Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

August 14, 2017

Video Production on the Cheap

I'll admit it: I'm an audio guy. Not a huge fan of watching videos or making them. But for a working musician in the digital age, having some sort of presence on YouTube is essential. And at last, I've found a relatively painless way to make videos that look decent—and more importantly to me, sound great—on a shoestring.

As it says on the Hamburger Helper package, you will need/il vous faudra:
  • Webcam that's better than the one that comes with your laptop
  • Microphone, same; ideally one that records in stereo
  • Reading lamp
  • Basic video editing program (I use Windows Movie Maker)
  • Basic audio editing program (I use Audacity)
  • CD player separate from your laptop
  • As plain and uncluttered a background as you can manage
  • Plenty of patience
I found this article quite helpful in terms of basic tips and cheap workarounds. I'd recently bought a Zoom H1, which solved the mic issue, and following the article's advice purchased a Logitech C270 webcam for $30. Now, the Zoom will work as a USB mic attached to your computer, and its quality was markedly superior to the webcam's built-in mic. But I wanted the best audio possible for my videos, and this entailed recording high-quality audio separately and overlaying it later. Without going into arduous detail, here's an overview of the process:
  • Record your audio, upload it to your laptop and burn it onto a CD (I used the Zoom H1 for one song and previously created studio recordings for the others). Tip: add a good, long count-in (at least four bars) before your song starts. This gives you enough time to press "record" on your webcam and "play" on the CD player, get yourself situated and come in when the music starts.
  • Turn on your reading lamp and position it behind and a little to the side of your webcam.
  • Point the lamp toward where you'll be positioned in the video. Check for odd-looking shadows and readjust accordingly.
  • Position your webcam such that both you and your instrument are visible and as close as possible to the centre of the shot. If you're like me and not visually inclined, this may take some time.
  • Double-check that your background is neutral and uncluttered. If possible, move extraneous junk out of the way before shooting.
  • With the CD playing (on a separate player; your laptop will be otherwise occupied) record your video, remembering to disable your laptop's built-in mic and/or the webcam's built-in mic. Your webcam software will likely give you "do you really want to do that" warnings; ignore or override them. Yes, you really want to do that.
  • Import your video into Movie Maker. Import your prerecorded audio using the "add music" function.
  • Trim the video start and end so what you're left with is just your performance, give or take a second or two on either end.
  • Sync the music to the video. This is easier said than done. For some reason—your mileage may vary—I find that when I import my audio and video into Movie Maker and line them up, the sync drifts. This is where Audacity comes in (see next bullet point).
  • Audacity's "change tempo" effect will alter the speed of your audio but not its pitch. After much experimentation, I've found that changing the song's tempo +0.2% ensures good sync with no drift.
  • Once the audio and video are in sync, use some of Movie Maker's built-in features to create a more polished, professional look. I chose to add a title card and credits with basic transitions to and from.
  • In Movie Maker, you have to save your video twice: once as a video and once as a Movie Maker project (in case you want to do further editing, and trust me, you will). So: Save Movie, Save Project. If you'll be posting to YouTube, click "YouTube" under "recommended settings."
Lip-syncing tip: for me it's easier to actually sing and play instead of pretending to sing and play, but either approach will work because no audio is being recorded. Choose what suits you best. And what does all this end up looking and sounding like? Well, in my instance, you can enjoy the results on my YouTube channel.

I hope this helps you shoot your own videos should you feel the inclination, and as always, comments are welcome.

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July 16, 2017

Nearer the Water

Mark your calendars, folks: Linden Tree near the Water is scheduled for release on November 4, 2017. Details on the CD release show coming soon. I'll be playing a ton of music that night—the album, some great new songs and a choice selection of my favourite covers—on guitar, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica.

With the help of artist and photographer friends who wish to remain anonymous and the fine folks at Indie Pool and Bandzoogle, I've been immersed in designing the CD package and ancillary stuff (website, one-sheet and so on). Releasing an independent CD, even on a small scale, is hard work. But it's been fun, too, as I find myself having to stretch in unexpected ways. Why, this week I even did a sketch in Microsoft Paint in an effort to point my designer in the right direction. "Kindergarten Klimt," I've called my naive style, and believe me, I hope to retire after just the one drawing. (Artist and designer were hired for a reason!)

