Guitar lesson for

Copperhead Road

by Steve Earle  •  Lesson #213

Video lesson

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Editor’s notes

In this lesson I’ll teach you to play the Steve Earle song “Copperhead Road” - complete with the intro tab, chords needed for the verse & chorus, the strumming patterns you’ll use, and a whole lotta additional tips & tricks to get you on your way. This song came in by request on my Patreon page - I hadn’t heard it before, but am sure glad I know it now! Great fun to play, lots of joy to be had working out that droning D riff. Enjoy!

Video timestamps:

Lyrics with chords

    Freely strum D, then bring in the full intro riff below (both parts)

    Full intro riff:
    E –(2)––––––––––––––––(2)––––|––x–––––––––––––––––––––––––
    B ––3–––3–––3––––––––––3–––––|––x–––––––––––––3–––3––3––––
    G ––0h2–2–––2––4–2–0–––0h2–––|––5––5––5–4–0–––0h2–2––0h2––
    D ––0–––0–––0––0–0–0–––0–––––|––0––0––0–0–0–––0–––0––0––––
    A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
        Part #1                     Part #2

          D                            (riff #1)
    Well, my name's John Lee Pettimore...
    D                                      (riff #1)
    Same as my daddy, and his daddy before...
        D                                     (riff #1)
    You hardly ever saw Grand daddy down here...
       D                                    (riff #1)
    He only came to town about twice a year...
               D                                            (riff #1)
    He'd buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line...
    D                                     (riff #1)
    Everybody knew that he made moonshine...

CHORUS           G                  C           G
        Now, the revenue man wanted grand daddy bad
        He headed up the holler with everything he had
               G                C         G
        It's before my time but I've been told
           D (let ring)                            [ full intro riff x2 ]
        You never come back from Copperhead Road

    Now, [D] Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
    [D] Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge
    [D] Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
    Just [D] shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
    Well, [D] him and my uncle tore that engine down
    I [D] still remember that rumblin' sound

        Well, the [G] sheriff came around in the [C] middle of the [G] night
        [D] Heard mama cryin', knew something wasn't right
        He was [G] headed down to Knoxville with the [C] weekly [G] load
        You could [D] smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road

            [Power chords]  =>  [Full Intro Riff]  =>  [Chorus Riff]
             D x4                D x 2                  G C-G D x2

    I volun[D]teered for the Army on my birthday
    They draft the [D] white trash first,'round here anyway
    I done [D] two tours of duty in Vietnam
    And [D] I came home with a brand new plan
    I take the [D] seed from Colombia and Mexico
    I just [D] plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road

        The [G] D.E.A.'s got a [C] chopper in the [G] air
        I [D] wake up screaming like I'm back over there
        I [G] learned a thing or two from ol' [C] Charlie don't you [G] know
        You [D] better stay away from Copperhead Road

            [Power chords]  =>  [Full Intro Riff]  =>  [Chorus Riff]
             D x4                D x 2                  G C-G D x2

Chords needed for this song

Big picture, this song only requires three chords (D G and C). At their most basic, they typically are played like this:

E –––2–––3–––0–––
B –––3–––0–––1–––
G –––2–––0–––0–––
D –––0–––0–––2–––
A –––––––2–––3–––
E –––––––3–––––––
     D   G   C

But there are a few items to note for this song. For one, when playing the D-major chord you may want to try to avoid the high E-string (either don’t strum it, or don’t press your left-hand finger down firmly on that string). This creates more of a neutral “power chord” sound to the D-chord, which fits the vibe of this song well. You’ll also want to use this for the “power chord” part of the interludes.

"Power chord" D major shape:

E –––x–––  <== don't play
B –––3–––  <== left ring finger
G –––2–––  <== left index finger
D –––0–––
A –––––––
E –––––––

For the G and the C, there’s a few ways you can mix them up as well. For example, you could replace the C with a “Cadd9” shape which makes the transition between the two chords a bit easier. Likewise, you could favor the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings to capture a bit of a higher (in pitch) voicing. These alternative voicings aren’t required - but can be fun to learn and have in your pocket.

