Ask Charlie...



Hello Troubadourians! I’m writing this column on the day after Thanksgiving 2020. To say that it has been a really tumultuous year is an understatement. Thankfulness has been an off-and-on feeling for a long time, yet I am thankful for many things that I must mention. I’m thankful to be healthy, not just that I’ve avoided COVID but that I’m healthy in general. I’m thankful that I have a job. It still feels surreal that I have to say that. I’m thankful for my family and friends. I hope they know how much they all mean to me. And I’m thankful that I have this forum to write for all of you, the readers of the Troubadour. I try to make this column informative and entertaining every month and I hope you find it so. We will get through this and I’m looking forward to seeing all of you out and playing again.

I recently had a friend over for a day of hanging out, talking, and playing guitars. We’ve been friends since 1980 but in the last few years we haven’t been able to see each other very much, and since COVID not at all. A few months ago, he had a serious health scare and since then we’ve been talking almost every day. Last week there was a break in our schedules where it was convenient and safe for him to come to my house for a visit. We both own a bunch of guitars—he owns nearly twice as many as I do, if you can believe that—and it was time to explore them in a comfortable setting. I should have taken a picture with all of the guitars and cases taking up almost all of the space in my living room… We discovered that while we talk about this guitar and that guitar all the time, we hadn’t actually seen or played each other’s guitars in quite a while, and many for the first time. Having the chance to do that was a lot of fun. My friend was especially enamored with my baritone guitars, and my Collings acoustic baritone was a particular favorite. Tuned a fourth lower than standard, the baritone guitars require that you transpose to play in the proper key. The tuning is B, E, A, D, F#, B—low to high—and that series of intervals with the F# where your ear would normally expect a G is really cool. Baritone guitars are really excellent for layering parts in the studio or even live if you have the other parts covered. But that isn’t quite as easy as it might seem at first. While the math is simple enough, the musicality isn’t. More than choosing the obvious chord position, you must also be mindful of the voicing of each chord. It is easy to get too far from the original tonal center by being too muddy, or too close to the original which defeats the purpose of layering. Judicious use of a capo can assist, but I really prefer to use as many open positions as I can in order to emphasize the “distance” between the guitars. For instance, in the key of A, the baritone would be playing out of the D chord position in open first position. This happens to work really well. In the key of E, the baritone would be playing out of the A position in open first position. This works well but when you get to the V chord—the B—the baritone plays the E position, which brings in the low B string. That can sound really good if you play lightly but can be really muddy if you play too hard or if you’re too deep into the range of the bass guitar. However, when it’s just two acoustic guitars, that depth can be very useful and fill in the bottom end without cluttering the sonic space.

This layering technique can work as well with two regular guitars playing in different chord positions in the same key. One very cool thing with two guitars is for one guitar to play in open position and the other guitar to play the same chord progression but in a different key capoed up so that the keys match. In one very simple instance, one guitar plays in the key of D in open position while the other guitar plays in C position capoed at the second fret. The difference in this example is subtle but because the note intervals are rearranged it makes for a cool jangle as the guitars interact. Capoing the second guitar up higher can really add a chime to the overall sound of the guitars. Of course, this works with the baritone guitars as well. In the key of G, the baritone would be playing in C position open or in the A position with the capo at the third fret. What you choose depends upon which position works best for the song or if there are passing chords that lay better under your fingers in certain positions.

This concept involving passing chords in certain keys is also very useful for the exercise of transposing songs into other keys for standard guitars. One really excellent song to try this out is “Mr. Bojangles” by the late Jerry Jeff Walker. This is a really beautiful song and there have been dozens of cover versions of it, the most famous is probably by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Walker’s original version is in the key of C and the walking bass and passing chords work really well in this key. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is in the key of G and I believe they really emphasize the moving lines and passing chords in both the guitar parts and in the additional instrumentation of mandolin, piano, and accordion. (Yeah, accordion—which in this case sounds really good). On the NGDB recording, the key is indeed G but the guitar is capoed at the seventh fret and played in C position. This works well and lends a lot of chime and jangle to the track. I recently watched a concert of the NGDB and, of course, they played “Mr. Bojangles,” in G, but in open position. This sent me down the rabbit hole of learning the song in G, in open position, with all of the walking bass and passing chords intact and comparable to the version I know in C. That was actually more difficult that I thought even with the video for reference. (The chords in G are not normal…). When I recently played the song with Mark Jackson, he played the song in the key of D. It had been a while since he’d played it and he didn’t remember all of the chords—it really is a lot more complex that it sounds—so I figured it out in D as well. Now I know it in three keys with all of the basslines and passing chords intact. When Mark and I play it next time, I’ll play in C capoed at the second fret and he can play in D in open position. That brings us back around to the original example. I haven’t tried transposing it into A or E, and I’m not sure it will work in those keys, but I’ll find out… It’s a cool exercise and it sure makes you think.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (