Moondance – Van Morrison

Van Morrison

So what good is basic music theory anyway? Why should you bother to learn even the simplest things, like which notes make up what chords? Or for that matter, why even learn where the notes are on the fretboard?

What if I was to ask you instead, “What good is knowledge?”

It can really come down to that sometimes. A lot of people write me to ask, “What’s the next step?” and, quite often, the “next step” is nothing more than relearning things you already know.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the song Moondance by Van Morrison. It’s an intriguing piece in that while it is very easy to play (chord-wise), it does take a little thought to make it sound good. By the way, if you haven’t already done so, you might to read (or reread) Riders On The Storm. This lesson essentially involves a lot of the same ideas, although we’re going to being putting even more thinking into our arrangement.

Let’s tackle this song in two parts – first we’ll look at the verses and then the choruses. Not only will we come up with several different ways to play both sections, but we’ll also try to throw an some interesting fill or two. Oh yes, before I forget, there’s an outro as well…

The Verses

If I look up the chords to Moondance on the TAB search engines, this is what we’re likely to find:

Moondance lyrics

For now, we’ll concentrate our efforts on the verses. Let’s agree that we’re going to play this in the key of A minor. This means that Am will be our root and that, at least in theory, we are also in the key of C major (since A minor is the relative minor of C major). But we’re already in for a rude awakening, since the second chord is a Bm, which has an F# in it (B, D, F#). We also know that the key of C major has no flats or sharps so we have to wonder just what is going on.

The key (no pun intended) to finding out lies in music theory. The verses contain a chord that has one sharp, which is F#. We also know, from reading The Musical Genome Project or part one of A Guide To Reading Music Notation, that one sharp means we are in the key of G. It can’t be a key with two sharps in it because the second sharp would have to be C# (key of D) and if we had a C# then we’d have an A major chord and not an A minor chord. So the verses are, technically, in the key of G major, while the choruses (we are thinking ahead here) are in the key of A minor still. And yes, we’ll argue this further on.

This is an important discovery because if we wanted to play a lead over the verses (or if we were bass players) we would now know that we could use the A Dorian scale (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A) and it would work nicely.

Back to the song. Some TABs will say Am7 and Bm7, instead of Am and Bm, for the verse progressions:

Moondance by Van Morrison tab and chords

And some may even be more ambitious, pointing out things like keeping the A note as a pedal point in the bass and using even more chords:

Moondance pedal point

It’s interesting to note that this second progression that uses C/A and D/A chords reinforces our earlier discussion about the verses being in the G major. Also notice that this last example maintains the A note as it’s bass. We’ll be looking at that in just a minute.

So, what to do? And why so many choices, anyway? Well, for starters, Moondance is a fairly jazzy sounding piece. The chords flow seamlessly one into the next. Part of the reason for this is that this chord progression is built upon a blues riff just like the one we used in the lesson Riders On The Storm. Check it out:

Moondance blues shuffle pattern

You see once again we have a typical blues shuffle pattern; during the Am passage the lead notes move from the fifth (E) to the sixth (F#) and then to the seventh (G) and back. If we look at the notes that make up this shuffle, then it is pretty easy to see where these TAB variations come from:

Moondance chords variations

Just like in our lesson on Riders, we are creating chords to follow our shuffle pattern. Here, though, there are many possibilities from which to choose. And while some of you may be thinking, “Which chords should I use?” I doubt that my answer is going to surprise many of you: All of them! The first line shows what would be considered the “standard blues” chords – the root, 6th and 7th. This is easy enough, we are merely taking our Am chord (A, C, E) and then adding the F# or G to it. In line #2, I build the triads backwards from the E, F# and G and get Am, Bm and C chords. Line #3 tries to show you some of the relationships between these chords. Since Am is the relative minor to C (as Bm is to D), you can see that it is no big stretch to create 7ths by simply stacking an additional note to either end of the Am or Bm triad.

