The World's Foremost Expert on Bob Dylan's Guitar Playing
A conversation with Dylanchords founder Eyolf Østrem
If you’re a guitar player who likes Bob Dylan enough to, say, subscribe to a whole newsletter about him (heh), you’ve probably discovered Dylanchords.
The site is an indispensable resource for guitarists both amateur and advanced. It offers tabs for way more songs than any other site — every Dylan song on every Dylan album, of course, but also covers, live versions, and more. Want to learn how to play that cool guitar riff in the At Budokan version of “Maggie’s Farm”? It’s here. Larry Campbell’s amazing fingerpicking part in “Girl of the North Country” circa 2003-4. Head here.
But even if you’re just a beginner hoping to strum along to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Dylanchords page will be a more reliable source for those chords than anywhere else.
The man behind Dylanchords is Eyolf Østrem, who’s been tabbing out Dylan songs for twenty-five years now (and recently launched his own Dylan newsletter, Dylanology, which specializes in deep dives and music theory). I recently asked him about all things Bob-on-guitar, from how he started the site to what tabs he’d recommend to what he actually thinks of Bob as an electric guitarist. Some of what’s below will primarily be of interest to guitar players, but much of it will appeal to anyone interested in how Bob writes and performs his music.
Note: This is the second in an occasional series chatting with Bob superfans creating interesting, for lack of a less annoying catchall word, content. Here’s the first if you missed it:
Here’s me and Eyolf:
Why did you decide to start Dylanchords? Had you been tabbing stuff out for your own use or elsewhere before the website?
In 1996, my department (Musicology, Uppsala University) got an internet connection, and I started a webpage. I had tabbed some of the songs that I wanted to play that weren’t available on the usual sites, or where the chords were so wrong that it was just a waste of time to look them up. I put them up on the site, on a sub-page, which I therefore called “My Back Pages.” (Later on, I discussed the name with Karl Erik Andersen of Expecting Rain, and he suggested dylanchords, because, hey, it’s about Dylan, and it’s chords.)
Time Out Of Mind came out in Sweden on a Friday and in the rest of the world on the Tuesday after, so I spent the weekend tabbing and extending the site, so that the whole album would be ready when the album reached the world. That’s when the site was born for real.
Can you give an overview of how you go about tabbing a song?
First step is determining which chord family is being used, which means figuring out if and where there is a capo. If the song is guitar-based, this is usually quite easy, since the different chords sound so different, because of how the tones are distributed over the strings: C is a tight chord, with no air between the tones: very full and sonorous. D tends to sound thin or ringing because of the pronounced third (f#) on the top string, and since one can not use the bottom string (unless one plays Drop D, which is just as recognisable with the full, booming sound). G – my favourite – has the full bottom, and the high keynote on the top, and lots of room for melodic detail on the intermediary strings. And so forth.
If I’m doing just the chords, it’s usually very easy. Having a working knowledge of music theory and the relationship between chords also helps. I usually tab with a guitar on my knee, but for the simpler songs I may not even use that.
Anything beyond plain chords requires close listening, to figure out fills, strange fingerings, weird chords, etc. At this stage, open strings are useful, and so are slides, hammer-ons, etc – all those things that indicate that this has to be played in a particular way, at a particular place on the neck. I write a little about this in the “Dark Eyes” issue of Dylanology. For this I sometimes use a tool called Transcribe!, where one can slow down without too much loss of sound quality, isolate left/right channels, remove the vocals, get a spectrogram and a “keyboard” notation of which tones may be in the mix, etc.
I rarely use videos, but occasionally it can be useful to check if this or that chord is indeed played higher up on the neck or if that lick is played with the index or middle finger.
For most artists, there is no equivalent to Dylanchords. Ultimate Guitar and places like that are so hit or miss. What makes yours better? Are there certain mistakes other tabbers make, about Dylan or anyone else?
Aw, this is a tough one, because I hate to be impolite. But let me start in the other end: do I have an idea why I am always dead on? Yes: (a) I am good at music theory, (b) I play the guitar decently well, so I know how the chords sound and how to produce them, and (c) I listen carefully before I write anything down. You could probably add a touch of OCD too (at least metaphorically speaking).
In other words: I care. The mistakes that people make, then, fall in the same three categories: (a) bad understanding of music theory, resulting in wrong chord and no sense of what is important and what is not; (b) the “Hal Leonard” disease: expensive, officially licensed sheet music produced by some publishing house arranger who tries his best to make piano scores that might mimic Dylan’s guitar playing on “It’s Alright Ma”; and (c) sloppy, careless complacency, not giving a damn whether it’s a Dm or an F, or whether a chord should be written G# or Ab.
Can you explain more why the "official" Dylan chords/tabs books or off? i.e. about "Hal Leonard" disease
Maybe I'm being unfair to Hal Leonard. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about:
On the album, Dylan plays it in Drop D with a capo on the third fret, so technically it is correct that it is played in F major, but who cares? It's a guitar song, like most of his songs, and F is a bad key, especially if one wants to achieve that wonderfully rich sound of the Drop D tuning. And the arrangement… It's terrible. But that's what all the licensed sheet music looks like. I've always wondered if anyone ever has played from these arrangements. I mean, piano players with a liking for exact scores, would they be drawn to Dylan in the first place?
Can you name a few of your favorite Dylan chord progressions in songs?
• “Lay Lady Lay”! That was my first love.
• And talking about love: “Abandoned Love.” That G-D-Em | C thing – it’s so simple, but I love it.
• The open E Blood on the Tracks songs, of course. That changed my life.
And how about riffs, solos - any favorites there?
Everything on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong – the way the riffs flow so naturally. “Frankie and Albert.” “Broke Down Engine.” “Blood in my Eyes” – that was one of the first songs I sat down and figured out, those hypnotising chords in the beginning.
What's your take on Dylan as a guitar player? And how has it changed over the decades?