Mad World TAB and Guitar Lesson How to Play Mad World on Guitar

We’re doing something a little different this week. In this guitar lesson, we will be looking at the Mad World TAB. We’re learning something close to the Gary Jules cover version of the song. This isn’t a guitar recording, but I’ll be showing you how to play it on guitar. It’s the run up to Christmas so I simply had to teach a past Christmas number one hit (UK chart), but I didn’t want to pick something obvious.

I’ve always loved the Gary Jules cover of Mad World. The soft vocal performance and gentle instrumentation are very pleasant, and it translates very nicely to the guitar. If you want to step outside of the box and do something different, this is the guitar lesson for you.

Mad world was originally by the band Tears for Fears. It was written by Roland Orzabal and sung by bassist Curt Smith. It wasn’t the band’s first single, but it was their first hit as it reached number three on the UK singles chart in the year 1982. It was also a hit internationally, reaching the top forty in several countries.

Mad World has been covered multiple times including the version that I’m basing the lesson on today by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the soundtrack of the film Donnie Darko. A 2003 release of this version reached number one on the UK singles charts and remained there for three consecutive weeks including the Christmas period as mentioned in the opening.

That concludes the introduction. Let’s dive in and get started. You won’t be needing a plectrum for this one. We’re going to use finger picking exclusively to perform Mad World on guitar.

mad world tab guitar lesson

Mad World TAB and Guitar Lesson

This isn’t going to be a particularly long guitar lesson. The intermediate guitarist and above will be able to pick this up quite quickly and the beginners will too with practice. There’s actually only four different parts that we need to learn and one of those is a variation of one of the other parts.

The first thing that I want to get out of the way is that as mentioned earlier, and as you can hear in the recording, this is not a guitar song. Therefore, this guitar version of Mad World will not mimic the Gary Jules recording. This is simply how I play the song. I’ve seen others play it in a similar way to  this, and I’ve seen other versions of Mad World on guitar that are quite different, but I find this way to be easy, true to the Gary Jules recording, and nice sounding at the same time.

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Another thing to point out is that the key is different to the Jules cover, so you won’t be playing this along to the record. You shouldn’t really need to play along with the recording to practice this song though. The parts are relatively simple and the structure is extremely straightforward.

The rhythm is also nice and easy. The whole thing consists of only eighth notes and quarter notes and there’s zero deviation from this.

Next, we will get started with the Mad World TAB and look at how to play that instrumental hook part.

Mad World TAB Main Riff and Mad World Chorus Part 2 Section

Mad World opens with a nice little instrumental part which we’re going to bring to the guitar. This part is heard at the start of the track, and during the later part of the chorus sections over the “mad world” lyrics. Here’s the TAB.

The first thing I’ll cover is the rhythm. The first bar and the third bar are the most intricate of the whole piece in terms of rhythmic complexity but all you have is straight eighth notes (one and two and three and four and). The other two bars are easier still. They consist of straight quarter notes. One note on each beat of the bar (one two three four).

Overall, this means you have a rhythm that looks something like this.

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 2 3 4.

This is easy to hear and count along with in the recording.

Now we need to consider how to perform the notes. As mentioned, this is a piece that you should be finger picking. I’m not going to tell you which fingers to use at each individual note because what will happen is this. You’ll all practice the above nice and slow and then use what ever finger combination is most comfortable for you at each given moment. As a general rule though, the bass notes should be played with the thumb.

As for the fretting hand, there isn’t any guidance required aside from fret the notes as indicated. Nothing unexpected or unusual happens.

Mad World Verse Sections

Learning the above part allows you to play a nice percentage of the song and also the most identifiable in terms of instrumentation., but we also need to learn the backing for the rest of the track so next, we will look at how to perform the verse sections. Here’s the TAB.

This section continues the theme that was established during the previous part in terms of the rhythm. We have straight eighth notes right up to the end so nothing new to discuss in that regard.

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The little riff part is gone, and we have simple notes based around a set of chords. The chords are Am / C / G / D.

As for the performance, it’s up to you if you want to a) fret the whole chord for each bar or b) fret just the required notes. Try both options and see what works for you. The bass notes are still to be performed with the thumb and the higher notes are still performed with a combination of whatever fingers works best for you.

The chord progression repeats three times and then on the fourth repeat, the D bar at the end changes as the full D chord is played on Beat one and rings out for the duration of the bar, leaving the vocals somewhat isolated before we come back in with the following section. This injects some nice variation to our guitar part.

For that full D chord, you can pick each note simultaneously with your thumb and three fingers or, you could perform a downward strum with your thumb. Again, try both and see which you prefer. 

Mad World First Part of the Chorus

You can hear in the recording that part of the chorus sections (the part where the lyric “mad world” is performed) uses the part that we learned at the start. There’s more to it than that though because there’s some more chord-based stuff that comes before. Here’s the TAB.

You can tell that this is quite similar to the verse sections only this time, we’re only using two chords. These chords are Am / D.

The performance instructions for this part are the same as the verse sections. Take note of the repeat marks and the change in that last bar which mimics the change that occurs during the verses.

That little break will likely feel rather welcome as this part is immediately followed by the eighth note bit that we learned at the start.

Mad World TAB Outro Section

You’re almost there. There’s just one more part of the Mad World TAB left, and that’s how I play the outro section. Here’s the TAB. This may look familiar. Or, at least it should do. If it doesn’t, I have no idea what you’ve been doing. 

Now as you can see, we have a sort of variation to the main instrumental hook of the song. In terms of the physical performance of this part, nothing is different. There is, however, clearly a structural change.

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What we have is bar one and two of the main hook performed as normal. These bars are followed by a repeat of bar one and then finally, one single D note that rings out.

Some extra advice on top of what you see in the TAB. From the start of bar three, you want to perform something known as a ritardando. In simple terms, you gradually slow the tempo as the bar progresses. This sounds really nice and the whole thing fits perfectly over that “enlarging your world” section.

Little tip. I know some of you are going to be very clever and substitute my single D note at the end for the full chord. It won’t resolve in the way you’re expecting so don’t bother. Stick with the D. You love the D.


That’s it. You now have all the building blocks that you need to play Mad World on guitar. The arrangement isn’t exactly hard to figure out so take these parts and cement them together by learning the structure of the song. You can do this by listening to the recording. No alteration of the original structure is necessary. It’s perfect as it is in that regard.

Mad World is a lovely little piece and it’s a great finger picking piece for those who don’t finger pick a whole lot. It’s also a song that I don’t hear performed very often so it has a nice uniqueness to it too.

Most importantly though, it’s quite beautiful sounding and it’s enjoyable to play once you’ve mastered it. Enjoy.

What Next?

That about wraps things up for the Mad World TAB and guitar lesson. Looking to expand your finger picking repertoire? Try the two lessons below. Both are short classical pieces. 

Joe Satriani Tears in the Rain TAB and Guitar Lesson

Romance TAB and Guitar Lesson 

Another couple of lessons that may interest you are these next ones which will teach you how to play a total of six quick and easy songs on guitar. Check them out. You won’t regret it. 

Learn 3 easy guitar songs in 1 guitar lesson part 1

Learn 3 easy guitar songs in 1 guitar lesson part 2

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