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Real Chords #5: Jefferson Airplane, "Today" 

It's with a heavy heart that I present this one, having learned of the passing of Jefferson Airplane founder and singer Marty Balin last night. I'll have more to say about Marty in a moment, but to pay tribute I've worked up this gem from Surrealistic Pillow that I'll debut during my upcoming micro-tour. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, "'Today' stands as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written," and I can't disagree. Haunting and ethereal, it's a timeless ballad revolving around a simple but effective chord sequence.

Before I get to those chords, a few words on Marty Balin and his legacy. Without him, there would be no Jefferson Airplane, period. The band was his idea and vision, and after recruiting its members one by one he created a venue, The Matrix, in which they could hone their craft. It's not an overstatement to suggest, as former band manager Bill Thompson did, that “Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene."

The first two Airplane albums were largely a product of that vision—love-fuelled folk/rock about to bust out into the wilder frontiers of psychedelia—and Marty's sweet-as-honey tenor led the charge. But by the third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, Marty had retreated somewhat (as a songwriter and lead vocalist; his harmonies permeate all their best work, Baxter's included). Jefferson Airplane was a group of strong, disparate personalities, each beginning to assert themselves, and in the chaotic ferment of the late 1960s no singular vision could dominate for long.

As the '60s careened into the '70s, drugs, egos and musical differences led Marty to leave the band he founded. And tellingly, the Airplane crashed without him. Marty's romantic, soulful musings, often the source of his bandmates' ridicule, were a necessary balance to Paul Kantner's sci-fi polemics, Grace Slick's icy sarcasm, and Jorma Kaukonen's blues-based excursions. And indeed, that corrective is what enabled spinoff band Jefferson Starship to scale the heights it did in the '70s. Red Octopus, their 1975 release, once again saw Marty at the helm; his "Miracles" topped the charts that summer. Simply put, he had a radio-friendly touch that for the most part eluded his compatriots. In Paul Kantner's words, "Marty has the ability to express really simple emotions that most people might be embarrassed expressing. He's able to get away with singing 'Ooh, baby,' and meaning 'Ooh, baby.'"

Here's an excerpt from Jorma's moving tribute: "I always felt that he was somewhat guarded … the quiet one. His commitment to his visions never flagged. Times come and go but his passion for his music and his art was never diminished. He was the most consummate of artists in a most renaissance way. I always felt that he perceived that each day was a blank canvas waiting to be filled."

Rest in piece, Marty Balin, and thank you for your life, your music and your vision. And with that, here are the real chords to Jefferson Airplane's "Today," written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner:

  • Intro: D5 C (grace notes: BCD) A5
  • Verse*: D5 Am7 C D5
  • Chorus: (Cmaj7 F Em C D C D) x2
  • End: Dm Am Bb Am Dm Am Bb Gm7 (grace notes: EFEC) D

The online tabs for the song had, well, some of it right, but missed two key chords which were dead obvious to my ears: the Cmaj7 in the chorus and Gm7 at the very end. Nobody heard the Am7 in the verse, either, which I admit is more implied than played on the recording. Tip: for a lovely variation, substitute an A7sus chord in the intro in place of the A5. That's not how they play it, but I quite like it. The fingering for A7sus, low to high, is x02030.

* Note: On the live version from Monterey Pop, the band plays a slightly different arrangement. Grace plays the rhythm on harpsichord, and her verse chords are F Am C D5. I'm sticking with the studio version for my transcription, but either will work.

    Real Chords #4: Queen, "'39" 

    This latest instalment in my Real Chords series is, well, a doozy. Welcome to master class, kids. The good news? This song, Brian May's self-described attempt at "sci-fi skiffle" from Queen's 1975 A Night at the Opera, isn't that hard to play once you get the hang of it. It is, however, one of the toughest to pick up by ear—which, happily, I've done for you. As you'll soon see, certain sections feature bizarre chord sequences that make no intuitive sense. But for all that, there's only one truly oddball chord in the whole song.

    Perhaps due to the degree of difficulty, the online chord charts are generally good, though I didn't find any that were 100% accurate. For once, it doesn't much matter if you capo it or not; no matter what you do you'll run into a ton of weird chords. To play it in the same key as the original, use Capo 1. Fascinating fact: the song's Wikipedia entry claims that George Michael used to play this as a busker in the London Underground. If true, props to someone I'd previously dismissed as a lightweight. It's not an easy song to put across as a solo performer.

    A few notes on the chords below: the aforementioned outlier, Adim7, is fingered x01212 low to high. Csus2 is x3x033. Now, this is a matter of taste, but in my music I use the Csus2 in place of a standard open C about 80% of the time. It just sounds better to me. If you listen to the song as you learn, you'll also note that some of these chords really fly by, particularly in the second half of the bridge, pre-chorus and chorus. Expect to stumble over those bits at first.

    Here, then, are the real chords to Queen's "'39," written by Brian May:

    Capo 1

    • Intro 1 (spaghetti western bit): C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
    • Intro 2 (folky bit): G D Em C G D C G G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G
    • Verse: D Em C G D Em Em7 Csus2 Dsus D G
    • Pre-Chorus: D Adim7 Em Am G D C Em C D C G D (that last G is so quick, but necessary to set up the D)
    • Chorus: G Csus2 G D G B7 Em D C G/B Am G D G
    • Bridge: Eb Cm7 A C F#m C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
    • End: G B7 Em D C G/B Am Em D (G ... implied, not played)
    • Outro: G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G

    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 © 2017-2018 Vern Nicholson.