Guitar lesson for

I Walk the Line

by Johnny Cash  •  Lesson #6

Video lesson

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Editor’s notes

In this lesson I’ll teach you how to play the Johnny Cash classic “I Walk The Line” released in 1956. My tutorial is based on a solo acoustic guitar approach, which lets you capture the sound of the recorded album version all by yourself. In my video above (lesson #262) I’ll focus entirely on the intro riff, showing you three different ways to pay it:

  1. an easy approach starting with just the bass notes
  2. a slightly more difficult version adding single strums of each chord; and
  3. a more advanced version that brings in muted strumming as well as the “book chicka” percussive sound heard in much of Johnny Cash’s playing.

No matter your skill level, I trust that one of these approaches will be perfect for you. Timestamps for my video above are as follows:

Full song lesson

Here’s an older video I did (from 2014) showing how to play all the verse sections, including the walk ups & walk downs between each verse. A focus in this lesson is how this song actually changes key in each verse, using a different I-IV-V set of chords.

Chords w/ lyrics

(capo 1st fret)

INTRO
    A   /  D  /  A  /  E  /
    B7  /  E  /  E  /  E  /  (see below for guitar tab)

VERSE #1
             B7                           E
    I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
              B7                     E
    I keep my eyes wide open all the time
               A                         E
    I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
                   B7               E
    Because you're mine, I walk the line

VERSE #2
        (key change! walk up to A )

                  E                      A
        I find it very, very easy to be true
                 E                           A  
        I find myself alone when each day is through
                    D                       A
        Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you
                       E                A
        Because you're mine, I walk the line

VERSE #3        
            (key change! walk up to D )

                       A                        D
            As sure as night is dark and day is light
                       A                       D
            I keep you on my mind both day and night
                     G                                D
            And happiness I've known proves that it's right
                           A                D
            Because you're mine, I walk the line

VERSE #4
        (key change! walk down to A )

                     E                      A
        You've got a way to keep me on your side
                    E                           A
        You give me cause for love that I can't hide
                  D                             A
        For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide
                       E                A
        Because you're mine, I walk the line

VERSE #5
    (key change! walk down to E )

             B7                           E
    I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
              B7                     E
    I keep my eyes wide open all the time
               A                         E
    I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
                   B7               E
    Because you're mine, I walk the line

                              (end on E, fade out)

Learning the intro riff

Variation 1 of 3: Bass notes only

See PDF for tab.

<!-- e –––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
B –––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
G –––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
D –––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–0–––––––––––––––0–––0–––––––––––|–
A –––––––––––––|–0–––––––––––––––0–––0–––2–––4–––|–––––––––0–––––––––––––––4–––2–––|–
E –0–––2–––4–––|–––––––––0–––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
                 A                                 D
   2 + 3 + 4 +   1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +   1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

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

            e –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
            B –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
            G –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
            D –|–––––––––1–––––––––––––––––––––––|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–
            A –|–2–––––––––––––––2–––0–––––––––––|–––––––––2–––––––––––––––2–––––––|–
            E –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––4–––2–––|–0–––––––––––––––0–––––––––––––––|–
                 B7                                E
                 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +   1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

            e –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––
            B –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––
            G –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––
            D –|–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––|–––     * If continuing into the verse,
            A –|–––––––––2–––––––––––––––––––––––|–0–       stay on the E-major chord
            E –|–0–––––––––––––––0–––0–––2–––4–––|–––       (don't walk back up to A)
                 E                                 A
                 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +   1 -->

Variation 2 of 3: Bass notes w/ single chord strum

See PDF for tab.

Variation 3 of 3: Bass notes w/ “boom chicka” strumming

See PDF for tab.

Notes and tabs

Capo 1st Fret, Standard Tuning

To play this song along with the Johnny Cash album recording, put a capo on the 1st fret. If playing along doesn’t matter to you, you can play it without a capo (using the chords shown here) just fine.

Guitar Chords Used

Here are the chords you’ll need to play this song. These are all quite common open chords, with the B7 being the most rare of the bunch. Don’t let the B7 scare you off! It is a useful chord to have in your repertoire.

e-|---0---2---0---2----3---
B-|---2---3---0---0----0---
G-|---2---2---1---2----0---
D-|---2---0---2---1----0---
A-|---0-------2---2----2---
E-|-----------0--------3---
      A   D   E   B7   G

Basic strum pattern

The key to this song, as well as most of Johnny Cash’s tunes with his characteristic boom-chicka-boom-chicka sound, is understanding the strumming pattern. Specifically, how the alternating bassline is employed with each chord played. The basic idea is to (1) strum the chord’s bassnote once, (2) play a down-up strum of the chord, (3) play a lower/higher bassnote of the same chord, (4) play a down-up strum of the chord.

Here’s how you would do this with the A chord. Note, this shows a bassnote that alternates between the 5th string and the 6th string.

e-|---0---|----------------------------------------------------
B-|---2---|----------------------------------------------------
G-|---2---|------2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2---
D-|---2---|------2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2--- etc
A-|---0---|---0---------------0---------------0----------------
E-|-------|-----------0---------------0---------------0--------
      A

For some chords, you may want to move the bassnote up instead of down. Take B7 for example: here, I alternate between the 5th and 4th string for the bassnote.

e-|---2---|----------------------------------------------------
B-|---0---|------0-0-----0-0-----0-0-----0-0-----0-0-----0-0---
G-|---2---|------2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2---
D-|---1---|-----------1---------------1---------------1-------- etc
A-|---2---|---2---------------0---------------0----------------
E-|-------|----------------------------------------------------
      B7

You can employ this technique for every chord using this basic approach.

Intro Tab

Here is the tab to the intro of this song. If your goal is to memorize this and play it note-for-note, I strongly recommend learning the bassline separately from the chord strumming. Once you have one mastered, move to the other. Doing both at the same time may be tricky.

See PDF for tab.

Transition Between Verses

Here are the tabs for the transition between each verse, where the song in fact changes key. After you walk up/down to the new chord, stay on that chord as long as you like. This is where Johnny Cash will do the “Hmmmmmm…” vocal, which helps establish the new key in which he is about to play.

From E up to A:

e-|---0---------------|--------------------------------------------------
B-|---0---------------|--------------------------------------------------
G-|---1---------------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2--
D-|---2---------------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-- etc
A-|---2---------------|--0---------------0---------------0---------------
E-|---0------0--2--4--|----------0---------------0---------------0-------
      E                  A

From A up to D:

e-|---0---------------|--------------------------------------------------
B-|---2---------------|-----3-3-----3-3-----3-3-----3-3-----3-3-----3-3--
G-|---2---------------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2--
D-|---2---------------|--0---------------0---------------0--------------- etc
A-|---0------0--2--4--|----------0---------------0---------------0-------
E-|-------------------|--------------------------------------------------
      A                  D

From D down to A:

e-|---2---------------|--------------------------------------------------
B-|---3---------------|--------------------------------------------------
G-|---2---------------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2--
D-|---0------0--------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-- etc
A-|-------------4--2--|--0---------------0---------------0---------------
E-|-------------------|----------0---------------0---------------0-------
      D                  A

From A down to E:

e-|---0---------------|--------------------------------------------------
B-|---2---------------|--------------------------------------------------
G-|---2---------------|-----1-1-----1-1-----1-1-----1-1-----1-1-----1-1--
D-|---2---------------|-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-----2-2-- etc
A-|---0------0--------|----------2---------------2---------------2-------
E-|-------------4--2--|--0---------------0---------------0---------------
      A                  E

Chord progressions

See PDF for chord progression diagram.

Good luck!

Thanks for reading! I hope this helped you.

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