Let’s also discuss the rhythm of this song and the use of pedal points. Since we have chord voicings flying everywhere all up and down the neck, it’s a good idea to anchor them down in some way. We give them a sense of tonality so that the song has a center. One cool way to play Moondance is strike the open A string in nice even quarter notes, like this:

Moondance quarter notes

Keeping a constant note and rhythm in the bass provides a nice contrast for the ever-shifting chords playing above it. You get even more of a dynamic contrast by throwing in an anticipation (playing a half beat before the beat) right before the third beat of the measure:

Moondance third beat of measure

{This is a great exercise, by the way, to develop coordination if you want to get into alternating basslines or Travis picking or anything of that nature. It is also an easy step to go from this type of playing to Texas blues style.}

So let’s throw this pedal point in with some progressions and see what we have, shall we? On all of the above progressions, use your thumb on the open bass string while plucking the other strings with your index, middle and ring fingers.

You might want to use the first progression as the introduction and also between the verses, especially if there is a brief instrumental going on. The higher voicing of notes on the first string rings out when there is no vocal to cover it up.

Progression two is the “bread and butter,” if you will, of this group. You could play the whole song with this and it would be perfectly fine. By the time you play it for several lines, though, you may find yourself a bit antsy and decide to change things up a bit. Try using progression three followed by progression two to start the fifth line.

In the final line of the verse (the sixth line), begin with progression three and then switch to a little riff that is actually based on progression one:

Moondance final line of verse

The tricky part here is not the riff itself but rather the timing. What we are trying to do is to follow the vocal line – spacing six notes evenly among four beats. These are called quarter note triplets. For a good tutorial on these, check out the text and audio of our lesson on “Seven Nation Army.” Don’t worry about there being no notation or tablature. If you read the text and listen along to the first MP3 file, you should be able to get it.

Here’s a step by step guide for playing this: First, as mentioned in “Seven Nation Army,” thinking of it in terms of two slow triplets helps a lot. For the first triplet, use your index finger to barre the first four strings at the fifth fret. Your pinky frets the eighth fret on the first (high E) and your ring finger does the honors for the B note on the seventh fret. Then, starting the second triplet, slide the index finger up to the seventh fret while changing your barre to the cover the first three strings (you’re doing this in order to change the bass note to the open D string for the duration of this triplet). Then slide down to the fifth fret, then down to the third, where you’ll also add your ring finger to the fourth fret of the B string, before finishing off by sliding back up to the fifth fret again on the first beat of the next measure. Then switch back to your regular bass thumping on the A string and a first position Am chord. You can also use the old trick of taking all your fingers off the guitar to give yourself a brief respite and then stick them back on again. This sets up your fingers for what’s coming up in the chorus, as you’ll see in a minute.

You’ll note in the following transcription that I did not mark this measure of two triplets with chords. This particular triplet would be Bm/D, Am/D, G/D. If you’re interested in that sort of thing…

Anyway, let’s stick this all together and wrap up the “verse” portion of the lesson:

Moondance verses

Remember that this is just an arrangement of this song. It is not the arrangement off the original recording – mostly because I have played it so many different ways that I do not have a “set” way of doing it. As always, you should use this as a guideline to give yourself an idea of what you want to do. Mix and match the various progressions, stick with just one, or come up with your own. The choices should be yours.

The Choruses

A quick word about song structure: Technically speaking, we should say that the chorus of Moondance consists of only the last two lines:

Can I just have one more moondance with you my love
Can I just make some more romance with you my love

The two lines that immediately proceed it (taken here from the first verse):

And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush

Could just as easily be considered part of the first verse or even a “pre-chorus,” if you will. For the sake of this lesson, however, it makes perfect sense for us to use this verse/chorus division – it’s just a very natural way to break up the song into two easy-to-study sections.

