Tag Archives: acoustic guitar

Alternate tunings

I’m in recording mode at the moment, and thinking a lot about the use of acoustic guitar in recording, which is what prompted the post about Nashville tuning the other day.

Altered tunings are where I live as a guitarist. For the first few years after I discovered them, they felt like my secret thing. I became serious about songwriting and extending my range as an acoustic guitarist in the late 1990s. At the time, the biggest band in the UK was still Oasis, and Noel Gallagher took a decidedly meat-and-potatoes approach to the acoustic guitar: strummed open chords and barre chords all the way. Consequently, that’s how kids of my generation learned to play acoustic guitar. Gallagher and Cobain between them offered up 90% of what 90% of young guitarists wanted to know.

While some more adventurous electric players went down the prog/metal route to learn about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and so on, young guitarists looking to learn about fingerpicking and alternate tunings had a harder time of it finding teaching materials. I can’t even remember where I first learned about using open tunings for fingerpicking rather than slide, but I do remember that the first songs I wrote in non-standard were in open G, and it would have coincided roughly with picking up my first Nick Drake album in 1999 or early 2000 (it was before I went to university in September 2000, I know that much). After finding alternate tunings, I felt a sort of ownership of them; easy, when no one else I knew used them, and few songwriters I ran into at open-mike nights did either.

But of course, it wasn’t just me learning about this stuff. For me, and I suspect many others at the same time, Nick Drake opened up a new world of tunings. The increased profile of his music that came as a result of the Volkswagen ad that used Pink Moon meant that he was now being discussed by mainstream guitar magazines (again, this was still an analogue world – in 1999, only 13% of UK households had an internet connection).

One of the first things I did when I got online was go to OLGA (the On-Line Guitar Archive – again, the hyphen in “online” tells you how long ago this was) and find a list of Nick Drake tunings and tabs (I was more interested in the tunings than the transcriptions themselves), which is where I came across tunings like CGCFCE.

Any Drake-loving guitarist will probably recognise that as the tuning he used on Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, Hazey Janes I and II, and Introduction, the instrumental that begins Bryter Layter.

It’s a lovely tuning for the keys of C, Am, Dm and F, and isn’t really very adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as is practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.* The tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on – an approach that works equally well strumed or picked. In this tuning, those two shapes will give you a D minor and F respectively.

D minor, you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! And no F! But that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create wide, harmonically extended chords that would be near-impossible to play in standard, and have fingers left over for melodic ornamentations. Purists who insist that no chord you can’t play fretted in standard tuning is worth playing (and that a capo is cheating, and similar nonsense) are dead wrong about this. And fortunately this kind of idiocy is rarer now than it was when I was 18, but you used to hear from a lot of people that open/altered tunings were Not Proper Guitar Playing.

Anyhow, in the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears 222000 as a more-or-less minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, the ear hears D9sus4, as no minor third is present, but interprets it the chord as minor rather than major – closer to Dm9add13. The beautiful expressiveness of these kinds of chords – richly sonorous and full of harmonic ambiguity – is what made Drake’s guitar playing so influential, and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

I picked up other tunings along the way, but these days I pretty much only use two, other than standard, to write in: DADEAD (or it’s step-down equivalent CGCFGC), which I learned as a variation of DADGAD, and CGDEAD, which I came to via open G, first tuning down the lowest string C to extend the bottom end, then tuning down the G string to E to facilitate minor keys and suspended seconds. Nowadays, CGDEAD is my de facto standard tuning if I’m playing acoustic, and I’ve found (and used) improbable voicings for chords that would make a classical guitar teacher wince, using my left thumb to fret as many as three strings.

Tunings are a rabbit hole for many a guitarist. I got pleasantly lost down mine nearly 20 years ago. I’m still down here, still burrowing.

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Don’t look now, classical guitar teachers: I’m coming to your town with chord shapes like this! [insert evil-laugh sound effect. Photo from my recent duo show with Mel at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent]

*Some sources list the tuning as DADGDF# (with the capo two frets lower, where used) but I find the idea that Drake routinely tuned his B string up to D and E to F# a little improbable.

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High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals on Music Row. They know how to make records. They certainly know a thing or two about recording acoustic guitars. High-string tuning is so closely associated with the capital of country music that a majority of guitarists refer to it as Nashville tuning.

To reassure those of you who aren’t really down with endlessly retuning your instrument, Nashville tuning isn’t really an alternate tuning, per se; it’s more about the strings you actually put on your guitar. The tuning involves taking the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the E, A, D and G) and putting them on a regular six-string guitar. That gives you a guitar with only one wound string (the low E), and means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings respectively, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. D’Addario and Martin both sell high-strung/Nashville tuning sets (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too*. All you need to do is maybe adjust the neck on your guitar. I have a spare acoustic I often Nasvhille-ise; saves a lot of hassle when, as now, I’m looking to add a few jangly touches to a nearly complete recording..

So what can you do with it?

I’m very fond of the massed – but unobtrusive – overdubbing of acoustic guitars. I love the tonal colours you get by blending tracks of different guitars, different tuned, and so routinely track two to four acoustic rhythm tracks of various types, with the aim of blending them together so it sounds essentially like one instrument, but with a richer sonority and wider frequency response than you get from a single track of one acoustic guitar.

