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.
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