One of Neil Young’s best-loved songs, “Harvest Moon” made its debut as the title track of his multi-platinum album from 1992. With its graceful melody and romantic glow, the song has remained a staple of Young’s acoustic repertoire ever since, and has been adopted by many others as well—sung at countless weddings and song circles and widely covered by other artists. A particular favorite of mine is Cassandra Wilson’s dreamy interpretation on the album New Moon Daughter.
Young wrote “Harvest Moon” as a tribute to his then-wife, Pegi—also an inspiration for “Unknown Legend,” from the same album, which recounts how they met when she was a waitress in a diner near his home in northern California. Always drawn to extremes, Young released the mellow, acoustic-based Harvest Moon after a long stretch of raucous and rocking electric albums. Revisiting the country/folk vibe of Harvest from 20 years earlier, Young enlisted many of the same musicians for the Harvest Moon sessions, including Ben Keith on steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass, Kenny Buttrey on drums, and Linda Ronstadt on backup vocals. On “Harvest Moon,” the band falls into a gently swaying groove that perfectly matches the song’s invitation to a lover to go dancing.
As with so many of Young’s songs, the “Harvest Moon” guitar part, in dropped-D tuning, is simple yet memorable, and it works just as well solo as with other instrumentation. The D A D tuning of the low strings allows you to play an open-string D drone in the bass and go up the neck on the high strings for the song’s signature riff: a Dadd9 to D6/9 to Dmaj7 (see riff 1 in the notation). This riff serves as an intro and interlude and also pops up in the second half of the verses.
The verses kick off with a Em7, and Young sometimes hammers onto the chord shape, as shown in the verse rhythm example. From the Em7, he plays another D chord riff, this time in open position—see riff 2. In measure 2 of this riff, use a first-finger barre to hold down the strings at the second fret. For the chords, strum with your fingers or a pick, with a light touch. Use an alternating down-up strum for the eighth notes, placing the downstrums on the beats.
On the album version, a second guitar (presumably lap steel) adds a sweet harmonics lick outlining the Em7 chord. To play it, touch the 12th-fret natural harmonics successively on the first, second, third, and fourth strings, then move quickly to the seventh-fret harmonic on the fifth string (touching the 12th-fret harmonics with your fourth finger and the seventh-fret harmonic with your index makes the shift easier). Even when performing solo, Young sometimes plays the harmonics instead of strumming the Em7.
As a postscript to the song’s backstory, Neil and Pegi Young’s marriage did ultimately end after 36 years—they divorced in 2014—and Pegi passed away from cancer in 2019. But “Harvest Moon” lives on as a celebration of romantic love in full bloom.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 48.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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