From the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER


Nick Drake achieved scant commercial success in his brief lifetime, but after he overdosed on antidepressants in his childhood bedroom in 1974, at the age of 26, the British singer-songwriter became a veritable cult hero, venerated equally by musicians, critics, and fans. His music has now long been a rich source of inspiration to a diverse range of artists, from singer-songwriters like Elton John and Norah Jones to jazz musicians such as pianist Brad Mehldau and vocalist Lizz Wright.

Much has certainly been made about Drake’s reclusive persona, as well as his intelligent, impressionistic lyrics—he had been an English student in Cambridge—and his haunting voice. As a guitarist, Drake was similarly remarkable, both prodigious and inventive. While clearly inspired by British contemporaries like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, Drake developed his own voice based on a use of unusual tunings and strategic capo placement, to say nothing of a penchant for mixing folk and jazz strains in quietly thrilling ways.

The unorthodox tunings made it possible for Drake to create complex harmonies from one- and two-fingered chord shapes, freeing him to concentrate on his highly detailed picking patterns. In the process, he often spun a dense contrapuntal web that was as integral to his songs as his lyrics and vocals—each tune a revelation.

In this lesson we’ll look under the microscope at the guitar parts to eight songs from Drake’s three studio albums—Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972)—grouped in four different tunings.

Nick Drake-illustration by Olivia Wise

Illustration by Olivia Wise

 

STANDARD IN TUNING ONLY

Though known by guitarists for his unusual tunings, Drake did in fact play a bunch of songs in standard tuning, among them, “River Man” and “Things Behind the Sun.” The former, which is the inspiration for Example 1, appears on Five Leaves Left (the title a reference to a refill warning in packs of Rizla rolling papers) and is an excellent example of the singer-songwriter’s deft approach to harmony.

Though the song is in the key of A minor (sounding as C minor, due to a capo at the third fret), it starts off on a sunny note, and a colorful one at that. As depicted in the intro (bar 1), instead of a basic open-A chord, Drake opted for the more flavorful Aadd9. But the mood darkens at the onset of the verse (bar 2), with the introduction of the tonic minor chord, Am(add9). The verse winds its way back to Aadd9 before returning to Am(add9) on the repeat—a clever move lending emotional heft, reinforced by the original recording’s deep string arrangement.

To play Ex. 1, hold down each chord shape for its full duration, picking the bass notes on strings 5 and 6 with your thumb and the chords above with your index, middle, and ring fingers. Note that the song is in 5/4—or five quarter notes per measure—a meter not usually associated with popular music, the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s crossover hit “Take Five” being a notable exception. If it’s easier, you can think of this instead as alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4. Try playing along with the original recording to copy its characteristic gait.

“Things Behind the Sun,” from Pink Moon, starts off on a harmonically ambiguous chord, Asus2 (sounding as C#sus2 because of a capo at the fourth fret). But the song’s dark minor mood is firmly established with the introduction of an Am chord. The notation here (Example 2) takes its cue from the song’s intro (bars 2–6), which also forms the foundation of the verse.

The picking hand plays a fairly involved role in Ex. 2, so it’s important to avoid excessive tension in that hand. The passage, with its syncopations, is also highly rhythmic, so you’ll want to feel it with precision. It might be useful to subdivide—that is, to count the music in eighth notes, rather than quarters, as you normally would in 4/4 time. Be sure, too, to take a moment to listen closely to the interesting harmonies, especially the movement between the E and the F6/9(#4).


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A SLIGHT WRINKLE

In two of his tunes, “Cello Song” and “The Thoughts of Mary Jane,” which sit alongside each other on the B side of Five Leaves Left, Drake used a tuning that represents only a small deviation from the norm—low to high, E A D F# B E—the third string down a half step from standard. But this slight adjustment makes for some beautifully different effects.

Example 3 is based on a portion of the intro to “Cello Song.” Throughout, a thumb-picked open A string (sounding as Eb), played in steady quarter notes, lends a driving feel. The first eight bars are based on the IV chord, A7, but there’s plenty of variation to be had as the melody notes work their way up the A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G). On the original recording, Drake plays this part at an impressively brisk clip, one that’s best to work up to slowly. When you’re practicing the figure, pay close attention to where the upper and lower notes fall simultaneously (like on beats 1 and 4 of bar 1). For the A7 measures, use your second and first fingers to stop the notes at frets 2 and 1, respectively, and go for smoothness and rhythmic precision throughout.

Many fans regard Drake as a dark and mysterious songwriter, but “The Thoughts of Mary Jane” reveals a brighter side. The intro and verse sections of this song are the benchmark for Example 4, with its poignant harmonies and rolling arpeggios. Key to playing this passage successfully is doing so gently, with an even picking attack between your thumb, index, and ring fingers, and smoothly. Seek out the most efficient fretting fingerings as well. For instance, I recommend playing the Amaj7 with fingers 1, 2, and 3 on strings 4, 3, and 2, respectively. That way, all you have to do is lift your second finger to access the subsequent A6 chord, and then, with your third finger still on string 2, you can grab string 4 at fret 1 with your first finger, to form the B9/A chord.