This week's breakthrough: I've found my font, the typeface I'll be using on the CD and promotional materials. Not giving too much away other than to say it's been used in a music-related context before (many years ago) and you'll love it when you see it. I sure did.

A little teaser for you: yes, there will be a single and yes, it'll be released on 7" vinyl, just like we did in the good old days. The songs are "That '70s Lifetime" b/w "Lady Air." For now it'll be a (very) limited run—short-run vinyl being quite expensive—also released on November 4. To whet your appetite, here's my video for "Lady Air." Featuring captions because, well, that's my day job and whenever I encounter a video, I can't help but caption it.

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June 22, 2017

Real Chords #4: Queen, "'39"

This latest instalment in my Real Chords series is, well, a doozy. Welcome to master class, kids. The good news? This song, Brian May's self-described attempt at "sci-fi skiffle" from Queen's 1975 A Night at the Opera, isn't that hard to play once you get the hang of it. It is, however, one of the toughest to pick up by ear—which, happily, I've done for you. As you'll soon see, certain sections feature bizarre chord sequences that make no intuitive sense. But for all that, there's only one truly oddball chord in the whole song.

Perhaps due to the degree of difficulty, the online chord charts are generally good, though I didn't find any that were 100% accurate. For once, it doesn't much matter if you capo it or not; no matter what you do you'll run into a ton of weird chords. To play it in the same key as the original, use Capo 1. Fascinating fact: the song's Wikipedia entry claims that George Michael used to play this as a busker in the London Underground. If true, props to someone I'd previously dismissed as a lightweight. It's not an easy song to put across as a solo performer.

A few notes on the chords below: the aforementioned outlier, Adim7, is fingered x01212 low to high. Csus2 is x3x033. Now, this is a matter of taste, but in my music I use the Csus2 in place of a standard open C about 80% of the time. It just sounds better to me. If you listen to the song as you learn, you'll also note that some of these chords really fly by, particularly in the second half of the bridge, pre-chorus and chorus. Expect to stumble over those bits at first.

Here, then, are the real chords to Queen's "'39," written by Brian May:

Capo 1
  • Intro 1 (spaghetti western bit): C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
  • Intro 2 (folky bit): G D Em C G D C G G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G
  • Verse: D Em C G D Em Em7 Csus2 Dsus D G
  • Pre-Chorus: D Adim7 Em Am G D C Em C D C G D (that last G is so quick, but necessary to set up the D)
  • Chorus: G Csus2 G D G B7 Em D C G/B Am G D G
  • Bridge: Eb Cm7* A C F#m C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
  • End: G B7 Em D C G/B Am Em D (G ... implied, not played)
  • Outro: G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G
* An earlier version of this post listed C#m7 here in error.
 

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May 22, 2017

Navigating the Dulcimer

A few years ago, having finally figured out what was making that gorgeous drone on some of my favourite recordings, I bought a dulcimer. Now, technically the instrument I own is called an Appalachian dulcimer. Despite the name, I was quite surprised to discover that the instrument's origins lie in the United States, though its antecedents can be traced back to Europe. Moreover, there's a vast tradition of American dulcimer music with which I'm entirely unfamiliar. Why? One, I'm not big on old-timey country and bluegrass, and two, the favourite recordings mentioned earlier all emanate from the UK. So, dear Americans, forgive me for believing the dulcimer was a British instrument used to play British folk music—and for continuing to write and perform broadly within that tradition. (And if you think that's blasphemy, I present one of your own: synth-pop dulcimer diva Cyndi Lauper. Who knew?)

The dulcimer is one of the easiest stringed instruments to play; it's also one of the hardest to find, unless you live in rural Appalachia. I live in a big city with big-city music stores that sell banjos, mandolins and ukuleles galore. But only one had a dulcimer, a Romanian knock-off that a bit of research told me was best avoided. I soon realized that to get what I really wanted (a pickup, 6 1/2 and 13 1/2 frets, and a well-made instrument), a field trip either to Tennessee or a local builder was in order. Fortunately, Hugh Hunter of Midnight Special Instruments was a two-hour bus ride away in the town of Rockwood, and I was all set. (I think he's since moved, and I'm not sure where. Still in Southern Ontario, I believe.)

