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Real Chords #6: Teenage Fanclub, "Shock and Awe" 

I've always loved this band, and I suspect most power-pop aficionados would agree that they don't get much better than Teenage Fanclub, once famously called "the best band in the world" by Kurt Cobain. Over the course of their first four albums the proto-grunge impulses melted away, leaving only the luscious, catchy tunes we power-poppers know and love.

In recent times, their records have consisted of four songs each from talented songwriters Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love, with each bringing unique melodic gifts to the proceedings. Sadly, Love has left the band and for me, their carrying on without him is like Paul, George and Ringo continuing as The Beatles without John. It's that big a loss. Yes, Blake's and McGinley's songs are usually good and occasionally great. But in my estimation, since Grand Prix Gerard Love's contributions have been uniformly stellar, the highlights of nearly every Teenage Fanclub album from that point on.

"Shock and Awe" is from 2010's Shadows, an album that for Gerry marked a minor slump—only two of his songs made my "greatest hits" playlist instead of the customary three or four. As always, it floors me what he's able to do with just a few chords and an achingly beautiful melody. Online transcriptions for this were in the ballpark, but yet again, the infamous fear-of-capo led the transcribers astray. I'll say it once more: most rock musicians, especially those I look up to, are songwriters first and virtuosos second, if at all. This means they're in search of the easiest and most natural way to play what they've written. So yes, you could attempt this without a capo and end up with F, Am/F and Gm9 in the verse and a gnarly A# in the choruses. (We'll overlook the fact that the Gm9 is really Gm7 and Am/F, a truly hideous chord, should really be a C/E. Oh, and in the key of F, the fourth is called Bb, not A#.) Capoing at the third fret not only makes the song easier to play but lends itself to some tasty rhythm licks, unavailable in the open position unless you're Andrés Segovia.

Here, then, are the real chords to "Shock and Awe," written by the magnificent and greatly missed Gerard Love:

Capo 3

  • Intro and verse: D A Asus4 A Em7* Em E7sus4 Em
  • Chorus: F#m G Em G D

* Fingering, low to high: 022033. There are other ways to play Em7, but this fingering enables you to play the rhythm guitar lick exactly as Teenage Fanclub does.

Notes: The intro/verse chords given here are the advanced version, containing all the rhythm licks that they do. If you want to simplify, you can easily get by with D A Em7. The instrumental bit in the middle is a variation on the intro/verse chords. I haven't worked it out because as a solo performer, I'll be ditching that part and heading straight to the intro. For what it's worth, during that bit they seem to hang out on the Em7 for long stretches. The G in the chorus sounds better to me with no third in it, which really makes it a G5: fingering 3x033. I play G like this 95% of the time anyway, but it's a matter of personal preference.

In closing, let me point you to a great resource that's helped me figure out the names of the wacky chords I play. JGuitar's chord namer lets you punch in the fingering you're using, then tells you what the chord is called. The reverse—where you know the chord's name but have no idea how to finger it—is their chord calculator, which threatens to give you "every mathematically possible fingering" for the chord you specify. Of course, you know to try the easiest ones first, right? Or as they warn, "Be careful when adjusting the advanced options as they may result in chords that are very difficult to play." And we folk/rock rhythm guitarists want none of those, thanks very much.

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

    Real Chords #3: Pink Floyd, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" (Morning Glory Section) 

    I've been on a Floyd kick lately, what with my The Early Years: 1965-1972 box set waiting to be opened at Christmas. I love me some early Floyd, and this thing has it all: 27 CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays and five 7" vinyl singles, plus loads of memorabilia. It's also the size of a small microwave oven. Can't wait! Anyway, I had this song on over dinner tonight, got curious, picked up the guitar, checked for chords online and ... well, the usual. I found an almost-there transcription with a few wrong chords and a disinclination to acknowledge that the capo has been invented.

    Now, don't get me wrong: the fine folks who post these things are rabid fans like you and me, brother and sister, and this particular punter's efforts pointed me at the sky—i.e., the right direction—for which I thank him. But if there's an even slightly easier way to play the song, why not take full advantage and use a capo? In fairness, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" is hardly an obvious candidate for that. It's chock-full of awkward chords no matter what you do, and features one chord that's especially unusual (it took me about five run-throughs to finally land on Bbdim7, a chord that eluded Mr. Punter despite his valiant attempt).

    I should note that I transcribed this more as an academic exercise, just to see if I could do it. You know how it is: you hear something and go, "Yowza! I want to play that," even if it's not suited to solo performance. I wouldn't recommend attempting this at an open stage unless you were at a Floyd convention, put it that way. At the very least you'd need piano accompaniment, 'cause that's where the melody lies. Even so, the song's Wikipedia entry notes that Rick Wright played three pianos in this section, so make that a magnificent concert pianist, ideally one with a few extra hands. All told, it's more fun to try at home along with the record.

    Okay, I'll admit to a second reason for wanting to figure this one out: the chords are so achingly beautiful that I wanted to learn them now so I can use them in modified form later. Some of these progressions will be heard again, trust me. (Next month we'll discuss the fine art of recycling in music, so stay tuned.) Some highlights for you: referring to the transcription below, that intro section is pure chordal magic. The Bbdim7 is the key to its success, the pivot upon which the whole sequence turns. The end of the theme (from the Eb on) is plenty bizarre but somehow they make it work with a lovely piano melody that flutters atop all those weird chords. And finally, the Bb to Abm7 to Eb transition is sublime, worthy of any highfalutin' "serious" composer. Full marks to whoever wrote that section (Wright, I'm guessing).

    As with our previous Real Chords entry, the acoustic rhythm guitar transcribed here doesn't exist on the recording. Look at it this way: you can play producer on a Pink Floyd song and add a track that, in your esteemed professional opinion, should have been there all along to add some colour. Here, then, are the real chords to "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" (Morning Glory section), written by Roger Waters, Rick Wright, Nick Mason and David Gilmour. For those of you playing along with the record, this section begins at 8:18.

    Capo 2

    • Intro:  D F# Em C Bbdim7* A
    • Theme: D F# G A Bb Abm7 Eb Ab C F E Esus A
    • Theme Variant: D F# G A Bb B Db Eb Ab C F E Esus E
    • Outro: (A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G) x3, A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
    • Double Time: A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
    • Quadruple Time: As above, then end on A

    * Fingering, low to high: x12020

    Notes: I play the Eb using a standard C shape moved up three frets. If you want to try it out, make sure you finger the top string (as if you were playing the high G in a C major chord). Unsurprisingly, an Eb doesn't sound too good with an open E ringing out on top. Anyway, I think the Eb sounds nicer this way and it also makes for an easier transition to the Ab that follows.