Under the Covers

One of the most fun aspects of being a musician is coming up with covers to play. My tastes run toward the esoteric, and lately I've been trying out some of my favourite Guess Who songs. Now, when it comes to The Guess Who, you're probably thinking "These Eyes," "American Woman," "No Time," maybe "Clap for the Wolfman."

Well, not in Vern's World (though I love those songs, too). I've been working up "His Girl" (flop single from 1966), "She Might Have Been a Nice Girl" (1971), "Smoke Big Factory" (1972) and "Cardboard Empire" (1973), the last three obscure album cuts all. Oh, and "Silver Bird" (1970), from the abandoned sessions for a follow-up to the American Woman album.

Something I've learned in trying to pick out these chords by ear: rock guitarists, even the greats—and I count Randy Bachman, Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw among them—are lazy. Okay, maybe not lazy; but like me, they prefer chords that are easy to play, easy to change to and from, and ring out well (in other words, the chord contains plenty of open strings). So, if I'm trying out a chord and it's finger-contorting, chances are I've got the wrong formation even if it sounds right. There must be an easier way to play this difficult chord, and it's up to me to find it.

Sometimes the guitarist might be playing in an alternate tuning, though that's not the case with The Guess Who save for "Heaven Only Moved Once Yesterday" (1972), another one I attempted that's in dropped D (DADGBE, low to high, for those of you following along at home). Two of the songs suddenly clicked for me once I found the correct capo position: that would be Capo 2 for "Cardboard Empire" and "Smoke Big Factory." And in the latter and "She Might Have Been a Nice Girl," what sounded at first like crazy-ass jazz chords were simply a ton of open strings with one fretted note, usually but not always the root. Both songs use an easy-strum G6: GxDGBE. (The "x" means you block, mute or don't play that string.) I also discovered two rather strange (but dead easy to play) A chords: one I'll call Aopen (xAEGBE) and the other, Adcg (xADGCG). The A might not be the actual root in either case, but try 'em, you'll like 'em. They sound fabulous.

I've also discovered that Randy Bachman, at least for a time, had a love affair going with major and minor sevenths. Once I grasped that—and they're all fairly easy to play, at least in the key of G—"Silver Bird" fell right into place. Randy sometimes capos as well, and way up there, too: "No Sugar Tonight" is Capo 4 and "Lightfoot," a delightful obscurity off Wheatfield Soul, is as far as I can tell an inventive layered combination of Capo 5 and Capo 7.

All this merriment has added some killer covers to my repertoire, and most importantly I've learned some great chords that will soon find their way into my own music. I know that because it's already happened: a chord I discovered while working up Husker Du's "Could You Be the One" was re-purposed for "Lady Air." The secret chord, which I call Fmould, is FCxGDG, and you play the F with your thumb. (By the way, this chord also appears in The Guess Who's "Hand Me Down World," so it could just as plausibly be called Fwinter.)

And why do I give these chords such zany names? Well, I have to remember them somehow and you won't find them in any guitar chord book.

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Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.