Sunday, March 07, 2010

Changing the Tune

Those of you not into playing musical instruments might want to skip this post.

When you are woodshedding and learning how to play a new piece, sometimes you have to change it to make it work for you.

How it sometimes goes for me is, I remember a song I liked, or hear one I haven't heard in a while, and go looking for the the music. Mostly I prefer tablature notation and chords, since reading standard musical notation, with the notes and staves and all, is something I do poorly. Too lazy to practice.

Sometimes, I can work it out on my own, since, if the chords are fairly simple and I can hear them well enough in the piece, I can fake it.

If you are sans band, and you play the guitar and sing along, probably you sing the melody and strum or fingerpick chords, i.e. the rhythm; least that's how it works for me.

So, I get the music -- sometimes in a book, sometimes by itself, and discover that the song I want to cover is in a key that won't let me reach the high or the low notes. I'm a Beatle fan, do a half a dozen of their songs, and they had a vocal range at the top like chipmunks, shading into the ultrasonic. I can't get there from here.

So, for example, "Blackbird," if I am trying to sing it in the key of G-major, which is what the mop-tops sang it in, when I get to the end of the first line -- /Blackbird singin' in the dead of niiiight/ -- I'm not going to get "night" unless I drop my voice an octave, or raise it into falsetto. Both work, but neither give me the tone I want.

So, how to fix that?

Several ways:

You can use a capo -- a spring-clamp that alters the key by raising the pitch across the six strings. (Guitars strings are tuned relative to each other, and the standard tuning is, from low to high, E-A-D-G-B-E.) Every fret you go up, you change either a half or full step.( On Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," he capos the guitar at the seventh fret and plays D-shapes. Since I play that one fingerstyle and don't sing, it doesn't matter which key it is in, and I play it wherever I feel like. Sometimes up and down the neck, sometimes with a capo.)

You can change the key by playing higher up the neck and using barre chords. (Generally -- not always -- the first chord you play in a song tends to be the key it is in.)

An E-chord shape on the first fret becomes a G-chord played on the third fret and barred on the second. Once you know a few shapes, you can slide them up and down the fretboard and change keys, simply by where you start.

You can retune the guitar higher or lower. In my case, I prefer to tune a full step down, so that the strings are D-G-C-F-A-D. Playing "Blackbird" in G-major shapes thus becomes the key of F-major, and with that one, I can manage the high note on "night." Mostly.

You can also change the key by changing the first-position chords -- aka the cowboy chords. Since the tuning is relative, if you have a song in, say, A-major, and you want to change it to C-major, you just shift all the chords in the song over two. A becomes C; B becomes D; C goes to E, and so on. This works pretty well, until you start getting into sharps and flats, and that's beyond me to try and explain.

In chords, -- at least two notes, mostly three, sometimes four or more -- there are also minors, suspended, dominants, 7th's, 9ths, and a bunch of others. Jazz players have some fingerbreakers whose names are really complex. 7th-flat-sus-13th-ninth-with-a-side-of-fries ...

To change a song I can't sing into one I can, I've done all of these at one time or another. It depends on the sound you want, and sometimes playing up the neck sounds better than changing the first-position chords. You noodle around and use your ears to determine which sound you like best.


Dojo Rat said...

The only problem with capos is that other guitar players have trouble following you if you are the only one with a capo.
I just bought a sweet Seagull Parlor guitar Saturday, picture and details at Dojo Rat.

Shady_Grady said...

Albert Collins swore by the capo.
But he had a pretty bizarre tuning as well. =)

J.D. Ray said...

I've always wished I had learned that stuff about guitar playing. I'm too busy these days to get any use out of absorbing what you just wrote (and probably too tired to remember by the morrow), but thanks for the info. If I ever get around to picking up the guitar again, I'll try to figure this out. I can't really sing without glass breaking and babies crying, but changing a key might let my wife sing along comfortably.

Steve Perry said...

Well, since I play alone, the capo problem isn't one I have. Though since I tune down a step, if I did have somebody else working a guitar at the same time, I could, in theory, capo up two and be back to standard tuning.

Or figure out which barres to use. Easier to use the capo in that situation.

Shady_Grady said...

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