Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Say That We'll Be Nemeses

I've been falling behind again! I haven't posted anything here in quite a while. I have been playing guitar, but not as regularly as I'd like.

It was a hell of a summer and fall and we're heading into a holiday season, and what will likely be a harsh winter. Our home gets quite cold, and to avoid thousand-dollar heating bills we are keeping the temperature set low, and supplement with some small space heaters, wool socks, long underwear, and hats. I typically wear fingerless gloves I made by cutting the fingers off of knit glove liners. It can become difficult to play guitar with cold fingers, and we've been dealing with a string of minor but annoying viral infections that make my singing voice even worse than usual. It's time to seal up the windows, get the humidifiers going, and put all the acoustic guitars in one room with a humidifier going, to make sure they will make it through another winter without needless shrinking or even cracking.

Anyway, you may have heard that Jonathan Coulton released a new album, and since he is sort of an unofficial, unknowing guitar teacher of mine, there's new material to learn, and with each song I learn, I get a little better at accompaniment playing. His song "Nemeses" is short and sweet, but there's quite a bit to work with, in addition to an extremely clever lyric.

For my starting point I'm taking his more-or-less live video version, which is simpler than the album version. It's pretty clearly written around a guitar riff. The chords don't involve any particularly difficult fingerings; it's sort of an "easy intermediate" song in that respect. But it's fast, and the strumming hand is very active. Note that in the chorus as he plays the chord "walk up" the neck he's heavily syncopating the guitar line (hitting upstrokes on the offbeats).

It's also not so easy to sing along with, in that the accompaniment is often changing out from under the sung melody line in challenging ways; listen especially carefully to the way the guitar hammers on underneath the bridge lyrics, "The hidden blade, when you pretend that you don't even know my name -- well played." That's not so easy to sing and play, and will require some careful practice.

In the official video Coulton is singing harmony on almost every word, while hammering out the guitar part, which blows my mind just a little, with John Roderick on iPhone handling the melody. The song is in a bad key for my vocal range (I think it is in E, although it almost never lands on an E major chord), but given the way it is arranged around open strings, transposing it might not be so easy, unless you just wanted to down-tune a to D, or capo it up to G (I might try that, and sing the melody an octave lower).

It has a lot of very "acoustic-y" half-open chords: chord structures that are not in first position, and in fact move right up the neck, but feature open strings. To play it cleanly, which I don't do all that well yet, you have to do some careful muting, and make sure you are not hitting all six strings when you aren't supposed to, and that they aren't ringing accidentally. I use a combination of palm muting on the main riff, muting with unused left-hand fingers, and for some of those half-open walk-ups, wrapping my thumb around the neck to mute the E string (although I'm not very good or consistent about my muting yet).

For this to sound right, your guitar must be very precisely in tune. But not just in tune -- the intonation must be very accurate; if it isn't, it might sound right on an open C major, but a half-open chord well up the neck will sound off, or vice-versa, and the opening riff, which uses the open E string combined with the A string fingered way up the neck, will inevitably sound out of tune. This is also one of those interesting cases where, when you learn to trust your ear a bit, you might finding yourself bending the strings just a bit on the fly, to bring certain fingerings into sonority.

I recorded a doubled acoustic part, and made it into a karaoke video for YouTube. It's not too bad, and I especially like the way the doubled guitar sounds, although there are a few spots where my muting isn't perfect. I don't play the rhythm exactly like the estimable Mr. Coulton does; I'm still polishing it. And I accidentally left out a repeat of the opening riff between the bridge and the third chorus. Oops. I'll re-record it when I get a chance, and perhaps get the muting better and the rhythm closer to the live version.

Oh, there's just one more thing -- my own live cover. My singing is pretty bad in this, and my playing kind of rough, in part because Joshua was grabbing at my strings and would not sit still, but I thought it was still cute. And I really need a better webcam; the frame rate and audio synchronization I am getting out of the Blue Eyeball running into an Intel Mac Mini just doesn't cut it.

You can find Suuuupaadave's fantastic transcription here. Note that he also produced an instructional video, which is incredibly helpful.