Sometimes they’re all in standard tuning but I use a capo to play each track with different chord shapes (e.g. a song in E is played with open E shapes, and in D with a capo on the second fret, or C with a capo on the fourth). Sometimes it’s a mix of standard- and alternate-tuned performances. Sometimes it’s a mix of six- and 12-string guitars, and sometimes a Nashville-tuned part is in there, too. Adds a lovely shimmering brightness to a bed of acoustics.

But that’s just the easy stuff. If you don’t have access to a 12-string guitar but you want the effect on a recording, you can also try tightly doubling a six-string part in Nashville tuning to create an effect that’s very like a 12-string. Experiment with panning the parts  left and right in stereo as well as together down the middle for different effects.

If you’re really into making work for yourself, try doubling a fingerpicking part. If done perfectly and panned down the middle, voila, instant 12-string effect. And again, you can pan the parts off on opposite sides for a striking stereo effect.

To hear examples of Nasvhille tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think). Or for something a bit more mainstream, try Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. There’s a high-pitched fingerpicked part panned centrally, fairly low in the mix but audible between Stevie Nicks’s vocal lines. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s a 12-string or a Nashville-tuned six string, but the more I hear it, the more the thin-ness and clarity of the part suggests Nashville tuning to me.

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My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

*When I bought a set of Martin 10-25s the other day, the dude in the shop told me he hasn’t been able to reorder them and thinks that Martin may have discontinued them. Nonetheless, you can still buy single strings of the appropriate gauge: to replicate the Martin set, you’d need the following gauges: E: 0.025; A: 0.017; D: 0.013; G: 0.008; B: 0.012; E: 0.010.

Double Live Gonzos, part 4: Live at Leeds – John Martyn

John Martyn died on 29 January 2009 – 10 years ago today.

Like much else about its creator, Live at Leeds isn’t what it seems. It’s purportedly a straightforward recording from 13 February 1975 of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and John Stevens playing live in the students’ refectory at Leeds University. Actually, Live at Leeds was (according to Martyn expert John Hillarby’s sleevenotes of the most recent re-release) put together from various live shows across the country from the same tour.

This is not an uncommon practice in the world of live albums. Many is the live record that has received in-studio touch-ups (The Last Waltz among them) or includes a track or two from a different gig to the one the album documents. I have even heard one producer explain how he and a band (he didn’t say who) recorded the audio for the group’s live DVD in the studio due to a malfunction with the equipment on the night of the gig. Using the audio from a handheld camera used for audience shots to guide them, the players replayed their performances, punching in bar by bar to recreate the feel, tempos and articulations of the live show. Compared to that, Live at Leeds is a paragon of honesty.

A single album, containing just six tracks, Live at Leeds had been assembled with Island Records’ help (they supplied the mobile recording truck), but in the end they decided not to release it, feeling the project had limited commercial viability. Anticipating the developments in punk rock by a couple of years, Martyn decided simply to press it up himself and sell 10,000 copies by mail order from his house in Sussex. As well as artist and producer, he became (with his then wife Beverley) record company and distributor. While his judgement was correct in terms of the artistic worth of the record and his fans’ eagerness to hear it, the strain of doing all that work himself led him to require several months off afterwards, during which he went to Jamaica, befriending and collaborating with several local musicians, including Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Live at Leeds begins with a majestic 18-minute reading of Outside In that takes up almost the whole of the first side. They’re different beasts, but this version is the equal of the studio take. Which is to say, it’s up among the best recordings Martyn ever made. I miss the astonishing power of Remi Kabaka’s explosions on the tom-toms (if you don’t know it, check it out to hear what I mean), but John Stevens is a master of creating atmosphere with cymbals and toms. The studio take is warm, molten; the Live at Leeds Outside In is music of vast cosmic spaces.

The listener unfamiliar with Martyn’s work and his technique with the Echoplex will be likely be confounded by how much sound is coming from just three players*. By this stage, Martyn was an Echoplex master, probably the greatest exponent the machine ever had. His searing, distorted lead guitar (played, remember, on a Martin acoustic) more than compensates for the absence of Bobby Keyes’ lyrical saxophone on the original. I do wish I knew what he was singing, though.*

Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most beloved songs, is a thing of aching beauty. Solid Air the album was where Martyn truly honed his instantly recognisable vocal style: slurred, husky, imitative of a tenor saxophone in both timbre and approach to phrasing. After a long opening track that’s all but instrumental, hearing Martyn slide into the opening line of Solid Air is a shivers-down-the-spine moment.

The performance is a stunner. Tristan Fry’s vibraphone, so crucial on the studio recording, is hardly missed; this version is about John Martyn’s voice and the way Danny Thompson supports it with his bass. Stevens keeps to a supporting role, patiently keeping time on the hats, with few flourishes. He was wise enough not to break a delicate spell.

