Harvest Moon – Neil Young
The Guitar Noise Neil Young Song Seminar was so popular last year that I had to teach it twice – once at my home and once in Chicago! That wouldn’t be as interesting as the fact that almost all the attendees at both seminars drove, on the average, between two and three hours to be there. A gentleman from Toledo came to the seminar in Chicago!
So, in part as a thank you to those who attended, and in part as giving some of you a reason to consider attending a Guitar Noise Seminar, I’d like to start the New Year off with a lesson from those sessions, a Neil Young song called Harvest Moon, which first appeared on his 1992 album of the same name.
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
Harvest Moon is a big hit at the seminars because it’s one of those songs that is very easy to learn (we’ve only got D, Em, G and A chords) and, once you know a couple of quick things about it, even easier to play. And it also sounds great!
And speaking of sounding great, I suppose that this is a good place to remind everyone that this lesson is an arrangement for a single guitar, so it’s not going to sound exactly like the recorded version. The important things that we’re going to learn are using chord shapes and getting our strumming down. Oh, and I guess I should mention we’ll be learning some things about Drop D tuning!
You don’t have to play Harvest Moon in Drop D, but I think it sounds better that way. We will need to learn two new versions of some chords we already know, but you’ll be amazed at how easy these new chord forms will be. If you’d prefer to not tune your guitar to Drop D, then simply use the regular versions of two of the chords we’ll need (Em7 and G6) and ignore my use of the sixth string in this lesson.
I should also make mention of the fact that this is a terrific song to play on the twelve string, particularly because of the different chord voicings we’ll use. And just so you don’t have to take my word for it, I’ll include an MP3 of a verse and chorus done on my twelve-string guitar when we get done discussing things.
For now though, let’s take a quick moment and retune our guitars. To go from standard tuning to Drop D, we want to lower the sixth (low E) string down one step so that it becomes a D note. If you have a chromatic tuner, you shouldn’t have any problems with this. If you have a “regular” tuner, then use the “D,” or fourth string, setting to get the string in tune. If you’re like me and don’t own a tuner, then lower your string about a step (I usually play the open D (fourth) string in order to roughly match it by the octave) and then fine tune by either one of two ways: matching the seventh fret of the newly tuned sixth string to the open A string (instead of the fifth as you’d normally do); or match the twelfth fret harmonic of the newly tuned sixth string to the open D (fourth) string. Hopefully none of this will take you very long. After all, you’ve already done this in lessons as recent as the one on Amazing Grace. If worst comes to worst, go to the first MP3 and we can tune together.
Once we’re in Drop D, we can turn to the particular quirks of Harvest Moon. For starters, there’s the very distinctive guitar part at the very beginning. A “hook,” if you will, that draws us immediately into the song. We’ll call it the “signature hook” because when you play it, people will say “Oh wow! That’s Harvest Moon! I didn’t know you could play that!” And instead of just showing it to you, I’d like to demonstrate how I figured out what my ears told me was happening. Consider this a little bonus ear training, if you’d like. I don’t think I even covered this in the seminars!
If you listen to the beginning of this song very carefully, you’ll hear the top note of the guitar, the melody line, moving from A, which you can find at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string, to B (at the seventh fret) and finally ending on C#, which is the note at the ninth fret. Those of you who own the CD can play along with the track and find out for yourselves. And while you’re doing so, you’ll also hear that all of this note movement happens over a D major chord. There’s also a little bit of slight dissonance going on and we’ll attend to that in just a moment because it turns out to be kind of important!
But first off, let’s remind ourselves that adding C# to the D major chord gives us Dmaj7. I hate to tell you, but knowing this is important because it allows you to puzzle together exactly how to play this little hook. Because I’ve taken the time to study where the notes are on my guitar (and also in part because I’ve read the column Moving On Up!), I can play Dmaj7 in three positions:
Having these three versions of the chord to work with, I try to see how I can best work in that little A – B – C# melody. One thing I’m absolutely certain of now that I’ve been playing along with the CD, and that’s I want to end the signature hook on Version Three of this chord. But how do I get there? Starting with Version One seems kind of silly, since the A note I want isn’t there and I’d have to come up with a convoluted fingering of the chord simply to get the note I want. Nevertheless, I try out these two methods:
Right now we’re simply concerned with getting the correct voicing and not with worrying about the rhythm. And while both of these examples work, I’ve problems with them. First off, they’re too much work! If you think about it, the last thing a singer/songwriter wants is a guitar part that’s going to be so much work that he or she can’t go with the “singer” part of the program! That makes some sense, doesn’t it? And if you’re not happy with that thought, then take comfort in the fact that I don’t think that either of these examples sounds like what I’m trying to imitate.