As we noted earlier, the chorus section is back in a normal state of Am, mostly switching from Am to Dm with the occasional E (or E7, if you will) tossed in to provide the tonality. Since this is the case, we’re going to do things a little backwards here. Let’s look at my transcription first and then work through any question marks:

Moondance chorus

You may, or may not, have noticed that I ended the “verse” with a first position Am chord. My reason for doing that was to be able to shove the whole chord shape up five frets in order to get the Dm that kicks off the chorus section. With the open E on the first string, it’s really a Dmadd9. I also open up the D string for the bass note, but I find, more often than not, I tend to hit the open A as well. So be it.

I make a point to change the rhythm and my chord voicings in this section to follow and enhance the vocal line. Think of simply swinging along with the song – chord, pause, chord, some notes, (and believe it or not, I’m singing this to the melody! I know that sounds silly but it helps me…), chord and more notes…

I nail the first and third beats with a hard sweeping downstroke followed by a percussive stroke (which could be either a palm mute or a slap depending on how into things I’ve gotten) on the second beat. I also add single notes that follow the melody up and down along its merry way. This is another good reason for using this particular Dm voicing – it allows me to get the G note via a hammer-on without losing any of the accompanying chord because I’m moving my fingers around. Likewise, you will see that the other single notes in the first six measures (including the long fill at the end of measure four), are also simply a matter of hammer-ons or pull-offs.

I’d like to point out two other things about that fill. First, it makes use of an old classical guitar technique where you play an open string (in this case it’s the last note of the measure, the open E) in order to give yourself time to change positions on the fretboard. It may not seem like a lot of time to get your hand back up to the Dmadd9 which starts the next measure, but it truly is.

Secondly, if you think about this in terms of hammering-on and off of the whole Am chord instead of just individual notes, you can be adding a whole harmony line to your riff, like this:

Moondance harmony line to riff

This playing of two strings in soloing is called a double stop. It is a widely practiced technique and one that will be examining more closely this spring.

At the end of this particular section is the part where everyone plays those three sharp notes together on cue. It’s one of the songs many hooks and in this case should be treated as sacred. Unless you’re the soloist (and even then), hang in with the band and belt out those notes in the last two measures. You can play a regular E or E7 if you’d like. I’ve chosen this voicing (a B7 shape (albeit with an open E string) moved up five frets) of E7 because I like it. A lot.

The last two lines are straight strumming of Am and Dm chords with a regular E7 thrown in first to break things up and then as an exclamation point at the very end in order to set up going back to the verse progressions. After going through two verses (with choruses), the song does an instrumental verse and chorus and then the first verse (and chorus) is repeated again for the final verse.

After the last chorus, there is a coda, or outro, if you will. First, you go back to the verse progressions and play those while there is more soloing and vocal ad-libbing going on. Then everyone pretty much joins in the following the singing of the last line. This is done in counts of threes (think of a jazzy oom-pah band…). On the guitar, I find that simple arpeggios work well:

Moondance outro

You can see and hear that this is just descending from Am to Dm via the A natural minor scale. When you reach the Dm, that is your cue to hold that chord for dramatic effect. I like to end this song with a trill. It’s very easy and you’ve probably done it lots of times yourself: Play an Am chord, but without the C note on the B string (this is technically an Am sus2). Now use your index finger to hammer-on and pull-off the first fret for as long as you can make the note last on its own. This is a good technique to practice and keep in your catalogue.

Well, I guess that covers everything. Now all you have to do is put all the pieces together in whatever way you like. Oh, and for those of you who are interested in such things, according to the book, Van Morrison – The Guitar Collection (Warner Brothers Publications, Inc – 1995), the tempo on this is 132 beats per minute. They call this “moderately,” by the way.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed working on Moondance. It’s a great song.

If you’re interested in checking out more about some of the little things – the “moveable” chords, the riffs and fills and the chord shapes and scales they come from, the double stops – that make this arrangement work, we have many Beginners song lessons that help illustrate these various techniques. And you can also find discussion on them in our various Guitar Columns as well. Moving On Up is a great one to start with

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) 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 protected].

Until our next lesson…