Category Archives: Low (the band)

SONGWRITING: Basics of Harmony

God, I’ve been so busy lately. Anyway…

Basics of Harmony! Ready? Go!

It’s actually quite simple.

Let’s say you’re singing a very, VERY simple melody. You’re playing a C chord on the piano in steady quarter-note pulses. And you’re singing a simple melody, that you want to practice harmonizing (say, along with your phone, after you record a voice memo or demo or whatever).

You’re playing C… you’re singing a C note, in this rhythm:

One and…. (rest on 2) and threeeeee…. (hold through 4)

Let’s say the lyrics are this… “thinking, of you…. thinking, of you”

The best way to harmonize this line is in THIRDS. What’s a 3rd? Well, it’s a distance between two notes. Often, the root note of a chord (such as C, in a C chord), up to E (in a C chord, that’s the 3rd).

So, you demo’d your simple song… and you sang “thinking, of you” in this rhythm: 1 + (2) + 3 (4).

Now you’re singing along to your idea… but this time, you’re singing an E note (above your original melody), with the same lyrics.

It’s literally that simple.

In ALL catchy music, vocals are most commonly harmonized by a 3rd (up from the original melody). You can also harmonize DOWN a 3rd (such as singing an A note while the lead vocal sings a C). This isn’t always a good choice, in a major key, because it creates minor harmony, or possibly a country thing (between the vocals and piano, you’re singing and playing a C6 chord, which is very oldschool country).

Less common are 5ths, because as you sing 5th harmony.. you create what is sometimes weird-sounding, called “parallel 5ths” (it’s a classical rule you don’t always want to break). Another good harmony is up a 6th. Or 4ths/suspensions.

I’ll try to find some audio examples of this on YouTube, for a future post… or an addition to this post.

Vocal harmony is friggin’ awesome.


Go listen to the cranberries “Dreams”, and “Linger”. And then Fleet Foxes “White Winter Hymnal”. And furthermore, anything Jacob Collier does on YouTube (that dude is out of this world insane…. I have no friggin’ idea what he’s harmonizing, most times I watch his videos). But, if you’re looking for pretty and simple— how about also checking out Band Of Horses’ “Marry Song”, or anything by the indie slowcore band Low.


Stay tuned for the next post… I’ll post audio examples and YouTube vids.


SONGWRITING: Altered tunings

Some people out there get tired of playing the same old chord shapes, when they write songs with guitars. Even with a capo, things can get old if you have an arguably cursory knowledge of chords and chord shapes (C, G, D, Am, Bm, Em, F, etc).

So why not try out altered tunings?

Some common altered tunings include:

DADGAD (pronounced “Dad Gad”)

Low E tuned down to D, B string tuned down to A, and high E tuned down to D. Used on Third Eye Blind’s “The Background” (I think… but also, the song could be played in the following tuning..)

open D (DADF#AD)

Closely-related to DADGAD. Totally useful tuning. I believe Johnny Marr of The Smiths has used this tuning (with a capo) on many Smiths songs.

double drop D (DADGBD)

Kind of like a Dsus4add13… I can’t think of many songs that use this tuning, but it’s completely cool.

drop high D (EADGBD)

The only song from my current memory that uses this tuning is Coldplay’s “Sparks”, with a capo at the 6th fret (I love that damn song)

And…. the inspiration for this post….

open G (DBDGBD)

Alan Sparhawk of Low mentions in this live KEXP performance that he has played his guitar in open G tuning since he was 19 (in the last 4 minutes or so of the video). I knew Low used altered tunings (possibly open D or DADGAD, to my ears), but I didn’t really know exactly which tuning until I saw this video just now. Awesome, gorgeous tones from his guitar and chord shapes… that’s one huge advantage of altered tunings… the harmonic richness that you can’t simply achieve from playing in standard tuning.