Every solo performer faces the same challenge when taking the stage: How, with one voice and one guitar, do you convey a song—especially a simple one—in a dynamic way that holds an audience’s attention for three to four minutes? When you’re playing with a good band, songs develop naturally as instruments enter or drop out of the arrangement, change textures from section to section, and add solos to break up the vocals. Creating this kind of variety and interest as a solo act requires a much more sophisticated approach to accompaniment than knocking out the same rhythm pattern throughout the song.
Folk-rock singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey is one performer who rises to this challenge. He sounds great fronting a band, as he does on many of his albums. But he usually performs solo—and his songs are just as dynamic. Mulvey’s masterful guitar work incorporates varied fingerstyle and flatpicking textures, string percussion, deep basslines, and melodic solos, often using alternate tunings and partial capos to open up new sonic possibilities.
To shed light on his approach to accompaniment, Mulvey visited my home studio while on tour in upstate New York and walked me through his song “The Knuckleball Suite,” which he originally recorded in standard tuning with a band (on his album The Knuckleball Suite), but also performs solo with an unorthodox alternate tuning and partial capo setup. That latter arrangement was captured on his album Notes from Elsewhere. This three-chord song has no chorus and no bridge. “So it’s just the same thing over and over,” Mulvey says. “The entire game is dynamics.”
How to Play ‘The Knuckleball Suite’
In this multimedia lesson (check out the companion video at acousticguitar.com), Mulvey demonstrates how he creates those dynamics, and shares advice for how you can apply this approach to your own arrangements.
The inspiration for “The Knuckleball Suite” arrived one late night at a bar in Boston, when Mulvey was swapping songs with members of Session Americana and decided to put a little spin on Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” by playing it in 6/8 time. Digging the results, Mulvey resolved to write his own song over Dylan’s progression, changing the II chord (D) from major to minor to arrive at Ex. 1, the first verse of “The Knuckleball Suite.” (Note that Mulvey’s guitar is always tuned down a whole step, so in this example he capoes at the second fret to be in E-to-E standard tuning.) This is the basis of his original recording of “The Knuckleball Suite” on the album of the same title, in the key of C, with a band to flesh out the sound.
When Mulvey went to perform the song solo, however, he felt limited by the C shapes in standard tuning, with no open string root available for the I (C) or IV (F). His solution was to use open-G tuning (again down a step, so it’s actually open-F tuning), with a partial capo covering the top five strings at the fourth fret. Then he dropped the uncapoed sixth string all the way to A—an octave below the (capoed) fifth string. So without the capo, the open-string notes are AFCFAC; with the capo, they are AAEAC#E—an open-A tuning. This version of the song is in the key of A.
With this setup, Mulvey says, “You are much freer to roam. Essentially, what I’m trying to do is recreate all the roles that are played on the record by the electric guitar, by the drummer, by the bass player. It’s like hiring a band.”
In Ex. 2, Mulvey runs through some basic chord shapes in this tuning/capo configuration: the I, IV, V, vi, and ii. “Knuckleball” uses only the I, IV, and ii. Note that in these chord diagrams and in the subsequent examples, chord shapes and tab numbers are shown in relation to the capo (for example, a 2 in tab means two frets above the capo); because of the partial capo, the open sixth string actually rings four frets below the capo. The standard notation shows the actual pitches.
Ex. 3 shows a straightforward strum through the “Knuckleball” progression—which sounds fine, but is fuller than what Mulvey wants at the outset. “If that is your starting point, you have much less room to build on it,” he says. “And so the very first thing I did was sort of strip that way down, [using] harmonics and just one fretted note.”
Check out this minimalist pattern in Ex. 4, which opens the song and returns in the final verse. One of the reasons you can get away with such bare-bones accompaniment is that the melody supplies chord tones you’re not playing on the guitar. “The melody tells the listener much more emphatically what chords we’re really using,” Mulvey says.
Variations on the Theme
As he continues to roll through the progression, Mulvey spins out variations, drawing on a vocabulary of moves worked out in years of performances. In Ex. 5, he shares an off-the-cuff way he might go from the I to the IV. “Improvising keeps me interested,” he says, “and if I’m interested, then the song by default is going to be more interesting to the listener. If I’m just doing it the same way every night, I’ll be bored, and there’s nothing more boring than watching a bored person.”
“The Knuckleball Suite” also includes two instrumental breaks, in which Mulvey takes advantage of open-string bass notes to travel up the neck. “When you’re the only guy onstage and you’re taking a guitar solo,” he says, “the most challenging thing is to just accept that it is alright to let the accompaniment drop away and let the melody of the solo you’re playing pretty much carry the weight of the tune.”
Ex. 6 is a sample solo line. “What worked there was, I didn’t really feel the need to play the chords,” he says. “Especially because this is our third time through those changes, just trust that the audience is going to fill in those chords.” In his soloing on “Knuckleball,” Mulvey never frets the first string—he moves up and down strings two, three, and four. Working within a limited zone on the fingerboard can be a good way to become comfortable improvising, he says. “Get familiar with a simple territory and then wander in that territory.”
Instrumental breaks don’t need to be based around melodies, he adds. The 6/8 pulse is the most important aspect of the guitar part, so he might play something like Ex. 7, adding quick pull-offs (as in measures 6 and 8) and what he calls drum fills (for instance, the fast strums in measure 11) to emphasize the rhythm.
You may have noticed that in the examples so far Mulvey has barely touched the sixth string. In fact, he reaches around the neck with his left-hand thumb to mute that string, saving the super-low bass note for a dramatic entrance later in the song. “Through the first two verses and the first solo and the third verse, we’re really just working the first five strings,” he says. “And the reason is that on that fourth verse, when you finally add that low A—especially when it’s going through a magnetic pickup and out through speakers into a rock club or folk club—that note takes the whole thing to a new dimension. It’s like the bass player was savvy enough to just lay out and then enter on the fourth verse.”
Enter the Bass Notes
In the full performance of the song on the AG website, notice how he adds the low bass notes in verse four and his second instrumental break—he plays the sixth string open under the A chord, and on the D he frets the first fret above the capo with his thumb—and then strips back to harmonics for a hushed opening of the final verse. Although the same 12-bar progression repeats eight times through the song, each pass holds surprises. He adds a sweet touch in the outro, too, harmonizing his voice with the guitar melody.
One of the keys to Mulvey’s approach to the guitar is withholding notes that he could play, in order to give himself dynamic headroom. “It’s like when you tell a joke—you have to withhold information so that the punch line works,” he says. “All stories are made better by withholding information. The great poet Billy Collins said it’s like a card game: If you don’t turn over any cards, we don’t have a game, but if you turn over all the cards immediately, we also don’t have a game.
“That’s my biggest strategy as both a lyricist and a musician,” Mulvey adds. “You have the thought and then you reframe the thought, asking yourself, how little of this can I begin with that’ll still be interesting? Because I think for a listener to a joke or a short story or an instrumental or a song, the most satisfying thing is to be surprised by something that in retrospect you were told in the beginning was coming.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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