Guitar lesson for

Cats in the Cradle

by Harry Chapin  •  Lesson #341

Video lesson

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Editor’s notes

Hey friends! After a recent surge in requests, I’ve proud to share this guitar lesson for Cats in the Cradle, the absolute classic by Harry Chapin from 1974. I’ll be playing this one in no capo (key of E), showing you a rather simplified strum-along arrangement in comparison to Chapin’s capo 8 fingerstyle version. While my video lesson is played without a capo, you can add capo 1st fret (using what I show you) and play along with the recorded version of the song, if you wish.

I’ll start with chord shapes, explain the chord progressions (showing a one-strum-per-measure playthrough), and then move into strumming patterns – before I get into some of the more advanced riffs. There’s great fun to be had with this song, whether you’re a beginner or looking for a bit of a challenge. I hope you enjoy!

Video timestamps:

Lyrics with chords

See my sheet music for all the lyrics with chords shown above each line.

Key, Capo, and how Harry Chapin plays it

In summary, here’s a guide to the key & capo use for this song:

No capo = Use chords in key of F
Capo 1  = Use chords in key of E   ← how I'm teaching it
Capo 8  = Use chords in key of A   ← how Harry Chaplin plays it

You can play along with the Harry Chaplin version using any of the above options. I’m using capo 1st fret because it makes for an easier arrangement, which is my goal for this lesson. I’m also teaching this with a basic strumming pattern, instead of the Harry Chapin fingerstyle. I may do a lesson in the exact style of Harry Chapin one day in the future – but to clarify, that’s not what this lesson is meant to be.

Chord progressions

152 BPM. Key of E, using the mixolydian scale.


| E . . . | . . . . | . . . . | D . E . |


"My child arrived just the other day..."
| E . . . | G . . . | A . . . | E . . . | (repeat)

"And he was walkin' before I knew it and as he grew..."
| D . . . | . . . . |
| G . . . | E . . . |
| G . D . | E . . . | . . . . |


"And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon..."
| E . . . | D . . . | G . . . | A . . . |
| E . . . | D . . . |
| G . . . | E . . . |
| G . D . | E . . . | E . . . |


| C . . . | D . Bm . | E . . . | . . . . | (x2)


Simple pattern:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
d       d             "DOWN....... DOWN........ "

Full, driving pattern:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
d   d   d   d u       "DOWN, down, DOWN, down-up"
>       >

Intro riffs

I play the main intro riff as follows. I drone the low E-string with my right thumb, and use my left index finger to play all of the melody notes.

[ See PDF for tab ]

There’s also this E walk-down you can play, which is heard before the very first verse (just after the sitar intro). This sounds cool in general, so I wanted to include it here in tab form.

[ See PDF for tab ]

D walk-down riff w/ tab

Here’s an optional walk-down you can play during the long “D” sequence before each chorus. The important part here is getting clean bass notes… it’s okay if the strumming is slightly muffled so long as you keep a steady rhythm. See my video lesson for reference.

e –––––(2)––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––0––
B ––––––3–3–––––3–3–––––3–3–––3–3–––––––3–3–––––3–3–0––
G ––––––2–2–––––2–2–––––2–2–––2–2–––––––0–0–––––0–0–1––
D ––0–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––2––
A ––––––––––4–––––––2–––––––0–––––––––––––––––––––––2––
E ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––3–––––––2–––––––0––
    D      /c#     /b      /a       G      /f#      E
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1

The same walk down shown in time with the music looks like this… the bass notes occur directly along w/ the all-caps word just above. Here’s two examples. Note how in the second example (the verse w/ the car keys), it is unique in that it’s the only verse that cuts off (removes) the final G-E transition at the end. Thematically, this is an instance where things end before you’d expect – be it the verse chord progression (musically), but also the son’s interest in prioritizing his father (lyrically).

"He was TALK-ing 'fore I KNEW it, and AS he grew... he'd say, I'M gonna BE like YOU, Dad, you know I'm gonna be like YOU"
        D                /C#          /B         /A           /G       /F#      E             G                      E

"What I'd REAL-ly like DAD is to BORR-ow the CAR keys... I'll see you LATE-r can I HAVE them please..."
          D            /C#       /B          /A       /G              /F#          E

Without this walk down, just strum as usual with this part of the progression:

D               D               G               E
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1

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