TUNING DOWN

In songs like “Hazey Jane I,” “Hazey Jane II,” “Which Will,” and “Pink Moon” (see full transcription on page 60), Drake used a unique slackened tuning, lowest string to highest, C G C F C E, the open strings of which form a rich Cadd4 chord. To get into this tuning from standard, lower string 6 by two whole steps and strings 5, 4, and 3 by a whole step each; raise string 2 by a half step. If you want to spend any amount of time in this tuning, it would be optimal to use heavy strings, but it should work well enough with light or medium strings.

“Hazey Jane I,” off of Bryter Layter, begins with a flurry of notes on the acoustic guitar, supported by bass guitar, strings, and percussion. Example 5 is in the style of the guitar part, in which a series of jazzy chords are punctuated with slurs between single fretted notes and their corresponding open strings. This is a formidable figure, so if needed, isolate any problematic areas, like the pull-offs and hammer-ons in the two-beat pickup measure and elsewhere, until you have perfected them.

Throughout, pick the four-note chords with your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, or strum them briskly with your thumb or, alternatively, with your index finger. If, by the way, these chords feel awkward to pick, you can eliminate the lowest note in each voicing, for example, the fourth-string D on the Dm9 chord. Whichever picking approach you choose, in order to pull off Ex. 5, you’ll need to transition seamlessly between the single-note and strummed portions, and the best way to confirm that you’re doing so is to use a metronome.

On “Which Will,” from Pink Moon, the foundation of which informs Example 6, Drake took a similar approach to “Hazey Jane I,” embellishing single-note nuggets with chordal strums to create a texturally and harmonically sophisticated accompaniment. When playing Ex. 6, unlike on the previous examples, you should forego a capo; that way you can enjoy the extended low end provided by the tuning, as well as match Drake’s original studio recording. As with “Hazey Jane I,” practice the figure slowly, isolating any tricky spots before stitching everything together, and carefully count the rhythms throughout.

LOWER STILL

Drake used an even more slackened tuning—B E B E B E, the open strings forming a Bsus4 or E5 chord—in songs like “Man in a Shed” and “Fly.” From standard tuning, lower string 3 by a minor third, such that it sounds an octave lower than the first string. Do the same with string 4, which should then be an octave below string 2. Next, lower strings 5 and 6 by a fifth each, or an octave below strings 3 and 4, respectively.

On “Man in a Shed” (Five Leaves Left), Drake made the most of a two-finger chord grip, fretted on strings 4 and 5 alongside the open strings, as approximated in Example 7. To play this figure, start by stopping the fourth and fifth strings at fret 4 with your second and third fingers—the same shape that you’ll use until the B5 (sounds as D5) in bar 2, then resume at the beginning of bar 3. Be sure to appreciate the colorful harmonies that result from the interaction between this shape and the open strings as you slide down in half steps: Emaj7/G#, Em7/G, F#7sus4, etc.

A couple of things to look out for: In bars 1, 2, 5, there’s a chord change not on the expected beat 2, but on the and of beat 1, so be sure to move the shape in time. You’ll find a half-step bend in bar 6—with your third finger, reinforced by your first and second fingers on string 2, nudge the string toward the ceiling such that it matches the pitch of the note found one fret higher. If this a problem, just slide up to that pitch. Also, as shown in the swing indication at the top of the example, play the eighth notes not evenly as written, but long-short, for jazzy rhythmic effect.

Heard on Bryter Layter and also appearing on the soundtrack to the 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, “Fly” found Drake further exploring textures involving fretted notes pitted against open strings in the tuning. The studio recording of the song, by the way, features one of the grandest arrangements in Drake’s body of work, in which the singer-songwriter’s steel-string guitar is gilded with Baroque-style viola and harpsichord, courtesy of the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.

Example 8 is inspired by the intro and verse sections from “Fly,” which essentially form the bulk of the song. In bars 1 and 2, a descending line within the E major scale (sounds as G#/Ab) is played in second position—remember, use your first, third, and fourth fingers on the second-, fourth-, and fifth-fret notes, respectively—and each fretted note is paired with two adjacent open strings, lending a kind of pastoral effect.

If you’ve tackled the other figures in this lesson, then Ex. 8 should be fairly accessible. A potentially tricky spot is the chord change, to B5 from Emaj7/D#, between bars 6 and 7. A little fretting-hand efficiency is in order here. Play the Asus2 in bar 5 with your second finger on string 5 and your fourth finger on string 2, sliding that shape down one fret for the Emaj7/D# chord in the following measure. That way, you’ll be easily prepared to play the B5 chord in bar 7—just keep your second finger on string 5 and add your third finger to string 3.

Remember, of course, to take a moment to absorb the beautiful textures and harmonies facilitated by this nonstandard tuning. But consider that ultimately the biggest takeaways from scrutinizing Drake’s guitar style aren’t necessarily the specific tunings, chord progressions, and picking patterns, but rather a welcome spirit of adventurousness and an exploration of the fretboard far beyond stock fingerings and patterns.


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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