Here are a few basics to start. Unlike most stringed instruments, the dulcimer is played in your lap. Also unusual: the lowest string is farthest from you. Strings are typically strummed or plucked with a pick, though some players are finger-pickers. In its standard construction—as many variants exist as folks who want customized instruments—the dulcimer has four strings: a bass string, middle string and two melody strings. There are many possible tunings, some of which are listed here. I use DAdd, low to high, primarily because as far as I can tell it's the tuning used in those haunting British folk songs that got me hooked in the first place.

The two melody strings are tuned in unison and are so close together you can't fret them separately anyway, unless you're the Django Reinhardt of the dulcimer. As a result, you need a considerable wingspan in terms of finger movement, because 95% of your melody is being played on that one pair of strings. Fortunately, my stubby bass-player fingers and their extended reach have helped in that regard. (Which is nice for a change; they're a liability on the mandolin and sometimes the guitar, too.)

The dulcimer's frets are arranged such that they create a diatonic scale. This means two things. First, it's nearly impossible to play a wrong note. You'll pretty much get a pleasing tone no matter where you put your fingers. Second, certain notes in the chromatic scale are simply unavailable. I'll use an example to illustrate:
  • First four frets on the D string of a guitar: D#, E, F, F#
  • First four frets on the D string of a dulcimer: E, F#, G, A
So, if you want to play (let's say) an F on a dulcimer, you need to re-tune. Simple as that. Using a capo won't give you more or different notes, but it does make things quite interesting in other ways. When I bought my dulcimer Hugh had no capos in stock, so I ordered one from a guy in Ohio named Ron Ewing.



As you can see, these handsome devices would never be mistaken for guitar capos. A dulcimer neck is far thicker than that of a guitar, so a guitar capo wouldn't fit at all.

Once you capo a dulcimer, all bets are off. Because the instrument is diatonic, putting a capo on it changes not only the key but the scale itself. When I first started out, I couldn't figure out how those UK folk-rockers were getting brooding minor keys out of their dulcimers, as mine seemed resolutely stuck in D major. Well, slap a capo on the first fret and presto: you're now in E minor or E-aeolian. If the song you're playing is in C minor (like "Witchwood" below), just keep your capo on and tune down two whole steps. As you might guess, capoing further up the fretboard produces new scales (and modes) every time. I haven't yet figured out what they are, but thankfully Steven K. Smith has.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point you in the direction of those haunting British folk songs, so here goes. Some feature electric dulcimer, which only adds to the fun:

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April 18, 2017

Update on My New Album

I'm happy to report that Linden Tree near the Water is inching toward release. The album was mastered in February, and artwork and photography are in progress. The biggest obstacle is finding a way to finance the manufacturing of the discs themselves, but I'm making some headway on that front as well.

The running order has now been set (all songs written, produced and performed by yours truly):
  1. Next of Kindred
  2. Cabbagetown Princess in Parkdale Clothes
  3. That '70s Lifetime
  4. This Magnificent Dare
  5. Groping to Victory
  6. Nest for Little Bird
  7. After You
  8. Year of No Tomorrow
  9. Christmas with Bruce and Bob
  10. Lady Air
  11. Le chevalier manqué
  12. Linden Tree near the Water
A few more behind-the-scenes details also need to be put in place, but in any event I'm aiming to have the album ready by October. In the meantime, do enjoy the samples I've posted on my website.

In other news, the Floyd box keeps on giving. I discovered a means of converting audio on the DVDs to mp3: DVD Audio Extractor. It's free for 30 days, and it does a superb job. I tweaked the audio files in Audacity to create fades, eliminate silences and edit out extraneous commentary. Anyway, I now have 41 additional songs in my library (over five hours' worth!), and in keeping with the nomenclature I've called my virtual volume Extric/ation.

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March 15, 2017

I Play Guitar Like A ...

