Among the other things that fascinate me no end are covers. A “cover” is the term we use when what we mean is “We’re going to do a song that someone else wrote. It’s a song you know so you can dance or sing or do whatever you don’t do when you’re listening to one of our original songs. Which you don’t know anyway so it’s not a big deal. Really.”
Bands (and solo performers) approach covers in many ways. Some strive to render a perfect, straight from the album clone (around here there are many bands that make a living this way; they are called “tribute” bands and we really won’t get into this now…). Some may change the instrumentation a bit… put in a guitar solo instead of a keyboard solo or something along that line. And still others will come up with wild interpretations of old familiar tunes. I vividly remember one group with whom we shared a bill in 1980. I think they called themselves “Plan 9” and they did all out punk version of Leaving On A Jet Plane. Another local band at the time called the Peer Group also had a memorable cover. They would start playing Just What I Needed by the Cars. The instrumentation was perfect. Everybody in the audience would get excited because they all knew and liked the song. But then the lead singer would step up to the microphone and belt out in his best Ric Ocasek voice:
I’ll tell you something
I hope you’ll understand
Say that something
I want to hold your hand…
The first time I heard this I was spellbound. It was so unexpected and so well done.
And so funny…
Covers chosen by solo guitarists can be even more interesting. Again there are people who are much more concerned about reproducing picture perfect carbon copy riffs and solos. And then there are guitarists who play songs you would never dreamed possible for a single acoustic guitar to cover. It’s all in one’s imagination. Some people just hear a song and say, “Hey, I could do a version of that!” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this song that way?”
There is an art to arranging songs, whether taking a simple folk song and playing it as a full band or coming up with a way to perform a big scale production number on a single acoustic guitar. Today we’re going to look at how to use alternate tuning as a tool for you to use in song arrangement.
As usual, let’s start out with something simple (as well as something that we all hopefully know). Here’s the first verse of Rain by the Beatles:
Okay, a quick note… according to a friend of mine who owns the The Beatles… Complete Scores, which is a book of (surprise) the complete scores (musical transcriptions for every instrument used in a particular piece) of every song the Beatles ever recorded. The rhythm guitar used on the record is tuned to a variation of open G. We’re still going to use something different since we don’t have a band to back us up (this time anyway…).
Last time out (On The Tuning Awry)I showed you with a number of “Drop D” tunings. We’re going to give one of them a real workout today. Specifically, we’ll use this tuning:
(And, to avoid confusion, it’s really not called “rain tuning.” We’re simply using this tuning in a song called Rain.) To get this tuning you simply tune your first string from E to D. You can do this either by using the open D string as an octave or by tuning first string to the third fret of the B string (instead of the fifth fret).
We’re going to work a bit backwards here, so bear with me. I want to first show you how it works and then we’ll backtrack and go over the why. Okay? First, as always, we’ll need to figure out what our new chord fingers are. That’s not too hard. We have only three chords to play (all right, four if you count C9) and we’ve only changed one string so it’s not too difficult to figure out. Here’s our charts:
You see that I included a second version of the G as well as a second version of the D. Yes, there’s a reason for this. Yes, we’ll get to it soon. For now, though, let’s just play. Wherever you see a C or C9 in the song, use our C (add 9). You can use either D variation (here I use D (no3) first and then the Dsus). You can either strum this straight or use a picking pattern to make some cool arpeggios. Here’s a fairly simple pattern:
When we get to the “Raaaaaaaain……..I don’t mind” part, do a straight strum using the second G (G var1) followed by the C (add 9) and then return to the picking pattern when you get to the G (use the original one). Not too shabby, eh?
The reason why this works can be found in the song itself. The melody constantly hovers around the D note regardless of the chords being played. By stressing this note with the open first string of your guitar you create a lot of tension and resolution between your voice and the guitar’s voice. In other words, you’re carrying the harmonies with your accompaniment. This is especially true in the “Raaaaaaaain……..I don’t mind” part when you’re singing the E note in the melody while the guitar is holding the D and C notes at the top. When you finally bring it back to the G (“I don’t mind”), there is a real feeling of resolution to the chord progression. Another thing I particularly like about this is using the D (no 3rd) to increase the tension between the C (add 9) and the G.
Another song I use this tuning for is This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads. Balance of Power (one of the bands I was in during the early eighties) played a pretty straightforward version of this and it was a lot of fun to do. Musically, the song is very simple … two beats each of the following progression:
It repeats endlessly and that’s part of the charm of the song … a celebration of home and normalcy. On the record, the rhythm guitar is free to play on the high end of the guitar since the rest of the band is there to hold the bass in place. For years I lumped this song into the “I really like it but I’m not sure I can carry it off by myself” category. And then one day I heard Shawn Colvin play it and I said “Hey! I could do that!”
