Note how this song goes from a unique guitar figure (in the verse) to outlining the underlying chordal basis for that figure (in the chorus). In other words, be weird, but then bring it back into focus. (Guitar manuals often say to get more rhythmically complex across a song, Fugazi actually tend to get simpler as you get to the chorus, not trickier)
Given these tips, you can probably work out some more Fugazi songs from live videos. You might even start to identify Fugazi songs from still photos, such as this one of “Waiting Room“.
(Image: Dischord Records)