So, I trekked out to Mississauga recently for a music clinic. Don't know if I picked up much of what the instructor tried to impart, but I sure gained some insight into my musical self.

Some people—and our dear instructor, a jazz musician, is clearly in this camp—pick up an instrument in order to gain proficiency, if not mastery. Which is, on the surface, fair enough; after all, it's pretty hard to make music without knowing your way around at least one instrument, even if it's your own voice. The goal is to practise, practise, practise and just maybe, you'll become the next Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. And I must confess, I worshipped at the altar of technique when I first picked up the bass guitar years ago. My early influences were giants of the electric bass: Chris Squire, Phil Lesh and above all, the magnificent Jack Casady. In retrospect, it served me well to aim that high, as it soon became apparent that steady practice, a few lessons and some basic music theory (thanks, Mom) were the bare essentials needed to even approach my idols' prowess. Never got there, but I did learn how to play reasonably decent bass.

But you know, a funny thing happened on the way to Billy Sheehan: I fell in love with songwriting, arrangement and production. I came to understand that what I really wanted to do was write great songs and make great-sounding records. And to accomplish that, I had to do two things: acquaint myself with a variety of instruments and figure out what makes a song work. Thirty years later, I'm still working on both.

In terms of technique, this means I've become a generalist, not a specialist. I'd rather play ten instruments adequately, and in some cases barely, than one brilliantly. In my experience most "musos" (technicians) find this sort of attitude absolutely baffling. Case in point: the clinic instructor was dismissive of cowboy chords, urging us (presumed) muso guitarists not to limit ourselves to such mundane forms of musical expression. And sure, run-of-the-mill players like me play easy-strum chords partly because we're lazy and inept. Guilty as charged. However, the main reason I and thousands of songwriters use them is because they sound so good. There's something to be said for the shimmering overtones of open strings ringing out, especially in folk and rock.

In the end, perhaps it's a matter of differing tastes. I suppose if you're excited by flurries of notes, unusual scales and metres and convoluted jazz chords, my ringing easy-strum G chord would bore the pants off you. Conversely, if you'd take Roger McGuinn's opening lick to "Mr. Tambourine Man" over any Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani lick ever played, you know of what I speak.

Anyway, we did get some swag last night, for which I was most grateful: a pick holder, a circle of fifths poster and a sheet of promotional stickers, and that's where I'll wrap up. One sticker, now on my lyrics binder, really caught my eye. Designed like a name tag, it said, "I Play Guitar Like A ..." inviting us to fill in the blank. I thought about it for a split second and right away, I knew—

I play guitar like a songwriter.

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February 21, 2017

Appreci/ation

Two months after opening it, I've almost worked my way through The Early Years 1965-1972, Pink Floyd's massive vault-clearing box. Though not without its flaws, this 28-disc set (11 CDs, 9 DVDs and 8 Blu-rays, the content on the DVDs and Blu-rays being identical) is a treasure trove of material from the Floyd's most restless, innovative period. What follows is my highly subjective review, with an emphasis on the audio portion because that's what interests me most. (A more exhaustive review that includes the video material can be found on the excellent fan site Brain Damage.) First, overall impressions:

Pros
  • Nearly all existent archival material from the period is here, much previously unreleased, most in excellent quality.
  • The video footage, much of it extremely rare, has been impeccably restored.
  • Bonus volume (1 CD, 2 DVDs/Blu-rays), ten large memorabilia pieces and five replica 7" singles are all exclusive to the box.
  • Sturdy, attractive packaging.
  • The memorabilia in the individual volumes is a nice touch.
Cons
  • Careful with that price, Eugene. The box sells for $640; the six individual volumes, due to be released in late March, are going for $63 each. I wanted it all and am glad I splurged for the box, but I'm a bit peeved that the exclusive material wound up costing an extra $262.
  • Is the size of a small microwave. I had to clear an entire bookshelf to find a spot for it.
  • Some tracks suffer from inexcusable lapses in quality (inferior sources, songs at incorrect speeds, questionable mastering—see below for specifics).
  • For this price, a hardcover booklet should have been included. Liner notes are there, but sparse.
Now on to the individual volumes (again, I'm focusing on the audio):

