Tag Archives: Pink Moon

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.

Saturday Sun – Nick Drake

Nick Drake is at this point the most famous, the most listened-to, the most influential and the most widely beloved of all the British folk-rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s.

Why Drake? Why not Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, John Martyn or Bert Jansch? All were (or are) talented, versatile and charismatic performers and writers, all with a wider and more varied body of work than Drake.

It would be crass and reductive to say, “Because Drake was good looking and died young, and didn’t get old, fat, bald, irrelevant or conservative.” This is undoubtedly part of his appeal, as it is of Hendrix’s, Cobain’s, Joplin’s or Morrison’s (OK, so he got fat, but he didn’t get old or bald). The doomed-romantic-hero thing is always powerful and attractive, and it can apply equally to musicians, athletes, actors, writers, political revolutionaries, tyrants, criminals, anyone – we can all think of someone whose glittering legacy is at least partly dependent on their early death.

But it’s very far from the whole story.

In the last twenty years, since the cult of Nick Drake really took off*, the hundreds of thousands of people who have become Nick Drake fans have done so because of the man’s idiosyncratic, beguiling music.

There’s the guitar playing for one thing. Even within an era blessed with an extraordinary crop of guitarists – Martyn, Jansch, Renbourn, Carthy and Graham – Drake stands out. Drake’s technique I won’t go into in great detail here (it’s all available out there if you want it – tunings, picking patterns, chord shapes and so on), except to note his powerful right-hand thumb (listen to Pink Moon‘s Road to hear him play a crisply articulated syncopated melody with his thumb against a repeated pattern played with his fingers), and his tunings, which he used to create hugely expansive chords.**

And then there are the songs. River Man, Saturday Sun, Three Hours, Cello Song, Hazey Janes I and II, At the Chime of a City Clock, Northern Sky, Pink Moon, Place to Be, Things Behind the Sun, From the Morning. All these from just three albums.

Brit-folk songwriters of that era were notable for their willingness to explore other music, to collaborate with musicians from outside their own fields and create new blends, whether those outside influences came from the classical world, rock or jazz, India or North Africa. Drake was no different, though he’s not often spoken of in precisely those terms. I guess if I had to summarise Drake’s albums for a newcomer to his music, I’d say that his debut, Five Leaves Left, is the one most coloured by jazz (with Danny Thompson, Tristan Fry and Rocky Dzidzornu all contributing) and Bryter Layter is the one most touched by Fairport-style folk rock (Richard Thompson, plus Pegg and Mattacks), while Pink Moon is the outlier, the skeletal one, just Drake alone with his guitar.***

Pink Moon, for many reasons (some of them personal and sentimental), remains my favourite, and I understand why many feel Bryter Layter is the most rounded and satisfying. My relationship with FLL is more complicate – while its best songs are all classics, there are also some very twee moments, and Robert Kirby’s string arrangements (on Way to Blue and Fruit Tree) sound pretty callow next to the magisterial work of Harry Robinson on River Man.

Nevertheless, when playing individual Nick Drake songs for the uninitiated, it’s often best to turn to Five Leaves Left for a song or two. Saturday Sun is a great choice precisely because it doesn’t feature Drake’s guitar playing – you can hear it and divorce the quality of the song from the quality of the guitar playing (difficult with some of Drake’s other work), gaining the clearest insight into exactly how good a writer he was. That said, along with its exquisite late-summer-turns-to-autumn melancholy, it does feature Danny Thompson on double bass and Tristan Fry on drums and vibes, so there’s plenty of chops on display if chops are your thing.

Drake

*Launched by the use of Pink Moon in a Volkswagen ad of all things.

**He’d do things such as tune his guitar CGCGCE, for example, play D, A and D on the bottom three strings and that voicing, with a 7th and a 9th in it, would be his standard D minor voicing. It’s that sort of harmonic ambiguity that attracts guitarists to alternate tunings, and Drake, for many, is the gateway drug.

***It has been said by some that the outside musicians were producer Joe Boyd’s idea, and that if Drake had been listened to by Boyd his records would have been much sparer. Quite how this accords with Drake’s willing collaboration with John Cale on Northern Sky, and his use of his friend Robert Kirby’s string arrangements all over Five Leaves Left, I’m not entirely sure.

River Man – Nick Drake

The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival

When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).

If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.

This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.

Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.

Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:

I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.

So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.

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Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine:

Twelve-string guitars, part three

OK, another tuning for you. CGCFCE

This is a nice tuning for the keys of C, a minor and F, and not too 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 practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.

Those of you who’ve studied alternate tunings might know this one as a favourite of Nick Drake’s – it’s the tuning behind Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, the two Hazey Jane songs and the Introduction instrumental. But 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. 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! Bu that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create these wide, harmonically open chords that would be impossible to play in standard. In the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears that as a minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, it hears d minor. The beautiful ambiguity of this kind of chord is what made Drake’s guitar playing so expressive and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

If you play these kind of shapes on a twelve-string it won’t sound earthy and intimate, as on Pink Moon. ‘Earthy’ isn’t what twelve-strings do. Instead it will sound bright, airy, ethereal. But that’s good, too.

Two more chords: 000200 (C major). x20200 (a minor7).

Enjoy.

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Nick Drake. Just imagine that his guitar is a twelve-string