When he was growing up in the northern Italian city of Turin, in the 1960s, Peppino D’Agostino lived not far from a ballroom, whose elegant clientele and music captivated his attention. “I remember seeing people all dressed up and wishing I were older so I could go there and dance,” he says. “And a lot of the songs they played [in the ballroom] were doo-wop, in 12/8 time. I especially loved the Santo & Johnny instrumental ‘Sleep Walk.’”
D’Agostino reflects on these formative influences on his composition “Dancing with Shadows,” as heard on his latest album, Connexion, reviewed in the May/June 2020 issue. The piece is in a tuning of the guitarist’s invention—lowest string to highest, F A C E G C—which can be seen as an F major triad on the bottom three strings and a C major triad on the top three, or as an Fmaj9 chord. From standard tuning, raise string 6 a half step; lower string 4 a whole step, string 3 a step and a half, and strings 1 and 2 two steps each.
For a doo-wop feel, D’Agostino plays “Dancing” in 12/8 time, with a typically ambling bass line introduced in bar 6. Start learning the piece by isolating this part, which is seen in the down-stemmed notes. As it falls largely on the open strings, you can focus on the rhythms; play along with D’Agostino’s studio recording or the accompanying video on AG’s website to cop the 12/8 groove. When you’re ready to add the melody, just remember to use the proper dynamic control for the bass line. “As in a painting, the melody should be the subject right up front, close to your eyes, and the bass should be the mountains in the background,” D’Agostino says. “You still want to hear the bass, but it shouldn’t be too loud. Another thing is to use the flesh of your thumb to play it.”
On the upper strings, D’Agostino evokes the steel-guitar parts that Johnny Farina played on the original recording of “Sleep Walk” by using a liberal amount of string bending, a technique used more commonly on the electric guitar than the acoustic. There are three types of bends at play here. The first, seen in bars 6–8 and elsewhere, requires that you pick a note and then push the string toward the ceiling such that the pitch is raised by the indicated amount, either a half or a whole step. Play each bend with your third finger, reinforced by your second and first fingers on the same string. In most cases, as indicated by squiggly horizontal lines, add vibrato by continuing to bend the string slightly, locking in with the bass line at an eighth-note pulse.
The second type of bend, first seen in measure 9, requires that you pre-bend the ninth-fret E, such that it sounds as F; there’s also a pre-bend and release in bar 16. To do a pre-bend, you’ll need to have the target note in your mind’s ear. Practice these moves carefully, striving for pitch accuracy. In the last two bars, D’Agostino bends and releases the open second string behind the nut, toggling between the notes G and A. If your guitar’s headstock angle precludes this move, just end the piece on the open second, fourth, and sixth strings—or, as D’Agostino says, laughing, “I’m afraid you might need to buy my signature model Seagull guitar!”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.