1965-1967 Cambridge St/ation

For many Floyd freaks, myself included, this is the heart of the matter: the Syd Barrett era. Disc 1 kicks off with the band's 1965 demos. Syd does his best Mick Jagger on these R&B-flavoured cuts, which is jarring for those used to the English-accented vocal delivery he favoured throughout his brief career. Remasters of the 1967 singles follow, then a couple of remixes. Next up is a trio of long-hoped-for outtakes, the holy grail of Syd's tenure: "In the Beechwoods," "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream," all essential additions to the Barrett canon. The second disc features a scorching September concert, the only surviving live document of Barrett-era Floyd. Unfortunately, the vocals are very low in the mix. This and the clattering "John Latham" session that follows proves once and for all that The Pink Floyd of '67, despite their flower-power reputation, were in essence a proto-punk band—and not for the faint of heart. Glaring omission (there's room for it on Disc 1): the 1966 demo of "Interstellar Overdrive." (This can be, and was, remedied in homebrew fashion. See below.)

1968 Germin/ation

What's here is, with one exception, great stuff: quality remasters of the two 1968 singles, two BBC sessions, and a pair of unreleased songs from an August session in LA that no one even knew existed till now. The exception: an inferior-quality version of "Interstellar Overdrive" that also runs a full tone too slow. Another complaint: there's room on the disc for audio versions of the February Bouton Rouge performances that appear on the DVD/Blu-ray. These feature new guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour taking the lead on the Barrett-era songs "Flaming" and "Astronomy Domine." Fascinating material: why not include it?

1969 Dramatis/ation

Another two-disc volume, and I must confess one that didn't impress, perhaps because too many songs were repeated. The BBC sessions are okay but hardly revelatory, the Paradiso concert again suffers from vocal mic failure and the More outtakes don't live up to their promise. The track labelled "Seabirds" is actually an alternate version of the "Quicksilver" instrumental, not "Seabirds" as heard in the film. Presumably that version is lost. It's wonderful to have "The Man" and "The Journey" in fine quality on Disc 2, but a pity that this show (Amsterdam, September '69) found Gilmour's vocal cords in such rough shape. "The Narrow Way, Part 3" is an especially painful listen.

1970 Devi/ation

Goldmine! Disc 1 is book-ended by two versions of "Atom Heart Mother": a sizzling band-only romp and a brass/choir take recorded for the BBC that arguably outshines the studio recording. In between are fine BBC renderings of "Embryo," "Green Is the Colour" and the rarely played "If." The second disc features outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, a varied and intriguing lot on the whole. The song often bootlegged as "Fingal's Cave" is here titled "Aeroplane" and not only runs longer but rocks harder, with more clarity and definition than heard previously.

1971 Reverber/ation

There's some meaty material packed onto this year's sole disc. "Nothing Part 14," a work-in-progress snippet of "Echoes," is eerily riveting, prefiguring Brian Eno's ambient work. This is followed by another terrific BBC session, the highlight of which is an extended (and dramatically different) take on "Fat Old Sun." I had an inferior version of this on cassette at one time; it's great to finally have it in pristine quality. I'd like to have seen a second disc devoted to the remaining parts of "Nothing" (rumour has it there were 24 in all). Perhaps the rest is lost?

1972 Obfusc/ation

Two discs here, though apparently that wasn't the original intent: the booklet only has room for one (the audio version of Live at Pompeii), while the second disc, a 2016 remix of Obscured by Clouds, comes in a paper slipcase with the curious note that it's a replacement disc for Live at Pompeii, which was "supplied in error." Further, rumblings abound in online forums that both discs suffer from shoddy mastering, in particular a far-too-crisp high end. They don't sound that bad to me, but perhaps I lack the audiophile equipment (or audiophile ears) to discern the problem. In any event, it's good to finally have Live at Pompeii in standalone audio. The Obscured by Clouds remix, on the other hand, strikes me as redundant. Again, giving us audio versions of the live material featured on the DVD/Blu-ray might have been a better choice.

