If, like me, you are self-taught, the theory and structure of music are sometimes quite difficult to understand. I know what I want something to sound like, and I know what sort of melodies and which keys, tempos and rhythms give which feelings. But often I don’t know how I got there, or what to do to change it. Until, thank goodness, Nick Cave posted a wonderful piece of advice on his Red Hand Files blog. (Below) Someone wrote to him, asking whether it is a fool’s errand to learn to play the guitar at the age of 62. Cave’s response was “Yes”. But not for the reasons you think. And he challenged the reader to learn to play the E chord on the guitar.
What, I wondered, is so difficult about the E chord? Turns out that it is one of those that your fingers have to be spread out and then you mustn’t touch certain strings, etc. Technically tricky, in other words.
But then I discovered that there isn’t just one E chord on the piano. (Yes, you educated people out there – go ahead, laugh.) There are 14!
- E Maj
- E Maj Seventh
- F# Min
- F# Min Seventh
- G# Minor
- G# Min Seventh
- A Maj
- A Maj Seventh
- B Maj
- B Dominant Seventh
- C# Minor
- C# Minor Seventh
- D# Diminished
- D# Min Seventh Flat Five
The explanation of this in handbooks and study materials got very complicated – too much info for my little brain to grasp. But I found this practical guide on www.piano-keyboard-guide.com (Thanks, Piano Keyboard Guide):
It’s a progression of chords that harmonize with E major! (I mean, I know what they sound like, separately, and I’ve written other pieces in E, but I never knew what they’re called and how they hang together and precisely which notes make up a chord.)
I learned that a “progression” means that each chords harmonizes with, or works with, the next one. I learned that, on a piano, the notes of chords go in a certain order – from left to right, bass to treble, on the keyboard. So if the notes are: D#, F#, A and C# – you can’t write it starting with A, or C#. Are you surprised by this? I was, my goodness. It was a major lightbulb moment. And then! Then! I realized that, hang on, there are more possibilities: say, chord progressions in C major! Whoo!
I know this post is full of that major sin in the minds of editors – exclamation marks. But I really am excited about this.
What do you do with what you know?
Having discovered all this, I sat down and literally wrote those E chords in Logic, note for note. No shortcuts! At the bottom of the post is a scan of the list of chords, showing my notes while I did this. I got mighty confused a couple of times. It was literally a process of: place notes, wrong key, move up, down one, nope wrong place, oh that sounds bad, fix note, fix next note, check chord guide, play it again, and ah-hah! wow! It works!
And then I ran downstairs and hollered to my long-suffering husband: “I’ve learned to do E chords!!”
I thought to myself, damn, that sounds beautiful! So that’s why it’s “‘the secret chord that pleased the Lord’” to quote Nick Cave! And the next day I wrote a whole song based on those chords! It turned out so well that I’ve included it in my upcoming album.
So, three epiphanies came from Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files post – Thank you, Nick! 1) My introduction to E chords, 2) Someone as accomplished, and well-written and kind as Nick Cave saying that you’re never too old to learn. 3) He had a good teacher, I don’t. Perhaps it’s time to fork out some money and sit down with a real teacher and learn properly.
I’m so ridiculously happy with this discovery. At my age, to get all excited about piano chords?! Can’t be normal, can it?
But that is why, Dearest Readers, I make music.
The Red Hand Files
Probably an E chord
ISSUE #210 / OCTOBER 2022
|I’m 62 years old and decided to learn how to play guitar. Rock guitar. Is such an endeavour a fool’s errand for someone of my age?|
CHRIS, AURORA, USA
Yes, it is almost certainly a fool’s errand to learn the guitar at 62. However, personally, I have a lot of time for fool’s errands. Many things of genuine artistic value seem to start as such – needless and profitless ideas that find, in time and to our complete surprise, their value.
About two years ago, at the age of 63, I decided I would become a ceramicist. It was by any measure a fool’s errand. I had made some ceramic pieces when I was a teenager and they were not bad, but there was nothing to suggest that I had any particular talent with clay. Still, my mother liked them, so I thought it might be fun to make some more.
The first thing I made was a figurine of a saint boiling in oil that doubled as a spill vase. It was a complete failure. The second was another spill vase, this time of a witch burning at a stake. That was also a failure.
The third was a red devil and a sailor sitting side by side on a stone wall which was haemorrhaging blood. This was a great success and was so beautiful it broke my heart. I went on to make seventeen figurines that together told the life story of the devil. They are now sitting in a museum in Finland. It took a considerable amount of time and effort – and a very good and patient teacher – to work out how to make them.
It also required some encouragement from my friends – and encouragement, Chris, is what I am giving you now. Get practising, dude – every day – pick up that guitar and learn that fucking E chord. It’s ‘the secret chord that pleased the Lord’ and it served me very well in Grinderman. Get your act together and if you do, and Warren, Marty, Jim and I ever get around to making a new Grinderman record, you can come and play on it. Grinderman, as a matter of policy, only work with the very old, the out of shape, and the extremely foolish.
We are the obscene and joyous embodiment of a fool’s errand. And we are waiting. There is no time to waste!
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