Outside the Box — Exploring Acoustic Guitar with Laurence Juber: What's the Score?

My tune "Breaking Point" was used by Ken Burns in his recent "The Tenth Inning" baseball documentary. It’s cool when an original guitar composition gets licensed for a film project. It’s way cooler, however, when I’m asked to compose for a specific project.

America Now: Children Of The Harvest is a TV documentary that follows migrant farm workers and their families with a focus on the exploitation of under-age kids laboring in the fields.

Watching the rough cut, I imagine a rural, fingerpicked acoustic score with some slide dobro, a little harmonica and ambient electric. No need for a rhythm section, keyboards or orchestration.

Working in Pro Tools, I start by importing the video as a Quicktime file, I watch the scene, get a sense of the rhythm , then set up a click to match the tempo. I’ll map out the basic shape, record my first pass, and, with luck, the performance fits the picture. With production deadlines, and 40 minutes of wall-to-wall music to write and record, I have to trust my instincts and not get OCD about the process.

"Farm Country" is a thematic cue that launches the narrative. Click here for the audio. See the bottom of this post for the chart with tabs.

I tuned my Martin OM18LJ to DADGAD and launched into a pentatonic scale - D, F, G, A, C. It’s a natural folk/blues mode for this tuning and has a symmetrical fingering pattern. I tend to push the C and the F very slightly sharp to add some blues to the vibe.

The structure is an eight-bar blues where the underlying chord sequence is I-I-IV-IV-I-V-I-I, where I is D, IV is G and V is A.

Altered tunings, DADGAD in particular, not only extend the range of the instrument but also present fresh ways to articulate the musical material. To tune to DADGAD, lower the sixth , second and first strings one whole step. This creates three D strings, two A strings and a whole tone between the third and second strings. Suspensions, clusters, octaves and cross-string fingerings come with the territory, and whether in strict keys or modes, it is surprisingly versatile, encouraging new voicings and "guitorchestrations."

In future columns, we’ll explore some of its cool features.

Using open strings to create drone and pedal tones is a simple way to think outside of the chord and lick "boxes" that often direct our fretboard navigation. In places, I’m using the open middle D, G and A strings to keep some eighth-note movement going. They contribute to the suspended harmony; the open G adds a sus 4 to the D chord and a minor 7th to the A min; the A adds a sus 2 to the G chord.

Here (below) is the music, with tabs, for "Farm Country." You can hear the audio above:

Laurence Juber is a two-time Grammy winner and was lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s Wings. He is a first-call LA studio musician and a composer for TV, film and video games. He records and performs world-wide as a fingerstyle concert soloist.

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