E ––3–––3––         E –––––––––        E ––7–––8––
B ––3–––3––         B ––3–––5––        B ––8–––8––
G ––0–––0––         G ––4–––5––        G ––7–––9––
D ––0–––2––         D ––5–––5––        D –––––––––
A ––2–––3––         A –––––––––        A –––––––––
E ––3––––––         E –––––––––        E –––––––––
    G  Cadd9            G   C              G   C

Mastering the D-chord hammer-on

One crucial part of the D-major flourish heard in this song involves hammering on the 3rd string note from open (nothing pushed down) to 2nd fret (pushed down with your index finger). You’ll only strum the chord once with your right hand, but by hammering this note on after the strum, it almost sounds as if you’re playing a second strum. This is something you’ll want to use quite liberally when playing this song, since you’ll be on D so much – adding this little touch can break up the monotony.

E –––x––––
B –––3––––
G –––0h2––  <= strum with no finger pressing down on this string,
D –––0––––      and after the strum press your left index finger
A ––––––––      down forcefully. If done right, this will make
E ––––––––      that note ring cleanly (which is the ideal).

Mastering the D-chord pinky stretch

The other technique you’ll need for the main riff (part 1) involves putting your pinky down on the 4th fret of the 3rd string. This can be tricky to do, especially when you’re trying to keep all your other fingers in the D-major shape.

E ––––––––x–––
B –––3––––3–––
G –––2––––4–––  <= add your left pinky on this 4th fret, while your
D –––0––––0–––     left index finger stays on the 2nd fret of the same
A ––––––––––––     string. Get good at moving between these two positions,
E ––––––––––––     slowly at first, before you attempt to play it fast.
     D    D*

I have an entirely separate lesson on this topic, which I recommend. I explain a few different ways to practice this technique:

Playing the intro riff with one finger

A great way to start off learning this song, especially if the main riff is giving you trouble, is to practice with this approach. You’ll only be playing on two of the strings, and can in fact play it with a single finger (left hand) if you wanted. I feel that this may help you get the grasp of the timing and melody, which can inject a nice bit of confidence. See my video lesson for reference.

First, start without the hammer-ons:

E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
B –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
G ––2–––2–––2––4–2–0–––2–––––|––5––5––5–4–0–––0–––2––2––––  <== left index finger
D ––0–––0–––0––0–0–0–––0–––––|––0––0––0–0–0–––0–––0––0––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    Part 1                      Part 2

Then, add the hammer-ons (2nd fret of 3rd string):

E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
B –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
G ––0h2–2–––2––4–2–0–––0h2–––|––5––5––5–4–0–––0h2–2––0h2––  <== left index finger
D ––0–––0–––0––0–0–0–––0–––––|––0––0––0–0–0–––0–––0––0––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    Part 1                      Part 2

Learning the full intro riff

Once you have the simplified riff (above) worked out, here’s the tab I’d recommend using for the “full” riff. One goal here is to put your left hand in the D-major shape, and not shy away from strumming the 2nd string. Likewise, you can keep your right hand strumming motion a bit more constant, and not be afraid to add in some delicate brushes on the strings as part of your natural rhythm. This may result in some strums that aren’t accounted for in this tab - but that’s okay!

E –(2)––––––––––––––––(2)––––|––x–––––––––––––––––––––––––
B ––3–––3–––3––––––––––3–––––|––x–––––––––––––3–––3––3––––
G ––0h2–2–––2––4–2–0–––0h2–––|––5––5––5–4–0–––0h2–2––0h2––
D ––0–––0–––0––0–0–0–––0–––––|––0––0––0–0–0–––0–––0––0––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––|––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    Part #1                     Part #2

Strumming pattern

Main pattern:

1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a
d   d       u d u   d   d u   d   d u

As used in the verse:

"Well, my name's John Lee Pettimore..."
D                   *         *            * = hammer on 3rd string of D chord
1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a
d   d       u d u   d   d u   d   d u

As used in the chorus:

"Now, the revenue man wanted grand daddy bad..."
G                   C         G
1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a
d   d       u d u   d   d u   d   d u

"He headed up the holler with everything he had..."
D                   *         *            * = hammer on 3rd string of D chord
1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a
d   d       u d u   d   d u   d   d u

Interlude power chord strumming

Finally, we have this “power chord” rock-out section of the interlude, which involves heavy use of the D power chord. This is characterized by a loud, rapid “down-up-down-up-down” strumming pattern, which is followed by a moment of silence before repeating again.

D           x        D          x         x = silence all strings
1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a
d u d u   d         d u d u   d

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