Listening to Jenn Butterworth's Backing Track for Black Pat's
In March and April 2020, Scottish musician Jenn Butterworth posted a series of accompaniment tracks for traditional Scottish and Irish tunes. Listening through them, I was struck with how varied her guitar parts are. Curious to investigate this, I took one track, Black Pat’s, and began to sketch out the chords she plays in successive repetitions of the tune.
Black Pat’s is a reel, composed by Irish fiddler Tommy Peoples. Originally in F major, Butterworth’s accompaniment is a step higher, in G major. The tune has three sections, which I refer to as A, B and C. Each of the sections is repeated twice; The A and C sections are repeated verbatim, while the B section is varied on its repeat - B and B’. Butterworth plays through the form of the tune five times over the course of the track. The tune’s melody cannot be heard in the track itself, but Butterworth provides a link to a page on TheSession.org with several transcriptions of the tune. As the first setting of the tune is in F major, I chose the second setting to compare her guitar part to.
It’s worth taking a brief look at the tune itself. Nearly all the notes in Black Pat’s come from the G major pentatonic scale (G A B D E), with the notes C and F-sharp appearing very occasionally as brief passing or neighbour notes.
After writing out a rough transcription of the entire track, I chose to focus on the B section, as it contains the most variation. Before we turn to Butterworth’s accompaniment, here is one possible set of chords that a guitarist, sticking fairly close to the notes in the melody, might choose to play - the progression features a lot of G chords, occasional Em chords, and Am7 and Dsus chords near the ends of phrases to provide a bit of harmonic motion.
How does Butterworth’s accompaniment differ from this “naive” realization? To begin, her accompaniment tends to break down into 2-measure, 4-beat units - since each section of the tune lasts 8 measures, each section breaks down into four units, and there are eight units in total between the B and B’ sections. Most frequently, a unit is filled with a single chord, though some units are filled two chords, each lasting a full measure. Occasionally, Butterworth will delay the transition to the second chord by a beat, causing the first chord in a unit to occupy three beats and the second chord to occupy only one.
To provide motion, Butterworth often creates a simple moving line within her voicing of a single chord. Such lines are often involve a single neighbour note to one of the notes in the chord: for example, she alternates between a G and an A neighbour in the middle of her Csus2 voicings starting at 1:29 (Repetition 2, Units 5-8).
Butterworth uses four main chords to accompany the B sections of Black Pat, most of which are varied: G, C, Dsus and Em7. Elsewhere in the tune, G is often played as a power chord, G5, but in the B sections, it occurs most frequently as a triad in first inversion, as G/B. C is most often played without its third, either as a Csus2, or occasionally as a C power chord with an added major 7th, as C5maj7. Dsus and Em7 are usually not varied. It’s worth noting that all of Butterworth’s most common chords have the notes G and D in common: they can be found in G5, G/B, Csus2, Dsus4, and Em7.
Butterworth is quite varied in her choice of chords in this passage. For every measure in Units 1-6, Butterworth accompanies the melody with three or more different chords in successive passes through the tune. For example, the first measure of Unit 1 is supported by Em7, Csus2 and G/B, while the first measure of Unit 2 is accompanied by C5maj7, Em7, G5, Cadd9, and a full G chord. It is only in Unit 7 when the paths she takes begin to converge: in rounds 2 through 5, Butterworth plays a Csus2, and by Unit 8, she plays a Csus2 in all five repetitions.
Butterworth displays flexibility in her choice of chords, but does she use some chords differently than others? Dsus does appear to be used differently: it only ever appears in the second half of a two-measure unit, and never in a unit’s first measure. Her other common chords, in contrast, seem to be fully interchangeable: in each of Units 1-6, Butterworth begins the unit on some variant of a G, a C and an Em7 in at least one repetition.
At this point, I feel like I should relate this analysis to some larger theory, but I don’t have that theory at this point. If you have any insights upon reading this, don’t hesitate to let me know!
For those interested, here is my very rough sketch of the entire track.
Posted: Jan 05, 2021. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.