Air on a B String.
If I were to look at this song alone, I may jump to some conclusions about Sting’s guitarist and co-writer of this song, Dominic Miller. First, I would assume that he doesn’t like: 1. Open strings. 2. The high E-string. 3. The easiest possible fingering.
I would also take note of the fact that Miller seems to like: 1. Good tone. 2. Good tone. 3. Good tone. 4. Triads. 5. Big stretches.
I remember “learning” this song a while back. The notes I was playing were mostly correct, but it just sounded wrong. This bugged me for a while, and then I put it away for some time. Looking back, I did two things wrong:
- My finger-picking pattern was too busy. I did a more traditional travis-picking feel [steady 8th-note bass picking amidst a syncopated melody (think “Dust in the Wind” or “The Boxer”)]. The beauty of this guitar part is the syncopated simplicity (a great example of ‘less-is-more;’ i.e., less bass picking). Also, Miller has a great ‘Big Picture’ view of the guitar’s role in fitting in with the orchestration and groove of the rest of the band. For example, he trusts the bass player to take the bass line; that is, he very intentionally leaves out the bass note at the beginning of each measure. Also, the lowest notes in these voicings are often the third of the chord instead of the root. That said, I should clarify that this is not meant to be an indictment against travis-picking, I’m a big fan and use it regularly. I’m only saying that it’s not right for this song.
- The other thing that I wasn’t doing right was I was playing the melody of the guitar part on the E-string which gives it a very thin, overly bright sound. For the studio recording, he played the melody on the G-string. Now he prefers to play it on the B-string (I made a tab for either option). Either way, this gives the melody a much sweeter/darker sound. I should mention, while this was not the easiest song to transcribe, he is unusually generous with his guitar “secrets” on his website (http://www.dominicmiller.com) making it very accessible to get a good idea of what his exact fingerings are (along with a wealth of live videos on Youtube).
I found a great video for getting a good look at Miller’s fingerings (there are some slight variations from the recording that will differ from the tabs but would also be worth learning):
Like I said before, Dominic Miller is very generous about answering fans’ questions and giving away his guitar secrets. There were a couple of key answers on his website that I wish I had seen many years ago when I was trying to figure it out that would have saved me a lot of trouble. I’ll post them here along with the link where I found them. First, here is Miller addressing a question about the overall fingerings used for this song:
“There are indeed different ways of playing this part. The way it was recorded was by having the high note on the G string and 14th fret going down etc. The way I like to play it now is with the high note on the B string and 10th fret. The simplest way but not the best sounding is to play it ‘downstairs’ with the high note on the E string and 5th fret.” http://www.dominicmiller.com/ask-dominic/songs-and-albums/
Secondly, the transcriptions I made are both based on the recording, but I often look to live videos to get a glimpse at his hands. That said, there is one spot that he has modified over the years, measure 9 and 10 where he plays the D6 chord for two measures, so I couldn’t find a video where he not only plays it like the original recording, but one where there is also a good shot of his hands. In short, I could only guess at how he played this particular D6 chord until Miller put this mystery to rest in his answer that follows:
“If so, the first D chord (D, B, F sharp, A) is fingered as follows (from the low to high): 2nd finger on 5th fret on A string. 1st finger on 4th fret on G string, 4th finger on 7th fret on B string and 3rd finger on 5th fret and E string. I hope this is clear.” http://www.dominicmiller.com/ask-dominic/learning-and-playing/
This song is a great song to learn, and it made a big impact on me as a guitarist. Besides the fact that it’s beautiful and a great model of a good melodic accompaniment, it is an excellent study in three-note chord voicings (triads), and it’s a good technical study for your left hand. The stretches needed for some of the voicings are a great way to open up your left hand and correct lazy/bad habits such as scrunching the fingers together or lifting them too far off the fretboard when not in use. Suddenly, normal everyday chords will feel very easy. Finally, his use of good taste and restraint with the right hand is a good masterclass in fingerpicking, simplicity, and musicality.
To fully benefit from this song, learn both versions. The voicings used are worth learning in a couple different positions. Secondly, do some homework and figure out the chord construction of each chord. In other words, do you know what notes are in a D6 chord? What scale degrees are in a D6 chord? In the voicings used in this song, do you know which note is which? Knowing the theory behind the chords you are playing is vital if you want to be a versatile guitarist. This will also give you a deeper vocabulary of chords when composing your own music.