Bonus: 1967-72 Continu/ation

The bonus volume, exclusive to the box, is a frustrating mixed bag. The track list is one to make Syd-era fans drool: two complete BBC sessions from 1967, one from September, the second from December, mere weeks before Barrett's ignominious exit. After that, stray BBC tracks from 1968 and 1971, all that's salvageable from The Committee soundtrack, "Moonhead" (an instrumental recorded to accompany footage of the moon landing) and a live "Echoes" from 1974 (?) round out the disc. On the plus side, all this is killer material; however, the sources chosen are by and large abominable, especially considering that better sources circulate on bootlegs. The "Reaction in G" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from the September 1967 session are, frankly, unlistenable—and I say this as someone with a high tolerance for bootleg-quality audio. But! All is not lost, because after some diligent poking around the Internet I was able to procure better versions of all the questionable material. So, I proudly present my unofficial, homebrew 29th disc ...

Ultra Bonus: 1965-1972 Augment/ation

I can't take credit for either the name or the idea—other Floydians have taken it upon themselves to create a self-styled addendum of missing/upgraded material, too. Anyway, here's my tracklist, all 78 minutes' worth:
  1. Interstellar Overdrive [Thomson Private Recording Studio, 10/31/66]
  2. The Scarecrow [mono single mix, 6/67]
  3. Reaction in G [live Copenhagen, 9/13/67]
  4. The Scarecrow [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  5. Reaction in G [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  6. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  7. Reaction in G [live Rotterdam, 11/13/67]
  8. Apples and Oranges [stereo mix, 11/67]
  9. Scream Thy Last Scream [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  10. Vegetable Man [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  11. Pow R. Toc H. [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade, full length]
  12. Jugband Blues [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  13. Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major [BBC 12/2/68, pitch-corrected]
  14. Interstellar Overdrive [BBC 12/2/68, upgrade, pitch-corrected]
  15. Biding My Time [outtake, 7/69]
  16. Oenone [Zabriskie Point outtake, 11/69]
  17. Give Birth to a Smile [Roger Waters & PF, Music from the Body, 1970]
Of these, eight tracks are upgrades to the BBC sessions on Continu/ation; one is an upgrade to the bum cut on Germin/ation; and the other eight are stray tracks that really should have been part of the box but were inexplicably left off. I won't review my self-curated disc other than to say it renders the lapses on Continu/ation and elsewhere far more palatable and for me, literally completes the box set. Now, where might you find said upgrades, were you to go searching for them? Well, here's a hint. Thank me later. You will, however, have to do some serious audio editing.

All told, in spite of the set's flaws and the steep price, I'm most grateful to have it, hence the sincere title of my post. Pink Floyd have historically been rather stingy when it comes to opening the vaults, so this was a most surprising gesture. Surviving band members had little involvement, apparently, other than green-lighting the project. We can, however, thank band conceptualist Roger Waters for the "/ation" titles, though reportedly he's not responsible for "Continu/ation," which he finds "so lame." (Wait till you hear it, Roger.)

Oh, and speaking of appreciation: I've recently scored a copy of the deluxe edition of Fairport Convention's 1969 classic, Liege & Lief, for $9.75. And I just bought two bare-bones box sets containing Fairport's first ten albums, plus the four-disc Live at the BBC, for a grand total of $75. Kind of makes up for my hole-in-wallet experience with the Floyd box.

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January 25, 2017

Recycling the Classics

As a songwriter, I often find myself hunting for that one stellar chord sequence or melodic line that really makes a song shine. I'd like to think I've come up with a few on my own but sometimes, one needs a little help.

If done skilfully, what I'm about to outline for you truly is recycling, not outright theft. Case in point: a song I've just written called "Love's Twin Flames." I'd initially set out to write something in the vein of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which I'm happy to say the finished product sounds nothing like. (You know you're on the right track when you try to ape somebody and it still comes out sounding like you.) I did, however, end up borrowing half the chorus of "Arnold Layne" for my bridge, and therein lies the difference between recycling and stealing. If it's their chorus, make it your bridge or verse. Alter the melody, a little or a lot. Change the last chord or three. Put it in a different key or tempo. And obviously, write a new set of lyrics.