So I start out with Version Three of the Dmaj7 chord and I think, “What if I only strum down to the A note, which is on the tenth fret of the B string, then add the B note at the twelfth fret and then finish off with the full chord?” So I give that a try and it’s the closest I’ve yet come to my target. But it’s still slightly not quite right. Remember that little dissonance we spoke of earlier? It’s nowhere to be heard in this latest version of mine. So I listen closely to the CD again and I make an interesting discovery: the dissonance is ringing, like an open string! So I leave my high E (first) string open when I strike the first two chords and guess what? I’ve found it! Here it is:
This works out really nicely. The open first (high E) string provides the subtle dissonance, while the A and B notes, even though played on the B string, stand out because they are higher in pitch. This voicing fits the “easy to play” requirement as well. If you remember to keep your ring and middle fingers set (ring finger on the eleventh fret of the G string and middle finger on the tenth fret of the B string), then it’s just a matter of using your pinky to get the B note at the twelfth fret of the B string and then remove it while placing your index finger on the ninth fret of the high E (first) string for the last chord. All I need do now is to come up with a nice strumming pattern and I’m ready to go:
I say “a nice strumming pattern” instead of “the patented strumming pattern” because I know something that you all should know by now, especially if you’ve been reading my lessons for any length of time. There is really no set pattern. In the second audio example of the MP3 you just heard, I deliberately play the signature hook with slightly different timings than the one I wrote out. If I heard someone playing any of them, I’d know this song. And so would you. So don’t give yourself grief trying to nail down one particular pattern. It’s much more important to be able to flow with the song and to keep the feel of the rhythm going than it is to worry about a misplaced upstroke!
Likewise, because of the Drop D tuning, you should feel free to hit as many notes on your downstrokes and upstrokes as you’d like. You can hear that sometimes on the first beat I hit only the sixth (low D) string but other times I hit the sixth and fifth strings and occasionally I’m pretty certain I struck the sixth, fifth and fourth strings on the first beat. As long as you’re keeping the chord formed with your fretting hand, there aren’t any wrong notes to worry about.
Once you have the signature hook down, you’ve really got most of Harvest Moon down. As far as structure, this song goes like this:
Of course, we have to remember that we’re in Drop D tuning, so we need to learn new ways of playing a few of these chords! And, as promised, you should find two of these chords ridiculously easy:
For the Em7 chord, we form a regular Em and we move our fingers to the two lowest strings. So we’re covering the second fret of the fifth (A) and sixth (low D) strings instead of the second fret of the D and A strings as we normally would. I usually use my middle finger on the sixth string and my ring finger on the fifth, but I do find myself fretting this chord with my index and middle fingers (sixth and fifth strings, respectively) from time to time. If you’re wondering why this works out so well, then take a moment to think about it. The easiest Em7 fingering, in standard tuning, involves placing one finger on the second fret of the A string. This gives you, low to high, E, B, D, G, B and E as your notes. Please take notice of the fact that your top four strings, as well as the sixth, are all played open. In Drop D tuning, our lowest string is D and we could certainly use that as the bass note and still have the same chord, only now we’d call it “Em/D.” But it doesn’t sound as nice as having that E note in the bass. So we place a finger on the second fret of the sixth string to get that note back.
To give you more interesting things to think about: We’ve seen that the notes of Em7 are E (root), G (minor third), B (fifth) and D (seventh). Guess what the notes of G6 are? Kudos to those of you who said, “Hey! Aren’t they the same notes?” Indeed they are! G6 is made up of G (root), B (major third), D (fifth) and E (sixth). So if you wanted to, you could play the same fingering and get the same chord. We’d technically want to call it “G6/E” to indicate the E note in the bass.
But we really want the G note in the bass, so let’s move the Em7 chord shape up from the second fret to the fifth. Now your notes (again, low to high) are G, D, D, G, B, E and that fits the bill perfectly. How about that? We learned two chords in a new tuning faster than it takes the time to explain it!
Taking the first line of the verse, I like to strum the first beat of Em7 with a leisurely upstroke and then really hit the downstroke on the second beat to put an accent on it. This is a way to create some dynamics in what might otherwise be a very typical strumming pattern. Plus, as you’ll hear in a moment, I play the upstroke very close to the saddle of my guitar, which gives it a kind of shimmering sound. Again, this is just a way of coming up with something to spice things up a bit.
Harvest Moon is also a kind of fun song in that all the vocals pretty much take place in the first half of any given line during the verse. This leaves you with four measures of D that you should consider “free time.” And by that I don’t mean that you can start playing at any tempo or time signature you choose! Rather, this is a place where you can mess around and be a little creative with your playing. D is one of the easiest chords to create little fills around, as we’ve seen in numerous lessons. I’ll write out what I tend to do, as well as a few suggestions for alternate patterns (which you should also hear in the MP3), but I highly encourage you to experiment and come up with things of your own.
