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Self Portrait

Hello Troubadourians! How do you approach learning a new song? With practically everything now available on YouTube, as either the official version of the song or as an instructional video, we have seemingly unlimited access to learning just about anything we might want to play. We can choose from the recorded version, sometimes a live version, alternate versions, or covers by professional musicians and amateurs. Which one appeals to you? Most of the instructional videos that I’ve watched attempt to show how to play the original version. This is often the best place to start as it is most representative of the artist’s or writer’s intent when they wrote the song.

Some songs are more intentional than others. Inspiration for a song can come in many forms and from many places. Sometimes the words come first, sometime the music, and often the best songs are written all at once in one brilliant and inspired moment. No matter how the song came to be, it is nevertheless indicative of what someone is thinking or feeling at the time. Even “assembly line” pop songs that have multiple writers contributing to its creation (I never understood that process but somehow some people make it work), have an essence of humanness. Where the humanness is revealed is in the performance of the song. Performance is the sum of the limitations of both the composition and the performer. Autotune and studio manipulations aside, someone has to play and/or sing the song and in doing so they deliver a unique expression of the music, literally a musical self-portrait. This applies to instrumental music as well as vocal songs. While singing is an opportunity to express oneself through performance and interpretation of the lyrics, a player’s hands—or breath in the case of wind instruments—are just as personal and expressive. There are many stories, some I’ve shared here, where a player admiring another player’s sound, asked to play on the other’s rig to see how to get “that tone” only to find they still sound like themselves.

We expect no less from an original recorded performance from professional musicians. But what about us regular folks? Do we have the same personal sound when we cover someone else’s song? The answer is, of course we do. When we learn a song, we hear it in a way that is as unique as the original performance itself. And when we play that song, we give it the same personal expression of our voice, breath, and hands as we would if we had written the song ourselves. We may not notice nor appreciate that uniqueness, but it is there just the same. Of the many musicians I know and have worked with, all have been quite self-critical of their abilities and possess a desire to “sound like themselves” whether playing their own compositions or covering a favorite song by another artist, often spending days, weeks, or even months to get deep into a song so that they can make it their own. It is this level of effort that determines whether we simply go through the motions of playing a song or truly interpreting the piece and making it our own.

I should pause here and state that there are cases where essentially cloning a version of a song is not only preferred but required. If you are playing in a Top 40 cover band, the preferred M.O. is to play it like the record—as we used to say. This approach assumes that the ability to play and sing a particular song as recorded is within the skillset of the band members. But that is a subject for a different time.

In this column I hope to give you some insight into how to develop your own version of a song that can perhaps have equal footing alongside the original. Maybe not quite like Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” vs. Dylan’s but somewhere in there…

Start by learning and analyzing the chords, melody, and lyrics of the version you want to learn. It might be the original—or not—but it is the version that interested you in the song so as far as you are concerned it is the original. Once you have figured out the essential elements (chords, riffs, melody, harmony) in the key of that version, you have to decide if you can reliably perform the song in that key. If you can, that’s great! But if not, you’ll need to interpret all of those elements into a suitable key for you. Transposing—especially for guitarists—is often as simple as applying a capo to pitch the song where it is comfortable to play and sing. However, that approach can have diminishing returns if you have to capo higher than the second or third fret. After that point, the guitar and the song start to sound significantly different and that may not be the effect you want. This is where things can get challenging, and your transposition skills will be tested. For some songs, the chord voicings and the composition are based on specific positions on the instrument. Guitar songs such as “Listen to the Music” by the Doobie Brothers simply don’t work except in the original key (E) and played in the original position (G position at the 9th fret with the low E string open and providing the root note). Anything other than that sounds weird to most people familiar with the song. Other songs, “Mr. Bojangles” for instance, can be successfully transposed into any first position key. It might take some finger gymnastics to nail all the passing chords, but it can be done. I’ve worked it out in C, A, G, E, and D.

Finding a suitable key is the next step. The right key for the song depends on the vocal range of the singer and the range of the instrument played. Experiment with the key until you find where it is comfortable for you to sing—and maybe leave room for others to be able to harmonize with you. Once you have found that, you have to decide if the instrumental still sounds believable, fills the space, and fits the vibe you are going for. Here is an example of the process that Mark C. Jackson and I went through when we arranged the Monkees classic “Last Train to Clarksville” for our duo. The original is in G and has a very idiosyncratic guitar hook that really only works in first position G on the guitar. I can sing it in G, but Mark could neither comfortably sing it that high, nor could he harmonize with me (besides, he’s the lead singer…). Our first experiment was with adding/moving a capo while retaining the first position G chord shape. We sort of got comfortable in B but it didn’t sound quite right on the guitars (too high). That eventually led us to try the key of E, a fourth away from B and that turned out to be the sweet spot for his lead vocal and my harmony vocal. Arranging the guitars quickly followed. I played in first position E while Mark tuned to drop D and capoed on the second fret. That made the chord intervals mix in an interesting fashion and replicated some of the jangle of the original key. But now to make it believable by adding the guitar riff—the original riff is essentially an arpeggiated II-IV-I lick over the G chord. I was “feeling” a U2-ish lick without an arpeggio as it needed to be meaner to suit the darker nature of the new key. What we came up with works for us vocally and has guitar parts that have intensity and jangle while remaining true to the Monkees original version. We think you’ll like it too…

But why is this significant in learning a song? As I said earlier, when we play a song, we are playing a musical self-portrait, whether we are trying to or not. Even if we are hewing as closely to a recorded version as possible, there is always some image of ourselves that is overlaid onto our performance. The time spent truly learning a song is also time spent learning about ourselves and our limitations. Using our limitations to our best advantage is where we all can learn what it means to be an artist.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (