It Might Get Loud

David Barrett translates the laud's exotic secrets to acoustic steel-string guitar.
Publish date:

Although you’re not likely to find one at your local music store, the laud (Spanish for lute) is a not-too-distant relative of the guitar that almost all six-stringers will find easy to approach and navigate. Classic-rock disciples may already be familiar with its distinctive, exotic sound, via Steve Howe’s playing in the “Your Move” section of Yes’s iconic track “I’ve Seen All Good People.”

Like a 12-string guitar, the laud is a six-course instrument, although unlike a 12-string, the string pairs are all unisons, and it is most often tuned to an open-E derivative. When Canadian prog-rocker David Barrett first scored a second-hand laud in the mid ’90s, it quickly became a mainstay of his recording and compositional approach. Because of the laud’s similarity to guitar, its secrets can easily be applied to any six- or 12-string. During his recent Consciousness Through Music Pathfinder Retreat in Sotuta de Peón, Mexico, we asked Barrett to translate his laud language for a traditional steel-string acoustic, and here is the fruit from our sit-down interview.

Barrett explains, “I usually tune my laud to an open E chord [low to high, E B E G# B E]. People can sometimes be intimidated by open tunings, but the truth is that simple lines and two-note chord voicings work best, as they exploit the resonance and shimmer of the open strings. I’ll often play a melody on the low strings that’s contrasted against the open drone of the higher strings, or vice versa.” A perfect example of this is Ex. 1, the main theme to “Sonar,” a track produced by Rush’s Alex Lifeson that appears on Barrett’s 2013 release, David Barrett Trio. (Note: When Barrett performs live with his trio in an electric setting, he usually reinterprets the laud parts on the 12-string neck of an Epiphone G-1275 double-neck.)


Another laud-incorporating rocker from the same album is the Alan Parsons–produced track “Belmonte,” the main theme of which is shown in Ex. 2. Says Barrett, “I started with a simple two-bar motif on the third string, but instead of just repeating it, I contrasted it with rising chromatic bass notes on the fifth string.” This straightforward harmonic movement is all that’s needed to spell out the song’s distinct E, Eb6, E6, Am(add9)/E chord sequence.


Later, in the same piece, Barrett shifts to a B tonality with the high-voiced two- and three-note chord grips illustrated in Ex. 3. Dig how the Badd11 and Bmaj7add11 shapes in the first bar are sequenced down a whole step (two frets) for the C#m7/B voicings in the second bar. I’ve notated this example as a bar of 8/8 followed by three bars of 6/8, but you can also feel the beat in quarter notes and think of the first two bars as one larger bar of 7/4 and the next two as one bar of 6/4, which is how Barrett counts it out.


Our final two examples are derived from the David Barrett Trio’s self-titled album’s closing track, “Great Eastern Sun.” Barrett explains, “For this track, I raised the third string a half-step, to A, giving me a tuning of [low to high] E B E A B E, which is essentially just DADGAD tuning a whole step higher. What I like about this tuning is its harmonic ambiguity, allowing me to shift back and forth between major and minor tonalities.” Ex. 4 lays out the track’s main theme, a lilting low-string melody juxtaposed against harmonically ambiguous suspended chords.


For the contrasting theme, Barrett grabs the two-note root-fifth grip shown in Ex. 5a and works it down the neck against open second- and fourth-string drones, articulating the spiraling melody shown in Ex. 5b. Although the C and G naturals in the first bar seem to suggest a move to the parallel minor key, Barrett ultimately lands on the dreamy-sounding Emaj7 chord in bars 7 and 8.

While much of Barrett’s recorded output relies on electric guitars in standard tuning, he enthusiastically states why he continues to explore exotic instruments and tunings. “When I pick up the laud — or any stringed instrument — and it’s in nonstandard tuning, it’s like picking up a new instrument for the first time. I find that I’m thinking more intuitively and am much more likely to discover unusual chords and harmonically compelling dissonances than if I were playing in standard tuning.”