Not done yet, I began tinkering with the chorus of Guided By Voices' "Liquid Indian." It's an absolutely killer chorus paired with the most hideous, abstruse verse ever written (I think Robert Pollard, gifted though he is, sometimes takes perverse pleasure in being demented). Ever since I first heard the song I wondered how that lovely chorus—or something like it—would sit in more genteel surroundings. It's been in the back of my mind for some time as a reclamation project, if you will. Again: I changed the melody, put it in a different key, took out a chord and added two new ones, wrote new words, and it's found a new home as the pre-chorus of "Love's Twin Flames."

Recycling can also happen unconsciously. My song "After You" has a pre-chorus sequence that I knew I'd heard before. I couldn't place it for the longest time but eventually found it in a Fairport Convention tune called "Wandering Man." As it turns out, they (unconsciously?) borrowed it too, from Rod Stewart's 1972 hit "You Wear It Well." And despite Rod, the Fairports and I all using this chord sequence, our songs sound nothing alike. That's how you know you're recycling, not stealing.

A variation on the process is deliberately starting to write by playing a snippet of a well-known song, then going off in a new direction. Another new one of mine called "Puis-Je T'Aimer" began life as "Uncle Vern's Band," a thinly veiled reference to the Grateful Dead chestnut "Uncle John's Band." And for about six seconds, my song and the Dead's sound alike (same intro chords, though I changed the key and tempo). After that, I veer off into a universe that's as unlike Garcia/Hunter as chalk and cheese.

One of my favourite recycled songs is The Jam's "In the Crowd," a stellar track from All Mod Cons. Give that a listen, then try The Kinks' "Johnny Thunder" from their 1968 classic The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Something sound familiar? Not casting aspersions on Paul Weller, but this really borders on theft: same chords, melody, tempo and even key, I believe. Yet! Both are classic songs, and that one part aside they sound nothing alike. If anything, it's a testament to Weller's genius that he borrowed so literally (and liberally) to create a new and equally brilliant piece of music.

Have you recycled others' material in your writing? What's your favourite recycled bit or song? Comments are welcome.

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December 05, 2016

Real Chords #3: Pink Floyd, "Alan's Psychedelc Breakfast" (Morning Glory Section)

I've been on a Floyd kick lately, what with my The Early Years: 1965-1972 box set waiting to be opened at Christmas. I love me some early Floyd, and this thing has it all: 27 CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays and five 7" vinyl singles, plus loads of memorabilia. It's also the size of a small microwave oven. Can't wait! Anyway, I had this song on over dinner tonight, got curious, picked up the guitar, checked for chords online and ... well, the usual. I found an almost-there transcription with a few wrong chords and a disinclination to acknowledge that the capo has been invented.

Now, don't get me wrong: the fine folks who post these things are rabid fans like you and me, brother and sister, and this particular punter's efforts pointed me at the sky—i.e., the right direction—for which I thank him. But if there's an even slightly easier way to play the song, why not take full advantage and use a capo? In fairness, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" is hardly an obvious candidate for that. It's chock-full of awkward chords no matter what you do, and features one chord that's especially unusual (it took me about five run-throughs to finally land on Bbdim7, a chord that eluded Mr. Punter despite his valiant attempt).

I should note that I transcribed this more as an academic exercise, just to see if I could do it. You know how it is: you hear something and go, "Yowza! I want to play that," even if it's not suited to solo performance. I wouldn't recommend attempting this at an open stage unless you were at a Floyd convention, put it that way. At the very least you'd need piano accompaniment, 'cause that's where the melody lies. Even so, the song's Wikipedia entry notes that Rick Wright played three pianos in this section, so make that a magnificent concert pianist, ideally one with a few extra hands. All told, it's more fun to try at home along with the record.

