How to Play With or Without You on the Guitar
With or Without You by U2 has a few features that make it one of the most important examples of contemporary music on the guitar. These features include implied chords, ambient guitar playing, sustained notes, pedal point, and the use of a delay effect.
Starting with the D-A-Bm-G chord progression, the chords are never explicitly played. Instead, they’re implied by the root notes played on the bass and the notes featured in the vocal melody and guitar parts. Because all the notes are drawn from the D major scale, you can conclude that the bass notes D, A, B, and G represent I-V-vi-IV from D.
The U2 guitarist The Edge intentionally avoided playing plain triads and block chord changes, so the opening guitar track in With or Without You is very ambient and features sustained notes using a special guitar that produces an effect similar to an E-bow.
Focusing more on sonic texture than composition or rhythm, this style of playing has become quite common in popular styles of contemporary pop music, often supporting other guitar parts that are played in a standard fashion.
One of the song’s signature guitar riffs — the one that’s introduced around the 1:50 mark — is essentially a Dsus4-D chord change in the 7th position that’s played over the regular I-V-vi-IV progression. You see an example composed in a similar way here.
This example is a type of pedal point because it repeats a melodic figuration and sustains a D at the 10th fret of the 1st string throughout. When played over the bass note A, the notes of Dsus4 create an A7sus4 sound. This whole riff sounds even bigger thanks to the use of delay, a guitar effect that echoes the notes being played.
You have to hear both parts together to get the true effect of the harmony. So you should record one of the parts first and then playing along with it using the other part. You can also play along with a recording of the song itself if you prefer.
Another signature guitar riff occurs just past the 4:00 mark in With or Without You. This part is drawn from the first two strings in the chords D-Dsus2-D-Dsus4 played in the open position, while the regular I-V-vi-IV progression remains constant. You see an example composed in a similar fashion here.
When played over the bass note A, the notes of Dsus2 create an Asus4 sound. The notes on the 1st string relate to the basic triads in the regular chord progression, and the stationary D note on the 2nd string functions as a type of pedal tone. The use of delay gives this part more depth as well.
Eventually, the previous guitar riff is reintroduced to the mix, and you hear both parts together, which creates very rich harmony over what is otherwise a simple chord progression.
With or Without You has some moments when the music is very sparse and other moments that feature rich harmony and depth. Through it all, though, the guitars never actually play standard chord changes. This performance technique has become a staple in popular music thanks to the influence of U2.