There are, naturally, all sorts of ways to strum this. I like the lazy feeling of the rhythm pattern that I set up with the first measure of Em7, so I essentially try to stick with that during most of the rest of the song. To make it more interesting, I will stick in a measure of single notes to break it up. In the second measure of this example you can see and hear what I’m talking about. And here again, it’s important to know that these are just the strings I happened to strike this time when I was recording. When I play this next, I might hit a totally different sequence and that will sound perfectly fine as long as I’ve got my Em7 chord in place on the fretboard. You should hear that sometimes I hit that last note in the second measure of Em7 and sometimes I don’t. And that’s just the sort of thing I’m talking about. You should take the time to have fun trying out all sorts of different ideas and not worry if you find yourself playing different notes than mine (or even different notes than the last time you played it!).
We go through this first line again for the second line and then we come to the G6 that starts the third line. I like to use the same upstroke as I do on the Em7 because it gives a bit of a surprise when it ends up on a different bass note. Always keep your listeners on their toes! I keep to the same rhythmic pattern of one measure of strumming and then a measure of arpeggio throughout the G6 part and then when we come to the D, I play the signature hook twice. For me, this is a good reason to play the measure of arpeggio immediately beforehand. Playing the last part of the arpeggio is on the open strings gives me plenty of time to get myself down the neck and set to play the hook.
If you were listening carefully to the MP3 that accompanies Example #8, you should have heard me do a slight variation on the strumming of the G6 the second time around. I’ve included this notation as well. It’s simply hitting the bass notes on the first beat and then following it up with a slow downstroke of the full G6 chord, again played with the strumming hand very close to the bridge of the guitar. While it is very similar to the rhythm that we’ve been using, it’s different enough to give us a little more color.
And for those of you who like to be a little flashy, listen to the very last MP3 example, which, as I mentioned, is done on the twelve-string guitar, you’ll hear me use the harmonics at the twelfth fret as another way to get my fingers up the neck of the guitar ahead of time in this particular section of the song. I may not have written this out entirely correctly, because (as I’ve mentioned over and over again) I tend to play it slightly differently each time, but it should be something like this:
Or this should give you a good place to start and then to experiment trying your own ways.
The chorus of Harvest Moon is just more strumming, this time playing around with A7 chords. There are all sorts of fun ways of playing this. For starters, I like to use the same type of strumming pattern that I used with the Em7 and the G6, only this time without the long upstroke on the first beat. This really emphasizes the chord on the second beat and that gives the chorus a lot of punch:
You may notice to very interesting fills here. In the fourth measure I echo the melody line (“… I want to see you dance again …”) on the top two strings, using my pinky to get the F# note (second fret of the first (high E) string) and D note (third fret of the B string). Playing A7 makes this pretty easy to do, and having given my pinky a big workout during the lesson on The Little Drummer Boy doesn’t hurt, either!
And even though I like this fill a lot, on the final MP3, I use a more conventional one:
This is just playing around between A7sus4, A7 and A7sus2, which is something that many of you are already doing, I’m sure. It’s another easy fill to use when you’d like to not stay on the same chord for a great length of time.
On the last Mp3, you’ll also hear me use arpeggios for the second measure of A7sus4. This is certainly something you should feel comfortable playing. The choice (and many others as well) is totally up to you.
The fill in measure eight of the chorus should get a little extra attention:
Those of you who have either looked at some of the Songs for Intermediates Lessons, such as Babylon or Give A Little Bit, as well as those of you who can remember all the way back to our beginners’ lesson on Riders On The Storm may vaguely remember me doing something like this. It’s a little trick I tend to throw in a lot when going from A7 to D, which I call an “A7 turnaround.” You’ll see it again when I post up a lesson on John Lennon’s Imagine.
The best way to do this smoothly is to use your middle finger on the D string and to keep it there, sliding up the frets, from the second to the fourth, the fourth to the fifth and the fifth to the sixth, with each change of notes. Use your ring finger on the B string when you need the same fret (second, fifth and sixth) and your index finger when you’re a fret apart (the third fret of the B string on the second set of notes). This is a good exercise to get your fingers used to, because you’ll encounter this sort of finger movement a lot in guitar music.
Some people like it a lot and some don’t. In order to fit into the timing of this particular version, I add an extra chromatic step. That last set of notes, taken purely on their own and out of context, is very dissonant. But it goes by quicker than you’ll know and I like it a lot, especially on the twelve-string guitar.
After eight measures of switching between A7sus4 and A7, the chorus ends with the signature hook, which usually gets played four times. By now you should be pretty adept at this, so why don’t we have a look and listen to the whole thing? And just to drive home a point or two, see how many “new” patterns I used in the strumming without even thinking twice about it! It’s great when you get into a song and things simply come to you and the more you work at this, the easier it will become.
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing around with this song. It’s amazing how a simple little hook can make an entire song! But don’t forget that there’s still the whole rest of the song to deal with and you can come up with a lot of little things to make it both interesting and fun to play as well as to listen to.
Remember, too, that you should give care and attention to any song you decide to play. People enjoy knowing that the performer (in this case, you!) is having a good time playing something. It would be easy enough to go through the motions on a simple song but you, your audience and the song itself deserve better than that. Have fun with whatever you decide to play!
And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns, criticisms or whatever you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at email@example.com.
Until our next lesson…