Okay, I'll admit to a second reason for wanting to figure this one out: the chords are so achingly beautiful that I wanted to learn them now so I can use them in modified form later. Some of these progressions will be heard again, trust me. (Next month we'll discuss the fine art of recycling in music, so stay tuned.) Some highlights for you: referring to the transcription below, that intro section is pure chordal magic. The Bbdim7 is the key to its success, the pivot upon which the whole sequence turns. The end of the theme (from the Eb on) is plenty bizarre but somehow they make it work with a lovely piano melody that flutters atop all those weird chords. And finally, the Bb to Abm7 to Eb transition is sublime, worthy of any highfalutin' "serious" composer. Full marks to whoever wrote that section (Wright, I'm guessing).

As with our previous Real Chords entry, the acoustic rhythm guitar transcribed here doesn't exist on the recording. Look at it this way: you can play producer on a Pink Floyd song and add a track that, in your esteemed professional opinion, should have been there all along to add some colour. Here, then, are the real chords to "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" (Morning Glory section), written by Roger Waters, Rick Wright, Nick Mason and David Gilmour. For those of you playing along with the record, this section begins at 8:18.

Capo 2
  • Intro:  D F# Em C Bbdim7* A
  • Theme: D F# G A Bb Abm7 Eb Ab C F E Esus A
  • Theme Variant: D F# G A Bb B Db Eb Ab C F E Esus E
  • Outro: (A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G) x3, A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
  • Double Time: A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
  • Quadruple Time: As above, then end on A
* Fingering, low to high: x12020

Notes: I play the Eb using a standard C shape moved up three frets. If you want to try it out, make sure you finger the top string (as if you were playing the high G in a C major chord). Unsurprisingly, an Eb doesn't sound too good with an open E ringing out on top. Anyway, I think the Eb sounds nicer this way and it also makes for an easier transition to the Ab that follows.

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November 19, 2016

Real Chords #2: The Moody Blues, "Dawn Is a Feeling"

We continue our Real Chords series with this gem, the opening number from The Moodies' classic Days of Future Passed. Before we get into it, I offer the caveat that I've arranged the song for guitar; on the recording, no guitar is present. I hear piano, mellotron, drums and bass, and that instrumentation is confirmed by the song's Wikipedia entry. But unless you plan on dragging a mellotron to your local open stage—and if you are, do let me know; that I'd love to see—you will, I hope, find this arrangement to your liking.

A few notes on the composition itself: as is common with material from what I call the golden age of songwriting (roughly 1965-75), we have here a gorgeous melody accompanied by a dreamy chord progression, all courtesy keyboardist Mike Pinder. Particularly noteworthy for me is his inventive use of dominant sevenths, chords that more often than not turn up as drippy clichés in most popular music. He also wisely cedes the lead vocal to Justin Hayward, whose silky, quivering baritone suits the melody perfectly. (Pinder gets his vocal turn in the bridge, and the shift in voice is simply brilliant. For full effect, you really need to seek out the original vinyl mix to hear the reverb on his vocal; on the CD mix, it's dry.)

And again, as mentioned in previous posts, online chord charts will lead you astray even if they seem close to the mark. Yes, the song is actually in C minor, but no guitarist needs to play it in open position unless you enjoy twisting your fingers through a sequence like Eb Ab Db7. To see what I mean try this version, then compare it to mine below.

Here, then, are the real chords to "Dawn Is a Feeling," written by Mike Pinder and arranged for guitar by yours truly:

Capo 3
  • Verse: Am E C7 Fmaj7 Bb7
  • Chorus: E7 Am E7 Am E
  • Bridge: Dm Dm/C#* C Bm E (Am Am/G D/F# E) x2
* Fingering, low to high: xx0221. My online chord namer calls this "DmM7" or D minor major 7th, which makes no freaking sense. I may not be using the slash correctly given that the C# isn't on the bottom, but whatever: it's just a Dm with a C# in place of the high D.

Notes: I prefer playing the E7 in this song as 020100: one, it's easier and two, I think it sounds better than 022130, the alternative. Your choice as to which you like best. I find the Bb7—which is barred at the 4th fret, i.e. one fret above the capo—difficult to play, due to the technical limitations of my guitar or (more likely) the guitarist. Hopefully you won't have as rough a time with it. I'm also playing the root notes of the Am/G and D/F# with my pinky and thumb respectively. It's not exactly smooth yet, but I'm working on it.

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