Sunday, November 8, 2009

Working on the Moon

I've been working on Jonathan Coulton's song "I'm Your Moon."

Just a year ago this song was just out of my reach as a guitarist. But while some of my friends are probably sick of hearing my play Coulton and They Might Be Giants tunes, there is a madness to my method: my playing is improving. I'm able to grab chords faster and more accurately, I've memorized more chords, my right hand technique is better, my ability to sing along without wandering off key has improved, and I'm better at staying on something resembling a tempo. I've also learned a lot of convenient walking bass notes to add to chords. Coulton uses these a lot, and it's a great technique for acoustic playing.

This song is still pretty rough, but I'm gradually improving. It's an interesting song for a guitarist: there's a repeating set of chords that you play as picked arpeggios, and it sounds more complex than it is. It's really just two fingers nailed to an Asus2, with a bass note changing around it. It's useful when learning it to try playing just the bass note, so you can get used hearing it as part of the figure. The following bit of tab is borrowed from the tab on the Jonathan Coulton Wiki:

   A/E     B7/D#     Bm7/D   FMajb5

The hard part is not playing this riff; once you get into position and figure out the basic moves, it's easy. The hard part is jumping into it and out of it smoothly.

The song initially appears to have a big wad of additional chords to learn, but upon a little study, they aren't as hard as they look. There's a barred C#m, and a B major based on the second fret. I usually play this with just fingers 1 and 3, which means bending my third finger backwards. It might be time to break that habit and get it so I can consistently grab it with all 4 fingers, in order to help ensure that the first string rings clearly.

There is also F#m/C#, which sounds complicated until you realize it is just a barred F#m played in the normal way but without the 6th string. This allows you to emphasize the C# bass note. There's an E/A, which I just noticed I'm still playing wrong. Then there's this little trio of E major-based chords: Esus4, E, Eadd9, E. The jump to the Eadd9, fingered 024100, is a little tricky; I have to swivel my hand position so that Iift my third finger off the fretboard and reach with my pinky for the 4.

Aaug/C# is not difficult to play, but the Bm/Bdim switch I find tricky, and Bm to Bm7b5 (x2323x) is also tricky. I have finally gotten better grabbing the Bm7b5 chord shape, but just because I can go pretty reliably from from a D major open fingering to Bm7b5 doesn't mean I can reliably and quickly grab it when going from Bm. It's all about rearranging the fingers quickly, so quickly that it's pretty much a reflex action. The Bdim and Bm7b5 shapes are worth getting used to, though, since they appear a lot in less common chord voicings.

Finally, there's this little riff:


Coulton plays this when he sings "round and round." It's a clever little phrase and one of his little musical puns where the sound matches what he's singing.

Here's a quick video clip I recorded of yours truly practicing "I'm Your Moon". It's too dark, it's backward, and the sound isn't great, but it's what I could manage today; I had one baby sleeping on the bed a few feet away and another listening down next to my feet (and occasionally making comments).

I'm hoping to continue polishing it a little bit and recording a better version in a few days. I've set an additional challenge for myself, which is to play it on my 12-string. Those suspended chords sound gorgeous on the 12-string, but it's hard to get the little arpeggios and the barred chords and especially that Bdim to ring out cleanly on the 12-string without any buzzing and without hitting any unwanted strings. My fingers feel like I've been working them out on a cheese grater! If I can pull it off, though, it will make a beautiful recording.

This is one of the more wistful and gorgeous of all Coulton's compositions. I particularly like his use of suspended chords to make the song sound like it hovering somewhere between major and minor; those arpeggios also contribute to the feelings of circular movement and timelessness.

If I can get this song down cold, I think "Blue Sunny Day" would be a worthy next target. That song is just loaded with interesting voicings and really gets you jumping around the neck! And then of course I really still need to do some heads-down work on my fingerpicking; I'd like to be able to play "Millionaire Girlfriend," "You Ruined Everything," "I Crush Everything," and "Summer's Over." None of them seem out of reach of my left hand, but I've got to train my right hand to get those fingers picking!

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