Legendary folk singer-songwriter
This troubled genius had a style all his own. Stuart Ryan pays tribute to a rare minstrel who struggled with insecurities but created beautiful music in some of the most unusual tunings.
Troubled folk pioneer Nick Drake was a great English singer-songwriter and his hauntingly beautiful music stands out for both its lyrical and melodic quality. Drake’s guitar work is full of unique ideas with a melodic motion that pulls you in with every twist and turn. Altered tunings formed a huge part of his style; from simple tunings such as open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) and double dropped D (D-A-D-G-B-D) through to those where he would use unisons on the bass strings (B-B-D-G-B-E and A-A-D-E-B-E). A repertoire based around such disparate tunings would cause problems between songs. A shy man who found it difficult enough performing in front of people, the agony of the silence between tuning changes was one of the reasons Drake didn’t enjoy playing live.
As a result of these sometimes bizarre tunings Drake’s guitar work gave him access to beautiful, ethereal chords that sometimes only altered tunings can achieve. Couple this with the low resonance of his detuned sixth and fifth strings and you have a great big guitar sound to complement his voice.
Acoustic guitarists Martin Simpson and the late Michael Hedges also use(d) a large number of altered tunings to service their guitar styles but the amazing thing about Nick Drake was that he was using these tunings in the 70s - the use of DADGAD was only becoming prevalent from the guitar work of Davey Graham in the 1960s so to find Drake using such a range of tunings shows his unique approach to guitar.
There are some fleet runs in Drake’s music so your fretting hand will need to be up to speed on its hammer-on and pull-off techniques to make sure everything flows. The picking hand will also require the ability to play a strong consistent rhythm - one of the most striking things about Drake’s accompaniment is how steady it is and how much it grooves, propelling the music along.
Today we are in the unusual tuning of B-E-B-E-B-E (low to high). You’ll notice that all four lower strings are dropped down considerably compared to concert pitch. When using tunings as low as these you may find the sound rather muddy in the bass. If so, try a capo at the 2nd fret or beyond - the tone will be brighter, less flappy and with more separation between the notes.
YOUR FRETTING HAND WILL NEED TO BE UP TO SPEED ON ITS HAMMER-ON AND PULL-OFF TECHNIQUES TO MAKE SURE EVERYTHING FLOWS
NEXT MONTH Stuart looks at the style of another tragically starred musician, Elliott Smith