“I tell you what, this is a good’un,” says Martyn before launching into Make No Mistake, another highlight from Inside Out (have I told you how much I love Inside Out? For heaven’s sake, go and listen to it now if you’ve never heard it. It’s strange and so wonderful). Make no Mistake is a vehicle for some of the album’s best improvisation between Martyn and Danny Thompson. After about three minutes of relatively contained playing (though Thompson is nimble and lively throughout), the pair of them just take off, with Martyn playing fast, scalar raga-like lines as Thompson uses the bow to reinforce the Indian feel. The musical chemistry between the pair was something very special indeed.

It segues into Bless the Weather, which the audience recognises from its first two chords. Taken at a brisker tempo than the familiar studio recording, with Stephens playing pattering 16ths, this is a very free version, informed by how far Martyn’s explorations in jazz had taken him in the four short years since Bless the Weather‘s release. “Bless the weather that brought you to me,” Martyn sings, “curse the man that takes you home,” the substitution of “storm” for “man” making plain perhaps what lay behind the metaphor all along.

A little over three minutes in, the players abruptly shift into a slower, more shuffle-based feel, as if reprising Make No Mistake. Stephens dispenses with his 16ths to converse with his snare and toms, and the group end the song with a strong major-chord resolution. “Nice one, Danno!” Martyn calls out over the audience’s applause.

A brief Man in the Station follows, with Stephens’ most rock-influenced playing of the set (conventional boom-tssch, two-and-four stuff that even simpletons like me can manage), while Thompson’s kinetic bass playing fills in all the gaps left by the lack of a lead guitar.

The song is followed by the only sustained bit of on-stage banter (to use a word I’d really rather not have to; there is no other word for it though). Martyn, in cockney-geezer mode** advances the opinion that Ravel’s Balero was written as, how to put it, a soundtrack for intercourse. (The strong language explains the parental advisory sticker that accompanies recent editions of the record.) The jokes don’t stand up massively well to repeat listening, but I do think they’re a worthwhile inclusion; this is what seeing Martyn play was actually like. He and Thompson did spar, verbally and physically***, and there was an aggressive edge to it at times; a live record that excluded that element of the John Martyn live experience would lose something fundamental.

The final song in the set is an 8-minute version of Skip James’s I’d Rather Be the Devil, which Martyn had recorded (brilliantly) for Solid Air. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t get to the same territory as the studio recording. Partly this is down to having fewer instruments, and partly it’s that Stephens isn’t quite the right drummer for the job. Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks, who played on the original, is maybe not the first player who comes to mind when thinking about powerful rock drummers, but he invests those tom fills with plenty of thump, and breaks them up with snare flams, cymbal crashes and hi-hat fills. Stephens has a lighter touch, plays with brushes and sticks mainly to the toms, which lack the low end of Mattacks’. Consequently, the song has a lighter, hoppedy-skippedy kind of feel, at odds with the claustrophic paranoia of Martyn’s vocal.

Disappointing it may be that the gig ends on an unsatisfying note, but Live at Leeds is still absolutely essential for the John Martyn fan, whether casual or deep. The best of it (essentially the first four songs) are incandescently brilliant, the relationship between Thompson and Martyn seemingly telepathic. Martyn’s run of records in the seventies (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday’s Child, Live at Leeds, One World and Grace and Danger) is as good a sequence as anyone else’s in popular music, and Live at Leeds is a vital part of it; I’d recommend it ahead of Sunday’s Child, Bless the Weather and even Grace and Danger.

john martyn

*I’ve got the “precious babies” bit, but what’s the first thing he says? It sounds like “Fillet o’ fish”.

**One of the odd things about Martyn was that he had, essentially, two accents. Sometimes he spoke in gruff Glaswegian, at other times, like a working-class Londoner (despite having been born in New Malden, Surrey). He’d adapt his voice depending on the audience and his location, seldom acknowledging the oddness of the habit.

***The album was originally going to be called Ringside Seat, and a photo shoot was arranged in which Martyn and Thompson were in a boxing ring, in gloves and shorts. Inevitably, they started hitting each other for real.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good, too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like Andrew Bird, or a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works, as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

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*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic, self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Happenings

Hi everyone.

One of my many projects at the moment is kicking the songs I’ve been working on into finished shape and determining the tracklisting for the album I’ve been trying to make over the last couple of years.

I’ve finally determined a pool of 15 songs, which I’m now trying to cut down to a final 10, with the others to be used as B-sides for singles or EP tracks. It’s a slow process for me as I’ve never done an actual physical release before, and want to take the time to get it right, and I was inspired to really take the time to do it well after seeing how well my friend James McKean’s record No Peace for the Wicked, came out: it’s brilliantly sequenced, and the artwork is also amazing.

In the meantime, I continue to write, and help Melanie and Yo bring their own projects (a second EP and a new album respectively) to completion.

On Sunday 21 August I’ll be playing solo at The Gladstone Arms in Borough, London (probably my favourite venue in the city, so I’m thrilled about finally doing a solo show there), and on Sunday 18 September I’ll be playing the Acoustic Folk Highway night at the Harrison near King’s Cross.

So there’s lots going on as ever. If you’re interested in hearing some of the completed mixes for the album, you can find them in the embedded Soundcloud player below:

Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

Automatic

*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.