Guitar lesson for

The Gambler

by Kenny Rogers  •  Lesson #222

Video lesson

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Editor’s notes

Here’s my lesson teaching you how to play “The Gambler”, the classic 3-chord country song made famous by Kenny Rogers (originally written by Don Schlitz). During this lesson, I’ll teach you the chord shapes, explain the verse & chorus chord progressions, and break down the strumming patterns. Together, this should give you all you need to pick up your guitar and play this song. Note, this will be a lesson for a no-capo version of this song (add a capo on the 1st fret to play the song in the same key as Kenny Rogers).

Note that for the 2nd half of the song, I’m modulating (changing key) by one whole step – i.e., moving from the key of D (D/G/A7) to the key of E (E/A/B7). Kenny Rogers only moves up one half-step, so I’m deviating from what he does - but I think my choice is more practical in that it requires no capo.

Other videos I made for this song

Play-along cover

Improvisational exercise using this song’s melody

Chords w/ lyrics

(capo 1st fret to play w/ the Kenny Rogers version)

INTRO
     D

VERSE
     D                         G               D
On a warm summer's eve... on a train bound for nowhere
  D                                                    A
I met up with the gambler... we were both too tired to sleep
   D                                  G             D
So we took turns a-starin'... out the window at the darkness
    G           D        A                 D      
The boredom overtook us... and he began to speak

          D                               G                D
He said, "Son, I've made a life... out of readin' people's faces
D                                                         A
Knowin' what the cards were... by the way they held their eyes
      D                                 G                 D
So if you don't mind me sayin'... I can see you're out of aces
      G             D               A               D
For a taste of your whiskey... I'll give you some advice"

     D                              G                   D
So I handed him my bottle... and he drank down my last swallow
D                                                     A
...Then he bummed a cigarette... and asked me for a light
        D                                  G               D
And the night got deathly quiet... and his face lost all expression
                 G              D                      A                 D
Said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy... you gotta learn to play it right

CHORUS
                  D                      G               D
    You've got to know when to hold 'em...  know when to fold 'em
    G               D                              A
    ...Know when to walk away...  and know when to run
              D                               G              D
    You never count your money... when you're sittin' at the table
                G               D        A                     D
    There'll be time enough for countin'... when the dealing's done

[ Song modulates up 1/2 step... but I prefer using chords in key of E ]

E                                  A             E
...Every gambler knows... that the secret to survivin'
   E                                                 B7
Is knowin' what to throw away... and knowin' what to keep
       E                            A               E
'Cause every hand's a winner... and every hand's a loser
        A                 E                 B7          E
And the best that you can hope for... is to die in your sleep

    E                               A                      E
And when he finished speakin'... he turned back toward the window
E                                                B7
...Crushed out his cigarette... and faded off to sleep

[let chords ring]
    E                                A                 E    
And somewhere in the darkness... the gambler, he broke even
    A            E                   B7               E
But in his final words I found... an ace that I could keep

                  E                      A               E
    You've got to know when to hold 'em...  know when to fold 'em
    A               E                              B7
    ...Know when to walk away...  and know when to run
              E                               A              E
    You never count your money... when you're sittin' at the table
                A               E        B7                     E
    There'll be time enough for countin'... when the dealing's done

    [ play chorus w/ single strums ]

    [ play chorus w/ full strumming, end ]

Capo 1st fret (optional)

If you want to play along with the Kenny Rogers version of the song, slap a capo on the 1st fret and use the chords I show. Then, after the first chorus - move the capo up to the 2nd fret and continue to use chords in the key of D. If you don’t want to bother with moving your capo up one fret, I recommend simply modulating up from the key of D to the key of E. In other words, here are the chords you’ll need:

First half of the song:    D G A7
Second half of the song:   E A B7

Chords needed

Here’s the three chords you’ll need while playing in the key of D. Very straightforward D, G, and A. I also may use an A7 instead of an A sometimes (including within this lesson) - note that you can use either, they’ll both sound good.

E –––2–––3–––0––– –––0–––
B –––3–––0–––2––– –––2–––
G –––2–––0–––2––– –––0–––
D –––0–––0–––2––– –––2–––
A –––––––2–––0––– –––0–––
E –––––––3––––––– –––––––
     D   G   A       A7   

If you do choose to modulate up a key (without bothering with moving the capo), here’s the chords that will replace the D, G, and A. If you’ve never played the B7 chord before, don’t let it scare you away - it’s a nice way to get the sound of a “B” major chord but without having to barre any strings.

E –––0–––0–––2–––
B –––0–––2–––0–––
G –––1–––2–––2–––
D –––2–––2–––1–––
A –––2–––0–––2–––
E –––0–––––––––––
     E   A   B7   

Chord progressions

Big picture, the song has two progressions and they look like this. For every letter below AND for each “/”, you’re playing four counts (one measure) of that chord. The “/” character below means that you should stay on the prior chord for one additional measure.

