Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Musical Changes

When I started playing guitar, every time I'd try to cover a new song, I tried to do it just like the original artist(s) did. Same key, same speed and tone and as close to the same everything else as I could.

I quickly realized that wasn't gonna happen.

At first, it was because I couldn't play the right chords, so when I came to a finger-buster, I changed it to something I could manage. D or Bm? They sound a lot alike, share some notes, so what-the-heck ...

Anybody else remember how hard that first barre-F chord was to learn, much less get into and out of from anything else?

And of course, a nylon-string acoustic guitar simply won't make some of the same sounds that electric Fenders and Gibsons running amps, mixers, and a speaker-stack to the ceiling will make. 

Can you say, "No sustain?"

Then I realized that some of the bands had played nasty tricks by using alternative tunings and not telling anybody. You wondering why it doesn't sound like Keef? That's because his guitar isn't tuned like yours.

Plus, he's Keef.

You can play slide on a nylon-stringer, sort of. Well, if you know know how to play slide. I tried it a little bit and realized it never was going to sound right on my instrument. A Dobro it ain't.

And Duane Allman I'll never be.

As I got a little better with chords, I was able to ape some more difficult songs, but even so, if the key was up in chipmunk range, it was either change that or screech. Having my voice break on a high note surely won't dazzle you enough so you don't notice I got no guitar chops.

Along the way, I realized that making the song mine meant it was okay to screw around with it. I wasn't ever going to sound like Keef or Carlos Santana or Stevie Ray or Clapton, not going to be doing tribute bands, so that gave me leave to slow stuff down or speed it up, or go to a different style. But that's okay. I'm not them; hard enough just to be me. And it's cheaper to change the song than buy a new guitar.

My jam group still gets nervous if we stray too far from the recorded versions of songs they know, but they mostly don't understand that when I simplify an arrangement of one they like so they can manage it, that ship has already sailed. 

Somebody says, "No, we have to play it in the original key," I tell them we can try, but they won't be able to hit the high notes on the vocals, nor play some of the chords in that key.

Even among the groups that sang the originals, there's some taking the stuff down a couple steps because they can't hit the high notes any more, either. Nature of the vocal instrument for most folks.

Brings us to "Layla."

(I'm a Clapton fan. Saw him live once, arena-rock, and while he was expert and didn't hit a lot of clams, it lacked a certain enthusiasm. Got our money's worth, but really, he could have phoned it in, and yeah, he's good enough so it would still be better than most, but still. Where I'd love to see him would be in a smoky bar doing an acoustic blues set with Buddy Guy and John Mayer, because that's where his real passion lies. He's a rock-god, but at heart, a blues man. Working the arena is for the paycheck.

When you go to a live show featuring a legend you love, you want to see 'em having a good time, getting lost in the music. A few times, we've plunked down fair money to see one of our heroes and come away sad: Either they hadn't taken very good care of their vocal instruments and had lost some steps, or they were going through the motions as they thought about all that money. 

During the Simon & Garfunkel show, the air between the two was thick with anger, and that colors the performance. We can hit our marks and deliver the stuff because we are professionals, but there's no love here, and we can make a shitload more cash this way than on our own.)

Being as how I have a classical guitar, my version of "Layla" must need hew closer to the unplugged than the Derek and the Dominoes version, which is waaay better and much more fun. Without the five-guitar wall-of-sound, Duane Fucking Allman doing slide, plus the piano at the end, that's not gonna be happening in my world, even with the transducer into my 2-watt amp cranked all the way up to 3 ...

Still, I like the electric version better, so I'm working up a new intro that's more in that direction than the intro to the unplugged version, and a tempo somewhere between the two. Again, nylon-string riffs ain't gonna cry like a Strat where full-step string bends are no problem. No way.

So, in theory, what I'll wind up with is a kind of hybrid version that sounds something like the electric,  and something like the unplugged–though probably not all that much like either.

And, as Sonny Bono said, the beat goes on ...

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