World Premiere: Learn to Play Kinloch Nelson’s ‘Solitudes’

You won’t be able to play this piece effectively unless you approach it with a meditative spirit and, most important, a delicate touch.

On a summer evening in 1970, a teenaged Kinloch Nelson was driving his family’s car with his Gibson J-50 in the back seat, alongside it a Sony reel-to-reel recorder and recent audio tapes of his guitar compositions, when the vehicle was struck by a drunk driver. Nelson was fortunate to escape with only minor whiplash injuries, but the Gibson sustained major damage to the soundboard. Meanwhile, the tapes and recorder were completely unharmed, despite having flown out of the car window and onto the highway. 

An insurance payment allowed Nelson to purchase a brand-new Martin D-18, which he used to record a bunch of new compositions, many of which have remained in his repertoire. (Nelson sold the D-18 long ago to a friend and borrowed it to film the video for this article.) Since that time, Nelson has performed, taught, and even authored a self-published instructional book, Alternate Tunings for Guitar. Over the years, he occasionally thought of rerecording the songs, but he ultimately decided it would be an exercise in futility to try to recreate the vibe and sound of these early recordings.  

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Selections from both the pre- and post- accident tapes have been compiled on the excellent new Partly on Time: Recordings 1968–1970 (Tompkins Square Records). “Solitudes,” one of the first pieces Nelson wrote on his D-18, is in a striking and unusual tuning—low to high: C G D D B D—an interesting variation of open G (D G D G B D). To get into this tuning from standard, lower string 6 by two whole steps, strings 5 and 1 by a whole step each, and string 3 by a perfect fourth (at unison with string 4)—moves which Kinloch originally made spontaneously. “There just wasn’t a lot of instructional literature around,” says Nelson, now in his 60s. “You just kind of invented stuff: Let’s see what happens when you turn this string down or turn this string up.”

On paper, “Solitudes” isn’t terribly forbidding. The fretting-hand shapes should be familiar if you’ve spent time in open G (and they should be pretty straightforward even if you haven’t). And the picking hand has a similarly conventional role; use you thumb on the bottom three strings and your index and middle (and ring, if you’d like) fingers on the upper strings.  

But you won’t be able to play “Solitudes” effectively unless you approach it with a meditative spirit and, most important, a delicate touch. The piece does require some subtle techniques—in bars 32 and 36, for instance, your first finger must be positioned behind the nut so that it can slide up to the second-fret D on string 6 as your third finger slides in tandem from the second-fret E to the fourth-fret F# on string 3. Also, on the last pass, look out for measures 3 and 8, where you should play a seventh-fret F# instead of G, forming the more wistful-sounding harmony of Gmaj7.

But remember that, as with most pieces of this nature, what you play in “Solitudes” is just as important as what you don’t. “Be aware of the space between the notes,” Nelson says, “and just enjoy listening to the notes as they blossom.”

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This article originally appeared in the  September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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