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Elliott Smith on Songwriting


Nearthemusic

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Thanks... that was pretty enjoyable in an ultra low key kinda way. Finally, someone whose grasp on formal musical nomenclature was as foggy as my own is... ;)

 

I couldn't help but get all bittersweet watching the vid.

 

Smith made a lot of fine music while he was alive -- but think of what he might have done if he'd stuck around.

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The editing was kind of annoying, but otherwise, it was an interesting video. I'd been a fan of his for a while.

 

Finally, someone whose grasp on formal musical nomenclature was as foggy as my own is...
;)

I was actually thinking the same thing, up until the part where he figured out the name of the chord he was playing. Sometimes I can't even do that. I guess that's why he was making the big bucks, and not me...

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this was an interesting vid, i'm not a wicked Elliott Smith fan but i once loved someone who was.

 

i liked his use of the word "shapes" when talking about designing a chord progression, for me writing music is all about hand positions and wrist movements, a couple of times i've had this really satisfying experience teaching my songs to other people where they've said, "ah ha! i see what you're doing there!" and then they nail the groove of the tune.

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Yeah. Elliott was the man. He imbued his work with a rare combination of raw emotion and technical prowess. Either/Or is a masterpiece.

 

I think he offers a number of lessons for songwriters: He knew how to make the best use of what he had - I mean, that fragile reedy voice is down right strange. But man did he make it work.

 

Again - his technical prowess. Dude was a master of chords and finger picking. Played multiple instruments, from the drums, to bass to piano. He did all of the work on Either/Or.

 

He was also a student of classic pop songwriter and a great interpreter. So many writers, particularly hobbyists, don't spend enough time learning and exploring covers. How can you write a good song if you don't know any?

 

Youtube Elliott's covers of Jealous Guy, Long Long Long, Supersonic, They'll Never Take Her Love From Me, Supersonic, or Waterloo Sunset. Stunning.

 

And sadly, Elliott also teaches us that you either have it or you don't. They guy's playing and singing had a heart-breaking, engaging quality that you can't learn. He was indelible, like Kurt Cobain, Neil Young or Elvis.

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this was an interesting vid, i'm not a wicked Elliott Smith fan but i once loved someone who was.


i liked his use of the word "shapes" when talking about designing a chord progression, for me writing music is all about hand positions and wrist movements, a couple of times i've had this really satisfying experience teaching my songs to other people where they've said, "ah ha! i see what you're doing there!" and then they nail the groove of the tune.

 

For the last couple decades I've heard people talk about shapes with regard to guitar chords, as well as scalar elements (the 'shape' of a section of a scale).

 

Chord shapes was definitely a notion that crossed my mind a lot when I was starting out because I experimented quite a bit with tunings, and you find yourself using familiar (first position) 'shapes' in different tuning and neck position contexts ... the familiar (first position) 'Am shape' (or perhaps one wants to think of it as an E major shape ;) ), the Amaj7 shape, the D shape,, and so on.

 

Of course, this is something that 'rises' from the motor control parts of the brain.

 

Many folks approach guitar in very different mind sets and such an approach may be helpful (it seems to have been adopted by informally schooled guitar teachers) but I also sometimes worry that it's a sort of intellectual shortcut that may keep some people from properly exploring just what they're doing.

 

I still can't readily read music, and am sometimes hazy on the more sophisticated aspects of harmonic theory -- but learning the basic harmonic relationships between chords and scales was absolutely key for me in the struggle to make sense out of the guitar.

 

I knew I'd been stumbling around in the dark. I really wanted to play lead (it seemed so satisfying to me, even before I got so I could find the right notes quickly) and one day I decided to 'fill out' my knowledge of the guitar neck so I drew a 13 x 6 grid (nut-to-octave fret) and plotted out the 'legal' notes in the Em (G major) scale. (I was really drawn to Em in those days... I think because it only required two fingers -- one finger for an Em7... the appeal of that was tremendous. :D )

 

Once I had locked the basic grid into my head, I eventually figured out the chords that would be derived from the scale as one went up the neck: Em, F#dim, G, Am, Bm, C, D (or reordered G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim in the more familiar G orientation), things started making some real sense (and I was able to fit what I'd figured out on the guitar to my one 'theory lesson' given to me by the lead guitarist of my high school's lone acid rock band on his mom's piano (showing me how the white keys [C major scale] led inexorably to the C major triad progression of C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim. At that point, I felt like I had the basic knowledge that would let me figure out the rest... ;)

 

The modulation requirements of blues did require some tricky mental footwork from me -- the notion of simply playing a reduced set of the notes that were 'legal' in all the modulations of a blues progression -- throwing out the two 'problematic' notes that would often change as the chords modulated (depending, of course, on all the various harmonic permutations) to derive the dumbed down pentatonic scale that allows one to play coherently (if without satisfying harmonic complexity) across the modulations -- didn't occur to me so I developed, instead, a set of nonintellectal [motor system, if you will] moves keyed off sound and interval.

 

(Nowadays, I tend to play more by interval and sound, anyhow, which is what I always dreamed of when I was a kid -- although still not with the same melodic grasp that 'natural born musicians' seem to have. Ask me to play "Pop Goes the Weasel" and my lack of proper melodic memory will still mean I have to stumble through to figure out the melody all over again.)

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...I also sometimes worry that it's a sort of intellectual shortcut that may keep some people from properly exploring just
what
they're doing...

 

 

that's me!!! i don't have the damndest idea what i'm doing, for me it's not even about the shapes of the Chords themselves, it's about the shapes my hands make as they move from one chord to the next, i think about it like gymnastics, bouncing from this to that in a way that pleases me and makes a cool sound.

 

someday. someday i'll learn.

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B2B, your piece about expanding awareness beyond the "shapes" is something I harp on with young songwriters and guitarists. Too many think that it a D is determined by finger position, whereas you put your fingers there because of the notes those postions create. A "shape" understanding of this kind is completely backwards and impedes your ability to comprehend the guitar.

 

This is one of the reasons why when I used to teach, I would demand that people play in alternate tunings once they reached a certain level of proficiency. That way they would be forced to find new shapes to create the sounds they wanted - and ultimately realize that the shapes themselves are arbitrary.

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