Anatomy of a Classic Song

A recreation of the score to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reveals musical elements that undergird the iconic pop anthem.

The Sessions

During the summer of 1969, S&G were staying in Los Angeles when Simon completed the music and two of the verses. All the duo’s previous music was guitar based, but Simon envisioned this song with piano accompaniment and a gospel feel. The duo worked closely with studio musician Larry Knechtel for two or three days to get the piano part into shape. As Knechtel was recording his part, both Garfunkel and engineer and coproducer Roy Halee told Simon that the song should be bigger and that it needed a third verse. Simon protested, saying it felt like a “little hymn” rather than a big song. But ultimately he acquiesced to Halee and Garfunkel. Knechtel added an extended turnaround and a third verse. Simon wrote the lyrics for the new verse in the studio, which was atypical for him.

In addition to Knechtel, S&G brought in studio drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Joe Osborn to record the instrumental track at Columbia’s Gower Street studio in Los Angeles. At the time, those three musicians were known as the “Hollywood Golden Trio” for the many hits they’d played on, and were a subset of the larger collective of studio aces called “The Wrecking Crew.” Osborn played two electric bass parts. Blaine did not play a full drum kit, only select drums and cymbals.

While much could be written about Art Garfunkel’s stunning vocal performance, what was most striking was the astonishing vocal depth and power he displayed on “Bridge.” In most of the early S&G repertoire, he often laid back, singing beautiful high harmonies. Even in his featured solos (such as “April Come She Will” or “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her”), his voice had a primarily airy character. S&G had emerged during the 1960s folk boom. While many great singers worked in the folk style at that time, it’s hard to imagine any of them delivering as dramatic and powerful a performance as Garfunkel’s on “Bridge.”

While recording in Los Angeles, S&G sang together at the top of verse three and got a good take. During those sessions, it was agreed that Garfunkel had nailed the vocal performance for the rest of the third verse—the most dynamic and emotional section of the song. He would record the first two verses later in New York. In many interviews, Garfunkel has said that having finished the climactic verse first enabled him to better shape the arc of the song by understating the first and second verses.

In Michael Hill’s liner notes to the 2011 commemorative Bridge album reissue, Garfunkel recalls that it was easy to sing the second verse, ramping up the intensity leading to the final verse on which he’d already pulled out all the stops. But the first verse had to be a contrast, really delicate, and that challenged Garfunkel. “After about eight sessions of trying to get the first verse right in its extreme delicacy, I had to take a break,” he says. Garfunkel left the studio on Manhattan’s 52nd Street and walked to St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue and sat in one of the pews for an hour. “I invoked the larger powers, then went back to the studio and got it.”