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Ring Of Fire

March 04, 2023

One of my bass students wanted to learn ‘Ring of Fire’ to play with a group of friends. This is great! And really the best way to learn, with a specific goal of performance/jamming in mind. I didn’t really know it off the top of my head, but he said that it might be too hard, with an intricate rhythm - bars of 3/4 and whatnot. I didn’t recall it having odd time signatures . . . could this Johnny Cash hit (written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore) be that complicated? We continued our lesson in a more fundamental vein, but afterwords I had to check out this song.

It’s too cool that you can just dial up a song these days, and even better that we can check multiple versions and interpretations,. And with the help of wikipedia I got down to the original version sung by June’s sister Anita. But along the way I checked out versions by Social Distortion, Blondie, the Animals, and one from back in the day by Wall of Voodoo - remember them?

But Johnny’s version is pretty cool, and it’s immediately apparent why it was a #1 Country Single. It’s a great song, and indeed this arrangement has a bar of three four - closely tied to the ‘mariachi’ style horn line. But here we get into some semantics about the song vs. the arrangement. So there are actually several country covers that use Johnny’s arrangement verbatim, but the rock (New Wave?) versions seem to blow off the mariachi part all together, and I recall one version, Blondie I think, where they used the mariachi line (played on crunchy electric guitars!) but stretched it out to 4/4. So in my estimation the 3/4 section is an arrangement device, and can be left out for the beginner, rock or dance version.

Now the very first recording, Anita Carter’s titled (Love’s) Ring of Fire is pretty cool too. According to wikipedia Jonny later added the horn ‘mariachi’ part and changed some of the phrasing too. There are no rules or sentimentality when you’re making a hit record. The mariachi horns were apparently a thing he was doing at the time.

At any rate, I kind of take Anita’s first recording as the foundation of the song, it’s just two minutes long and somewhat elusive to me, like much of this type of Country. Let’s listen in more detail, because the way she weaves the lyrics in there sure sounds quirky.

It’s starts with a gentle triad riff in G on the guitars with a ’Two Feel’ on the bass, playing the root and fifth, very common bass line we all recognize, especially in country music. Four bars, very nice. Then the lyrics start, staying on the One (I) chord. Ah-ha! There’s a bar of three right in the lyric! The first two words “Love” and “Is” getting a beat each with “Burn-ing” two 1/8th notes (for one beat, right?) and “Thing” coming on the down beat of the next bar, which is 4/4, making the lyrical phrase seven beats long. Cool! “Burning” - the third beat of the 3/4 bar gets further emphasized with a quick chord change to the C, the Four (IV) chord.

There are four lines to the verse and each one 3/4 then 4/4. That’s quirky - is that how Johnny’s version is? Anita straightens out to 4/4 for the chorus, and it’s pretty straightforward although I think the emphasis and phrasing is somewhat different on the hit version. But yea, Intro, Verse Chorus a bit of an interlude Verse Chorus out. It’s a cool two minutes, right to the point.

Now let’s get into the hit version - is that 3/4 still in the verse or just reimagined in the mariachi horn line? Oh yea both! he’s appending the mariachi thing on each line of the verses — except the last one. It makes each line of the verse eleven beats instead of seven. In more detail:

The horns start with a 3 1/8th note chromatic pickup line. A ‘pickup’ is a note or group of notes played before the downbeat of the song - those three horn notes, B, C, C# are the pickup before the rest of the band comes in, and the horns are on D. Dig how it walks right up to it. Then it plays that cool little phrase, bob ba ba ba bap da da do — 1/8, two 1/16ths a 1/16 rest another 1/16th and an 1/8th all on D then 1/8th A 1/8 C and then Four Beats back on D! It sounds so natural but it’s a phrase of seven. The same phrase repeats around a B then B-BB rest BB- C A B again for four beats. Then it repeats again, while the rhythm section is hanging on G. Note that the main notes of this riff B and D are what? Right! The 3rd and 5th of G. This phrase mirrors the lyric melody of Anita’s version, with “Love is” replaced by the rhythmic figure.

In this version, I kind of hear it as 4/4 then 3/4 with the last note of the phrase over the bar line. But maybe it’s easier and more proper to hear as 3/4 then 4/4 with all the rhythmic figure in the 3/4 bar - it sounds like that’s how the bass player is rocking it, going down to the C on the odd beat in the 3/4 bar.

In both version it sound to me like the bass player is throwing down the C in the 3/4 bit each time. Note the 3rd line of the verse doesn’t have the mariachi bit, and is just two measures, 3/4 then 4/4 in this schema. Then he plays the chorus identical to the original except cutting off two beats at the end - so the last bar of the 8 bar chorus is 2/4. The pickups overlay for the D.C. - the Del Capo which is Italian for From the Top - I think. It goes back to the horn intro, which repeats, then he does the chorus again before going directly into the next verse after the bar of two again. Woah! Dig how the last two lines of the 2nd verse there there’s no 3/4 bars. Or is the 3/4 bar first?

I wonder if that’s because of the extra syllable in “Like a child” or if that’s some kind of mistake. It seems like the bass player is putting the C and therefor the 3/4 first bar for a couple places in the second verse. It’s interesting how the horns are kinda late on the phrase in the second line, then again, and they blow by the 3/4, and does Johnny hesitate on the last line, is that kind of a chuckle? They blow off another 3/4 bar too, I’d be willing to bet that was a cool mistake, humph. One thing’s for sure they’re all grooving like a train and don’t stop for a ‘mistake’ or anything. Anyhow they do the chorus twice and repeat and fade on the last few bars, groovy man.

I took a picture of my notes - I wrote out some sample bass lines in letters, chords are capitalized. I wrote out the horn line to dig that rhythmic phrase. These notes could be formalized into a proper lead sheet, though for a song like this - I would probably just note the key and few arrangement points ( i.e. 3/4 bar | G D C | and Two Choruses with horns between b4 2nd Verse) for performance notes.

Ideally the student will create their own system of transcribing but working towards standard notation will aid in communicating with other musicians as well as understanding the reasons behind the systems employed in modern music notation. Try to understand and utilize the convention of bar lines, rather than writing a series of notes or letters.

Over all, keep listening and retuning to your instrument. It’s cool when it comes together and the whole jam is vibe-ing a cool hook like the ones in Jonny Cash’s Ring of Fire.

Portland OR - Overcast, cold.