Verse     D   /   G   D   /   /   /   A
          D   /   G   D   G   D   A   D

Chorus    D   /   G   D   G   D   D   A
          D   /   G   D   G   D   A   D

Strumming patterns

Simple strum

When starting to strum it, I recommend doing a single down strum on the “1” count of each measure. Do this until you learn the chord progression and feel comfortable with the chord changes. Even if you’re comfortable with the intermediate strums I show below, you’ll want to use this very simple approach on the final verse (“Somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even…”).

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +       d = down strum
d

In tab form, that looks like this:

     D                         G                         A
E –––2––––––––––––––––    E –––3––––––––––––––––    E –––0––––––––––––––––
B –––3––––––––––––––––    B –––0––––––––––––––––    B –––2––––––––––––––––
G –––2––––––––––––––––    G –––0––––––––––––––––    G –––2––––––––––––––––
D –––0––––––––––––––––    D –––0––––––––––––––––    D –––2––––––––––––––––
A ––––––––––––––––––––    A –––2––––––––––––––––    A –––0––––––––––––––––
E ––––––––––––––––––––    E –––3––––––––––––––––    E ––––––––––––––––––––
     1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
     d                         d                         d

Medium strum

Then, bring in down strums on each quarter note. If you can, try to emphasize the strums on the 2 and 4 counts, and ease up on the strums that happen on the 1 and 3 counts. This creates a nice backbeat sound, which spoken would be typed as “down DOWN down DOWN down DOWN down DOWN” (etc).

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +       d = down strum
d       d             * = strum root note only
*                    

In tab form, that would look like this:

     D                         G                         A
E –––––––––––2––––––––    E –––––––––––3––––––––    E –––––––––––0––––––––
B –––––––––––3––––––––    B –––––––––––0––––––––    B –––––––––––2––––––––
G –––––––––––2––––––––    G –––––––––––0––––––––    G –––––––––––2––––––––
D –––0––––––––––––––––    D –––––––––––0––––––––    D –––––––––––2––––––––
A ––––––––––––––––––––    A –––––––––––2––––––––    A –––0––––––––––––––––
E ––––––––––––––––––––    E –––3––––––––––––––––    E ––––––––––––––––––––
     1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
     d       d                 d       d                 d       d      
     *                         *                         *              

You could even double up this “medium” strum, by doing two of these root-strum sequences within each single 4-count measure. Specifically, this:

     D                         G                         A
E –––––––2–––––––2––––    E –––––––3–––––––3––––    E –––––––0–––––––0––––
B –––––––3–––––––3––––    B –––––––0–––––––0––––    B –––––––2–––––––2––––
G –––––––2–––––––2––––    G –––––––0–––––––0––––    G –––––––2–––––––2––––
D –––0–––––––0––––––––    D –––––––0–––––––0––––    D –––––––2–––––––2––––
A ––––––––––––––––––––    A –––––––2–––––––2––––    A –––0–––––––0––––––––
E ––––––––––––––––––––    E –––3–––––––3––––––––    E ––––––––––––––––––––
     1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
     d   d   d   d             d   d   d   d             d   d   d   d   
     *       *                 *       *                 *       *       

Full strum

Finally, the ideal strum you’ll want to work toward would be as shown below. One new thing going here is you’ll only want to strum the root note (i.e., the thickest string used in the chord) on the 1-count of the measure. Maintain your accents on the 2 and 4 counts. Typed out, this would be “(down) DOWN down-up-DOWN-up, (down) DOWN down-up-DOWN-up” (etc).

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +       d = down strum        u = up strum
d   d   d u d u       > = accented strum    * = strum root note only
*   >       >  

This final strum in tab form would look like this:

     D                         G                         A
E –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––    E –––––––3–––3–3–3–3––    E –––––––0–––0–0–0–0––
B –––––––3–––3–3–3–3––    B –––––––0–––0–0–0–0––    B –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––
G –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––    G –––––––0–––0–0–0–0––    G –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––
D –––0–––0–––0–0–0–0––    D –––––––0–––0–0–0–0––    D –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––
A ––––––––––––––––––––    A –––––––2–––2–2–2–2––    A –––0–––0–––0–0–0–0––
E ––––––––––––––––––––    E –––3–––3–––3–3–3–3––    E ––––––––––––––––––––
     1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +           1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
     d   d   d u d u           d   d   d u d u           d   d   d u d u
     *   >       >             *   >       >             *   >       >  

Here’s a lesson on made showing how to improvise around the chord progression this song uses. The result is a fun way to capture the meldoy notes of the song with your picking & strumming:

Video timestamps:

Notes and tabs for this lesson can be found here. Enjoy!

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