This is my take on her take. We use the same tuning we used in Rain but we’ll put a capo on the seventh fret, so that we’re still playing G chords on the guitar:
Here we’ll use the open G and D strings as a drone to give more body to the single acoustic guitar. This actually changes the chords somewhat but it still works out very nicely:
One last thing I do is to play a slight trill on the first Am chord, like this:
This mimics the synthesizer part in the original recording and helps jazz the arrangement up a bit (as well as bring a bit of familiarity to those who know the song). So here’s what the first verse of this song looks like:
My brother throws this party every fall. It’s basically a thank you to his tax clients (number crunching runs in the family…) as well as a chance for old and new friends to meet and have a good time. I’m billed as “some form of musical entertainment.” And I shouldn’t admit this, but playing for this probably gets me more nervous than anything else. The first time I did it, I was a last minute fill-in for a fairly well known local Irish singer/guitarist. I wasn’t sure what to play because I knew what the crowd was used to and I knew that it was not my forte. But by the time I closed the first set with Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here I knew it was going to be okay. Sometimes people appreciate getting new or different arrangements just because they are unexpected. You see a guy with a twelve-string guitar and you might get yourself set for some Paul Simon or Steve Goodman. If you get some XTC or the Cure or Pink Floyd, well, hey, life is good that way.
It really can be all in the presentation. Two years someone asked for “newer” Pink Floyd, so about three months before the next party I was me scurrying through my CDs to see what could be done. I liked On The Turning Away but thought it was too much like Wish You Were Here (sometimes these days I do the intro of Wish and go straight into Turning). Eventually I took a shot at Take It Back from The Division Bell album and thought that there were indeed possibilities. At about the same time I was trying to learn Jimi Hendrix’s Angel and was having the devil of a time getting good chord voicings. I knew which notes I needed but couldn’t get my fingers to reach the proper frets. “Déjà vu all over again,” I thought. Which, of course, made me think about trying a retuning. To make a pointless story even longer, I found that by tuning my G string down to F#, I could make the chord voicings that I wanted for one part of Angel and totally screwed up the last part. However unintentionally, I did find a great way to play Take It Back.
First, here’s the tuning we’ll use:
Next, a quick word: one of the things that initially kept me from trying this song was the arrangement of the original recording. The guitars in this song are very effects-laden, especially in the introduction and during the instrumental and I didn’t think I’d be able to reproduce this. I totally missed the song that was beneath all the glitter. If you want to get good at arranging songs, it is equally important for you to be able to hear a song “stripped down” to its bare bones as it is to be able to imagine dressing it up. Musically, Take It Back is pretty simple as you can see here in the first verse:
the song is in the key of G, but with this tuning we’ll play it in E with the capo on the third fret. This will allow us to play some very powerful first position chords with a lot of open strings (on the D chord I use my thumb to cover the second fret on sixth string):
You can already hear that we’re putting a lot of “oooommph” into our arrangement to compensate for the lack of both band and effects. To propel the song along in the absence of both echo and drums, we’ll use a double-time strumming pattern with a lot of sixteenth notes as well as flipping between the root chord, the “add 9” and the suspended fourth:
Okay, ready? No, not quite. Remember what I was saying earlier about not seeing the song through the arrangement? Well, after having said that, I’m now going to say that we need to spruce up this arrangement a bit. Of course, I’m using the word “we” rather liberally here. When I first arranged Take It Back I wanted to somehow work the instrumental break (between verses two and three on the recorded version) into mine. I just like that lilting melody that seems so at odds with the lyrics. But when playing single acoustic guitar, I find that one of the worst things to do is to break up a fast paced song with a slower melodic instrumental break … no matter how beautiful it may be. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but I didn’t feel that this was one of them. So after thinking about it for a while and trying out a few ideas I came up with using it as an introduction instead. This actually worked out well on two counts: for me, I got the pleasure of playing with a little bit of a dramatic flourish. I could start out slow and pretty and then work up to the tempo I wanted … building in speed and intensity until I launched into the song, pounding out the rhythm like the rain and the crashing surf described in the first verse. “Spinning into darkness” indeed! Secondly, the listeners got to do the “I know this…I know I know this…” game; those who knew the instrumental melody were actually thinking, “Is he really going to play that?”
Here’s a transcription of my “intro.” Remember that you should play it relatively freely, trying to bring the “real” instrumental break to mind without hitting someone over the head with it:
Okay, now we’re ready. Don’t forget to use the E and A strumming patterns during the first four lines of the verse.
In case you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure that no one is born knowing this stuff. It comes from studying and then applying the things one learns to the situation. This is why it’s important to try new things. And to make notes of what works and what doesn’t. You’ll be surprised at how something that doesn’t quite fit the bill today will be exactly what you need a month or so from now. And speaking of new things, next time out we’ll use alternate tuning as a writing tool. It’ll be a lot of fun.
And as always, please feel free to email me with any questions, comments, and such. You can reach me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a note on the Guitar Forums. And speaking of pages (and alternate tunings!), check out the updated guitar tuning page! Paul’s put in a lot of work on this and I think you’ll find you can answer a lot of your tuning questions right there.