In this month’s col­umn Stuart Ryan serves up a slice of Acous­tic Pie with this study of that fine singer-song­writer and picker, Don McLean.

Guitar Techniques - - CONTENTS -

Stuart Ryan brings you a study of Amer­i­can Pie and Vin­cent com­poser, Don McLean.

Con­jure an im­age of Don McLean and the first thing that comes to mind is prob­a­bly his über-smash strum­ming tour de force Amer­i­can Pie, a mod­ern clas­sic that topped the charts at the start of 1972. Lis­ten to tracks like Vin­cent and Empty Chairs, how­ever, where the guitar is play­ing a more prom­i­nent, fin­ger­picked role and you’ll hear McLean’s full range on his favoured Martin. As with many other artists of his gen­er­a­tion McLean started out in the folk singer-song­writer scene of Amer­ica in the 1960s, per­form­ing along­side his friend and men­tor, the leg­endary Pete Seeger. His first re­lease was 1970’s Tapestry, which found favour in the folk mar­ket. How­ever, it was his sec­ond al­bum re­lease, Amer­i­can Pie, that spawned the smash hits Vin­cent and the epony­mous ti­tle track that made him into a global su­per­star.

Un­like many singer-song­writ­ers McLean el­e­vates the guitar be­yond mere ac­com­pa­ni­ment and uses it as a de­vice to aug­ment his vo­cal lines – melodies and counter-melodies flow along­side his voice to cre­ate an ex­tra di­men­sion to his writ­ing that many artists wouldn’t think to add. This sounds more com­plex than it is – in essence McLean cre­ates sim­ple guitar ar­range­ments of his own songs, against which he can then sing. It doesn’t in­volve any un­usual chords; typ­i­cally he will use stan­dard open Ma­jor and Mi­nor shapes, which he fin­ger­picks with the melody lines in­ter­spersed against com­mon ac­com­pa­ni­ment pat­terns.

Take a track like Vin­cent, for ex­am­ple, where you hear a ma­jor Pen­ta­tonic-based melody (start­ing with the fa­mous Starry Starry Night line) that re-en­forces what the vo­cal is do­ing be­fore cre­at­ing a pat­tern to back up the fol­low­ing vo­cal melody. It’s a great way of writ­ing as it re-en­forces the hook and can even give a singer a pitch ref­er­ence to work against. In ad­di­tion this can be a great way of writ­ing as, if you know your in­stru­ment and scales well enough, a bit of noodling can quickly re­sult in a great melody line and, if you have the lyri­cal prow­ess to match, a hit could be on the cards.

Al­though McLean’s style is not flash it does re­quire a good con­trol of the pick­ing hand as you will of­ten move from play­ing com­mon arpeg­giated melody lines to sin­gle-note melody fig­ures. So if you want to de­velop in this style, some time spent work­ing on Ma­jor and Mi­nor scales in the open po­si­tion will pay real div­i­dends.

NEXT MONTH Stuart stays with the Amer­i­can folk scene as he as­sesses the play­ing of Joan Baez

mclean started in the amer­i­can folk singer-song­writer scene in the early 70s with pete seeger

Don McLean: pick­ing on his glorious Martin sig­na­ture model

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