Jeff Buckley's 'Grace' Decoded

2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Buckley’s landmark album Grace.
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Jeff Buckley’s landmark 1994 album Grace was the only studio album released in his short lifetime. But its incendiary mix of hard rock, blues, R&B, downtown NY anti-folk, vocal jazz, Qawwali devotional music, and an intangible but undeniable otherworldliness has assured its continued influence. It's also proven enough to canonize the legend of Buckley, who died tragically on May 29, 1997, when he drowned in Wolf River Harbor, a slack water channel of the Mississippi in Memphis.

Against a musical landscape filled with angst-ridden grunge, boy/girl band pop glitziness, and gangsta-rap nihilism, Grace’s uniqueness, sophistication, and unbridled romanticism sparkled from above like a distant star that supernova-ed far too soon. From the fiery reckless whirlwind of original compositions like “Mojo Pin” and “Eternal Life” to the delicately stated renderings of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine,” Grace runs a daring and diverse musical gamut. A superlative endorsement of Buckley’s genius came from none other than Jimmy Page, who played the record constantly upon its release and decreed him among the most talented musician to emerge in decades. Steve Vai was no less effusive, proclaiming “It wailed me. I was so grateful that I discovered this record.” Iconic Rush drummer Neil Peart hailed Buckley as “One of the few great ones,” and Jeff Beck observed that he had become, “Like Hendrix... a presence that remains forever.”

Admittedly, Jeff Buckley was not known primarily as a guitarist. His versatile four-plus octave vocal range and boundless charisma (he once made the cut as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People”) tended to draw most of the attention. Still, Buckley was an accomplished ax man and a clever accompanist and arranger. And although Grace is largely devoid of flamboyant solos, it remains a treasure trove of cleverly layered guitars, unusual chord voicings and progressions, and ethereal tones. Most of the magic was provided by Buckley himself, but band member Michael Tighe and legendary NY guitarist/ former Captain Beefheart collaborator Gary Lucas also made significant 6-stringed contributions. Two decades after its release, it’s time to put Grace under investigation.


When discussing Jeff Buckley’s legacy, it’s easy for the mythology surrounding his brief career and tragic death at the age of 30 to outshine his music. The events of his life read somewhat like a Shakespearean drama. He was the son of ’60s-’70s underground folk icon Tim Buckley (who would also die tragically young). Largely estranged from his father, Jeff was raised by his mother Mary Guibert, a classically trained pianist, in Orange County, CA. Buckley began playing guitar at a young age, gravitating towards classic rock in general, and Led Zeppelin in particular.

After acing a one-year certificate at the Guitar Institute of Technology, he knocked around with various local bands but relocated to New York after being invited to play at a tribute concert for his father. Eventually, he began performing solo shows in Greenwich Village, most notably at the coffee house Sin-é where he became a regular Monday-night fixture. The marathon setlists from these gigs reflected Buckley’s ever-expanding musical tastes; particularly his fascination with Qawwali music, and its main progenitor Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Armed only with his Fender Telecaster (a blond 1983 with chrome pickguard and Seymour Duncan Hot Tele Lead pickup in the bridge position), Buckley would careen between songs by Kahn, Led Zeppelin, Billie Holiday, MC5, and many others, as well as performing his own originals.

Before long, Buckley attracted major label interest and inked a deal with Sony who quickly released the solo Live at Sin-é EP, then sent Buckley and his band (drummer Matt Johnson and bassist Mick Grondahl) to Bearsville studios under the auspices of producer Andy Wallace in the fall of 1993. Grace, the album they would create, was a complex and layered masterpiece that was too sophisticated for radio and MTV, and barely dented the Billboard charts. Through non-stop touring and explosive live performances, Buckley built a cult following, eventually achieving stardom in several countries throughout the world.

In 1996 Buckley began work on a follow-up record, but was unhappy with the way the sessions were proceeding. After relocating to Memphis and navigating through a creative quagmire, Buckley summoned his bandmates for the final recording process. On May 29, 1997—they day they were scheduled to arrive—Buckley went for an impromptu swim in Wolf River Harbor and drowned when he got caught in a tugboat’s wake.


Upon first seeing Jeff Buckley in concert, Jimmy Page was surprised to learn his young disciple wasn’t using altered tunings to achieve his unique sound. Not content with standard block chord accompaniment, Buckley was quite clever at incorporating open drone strings, shifting inversions up and down the neck, and finding unusual chord configurations. Ex. 1a conjures the exotic mysticism of “Dream Brother”— the last song on Grace, but the usual set opener on tour—by adding a #5 (D#) to an otherwise prosaic open G7 arpeggio sequence. Buckley—like Page—would often wrap his thumb around the neck to secure the bass note, freeing his other fingers for harmonic/melodic exploration. Ex. 1b, similar to the tune’s dramatic instrumental crescendo, incorporates some of these wrap-around grips including the Bb6/9 in bar one and the Fsus2#11-Fsus2 change in bar three. After sounding the final G5 in bar four, reach for a behind-the-nut bend of the top four strings, as Buckley would often do at the song’s conclusion.

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To discover how Buckley might improvise within a static key center, formulate your fretting hand fingers into the Fsus2#11 grip in Ex. 2a. Now reposition it stepwise up the neck as shown in Ex. 2b, and notice how the fretted octave notes delineate an F Lydian scale again the ringing open G and B strings. This should help you glean some insight into Buckley’s riff for “What Will You Say,” an unreleased song from the Grace era that eventually surfaced on the posthumously released Mystery White Boy concert DVD in 2000.


Towards the end of the Grace sessions, Buckley invited Michael Tighe to join his band as second guitarist. The two collaborated on the harmonically ambitious ballad “So Real,” whose arresting intro is paraphrased via the D7-E5-E5#11 progression in Ex. 3a. Throughout the verse and chorus, Buckley and Tighe employ Ex. 3b’s chord form extensively in various positions. I’ve analyzed it as a major chord with the bass note in the root and a doubled sixth, but it can also be approached as a minor triad with the third in the bass. Combine these quirky-but-cool shapes with the Am6 voicings in Ex. 3c to catch the vibe of “So Real’s” dense, jazz-like harmonic structure.

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One oft-overlooked contributor to Grace is guitarist Gary Lucas. Buckley had briefly fronted Lucas’ band Gods and Monsters before opting to go solo, and Grace’s epic title track dates back to this collaboration. In fact, Lucas is largely responsible for composing the song’s cornucopia of cool guitar parts. In order to fully explore them, you’ll need to drop your guitar’s low string down a full-step to D.

Ex. 4a is based on “Grace’s” intro—a rapid-fire series of pull-offs centering on a standard Am barre chord shape that descends down a whole-step before landing on a robust Am9 chord. (Hint: To play the tune as originally conceived, switch the meter from 4/4 to 6/8, the sequential motion of the harmony to Fm then Gm , and the final chord to Em.)

After its spiraling beginning, “Grace” abruptly segues into a jaunty bluegrass strum, with D and A7 chords voiced up an octave in the fourteenth position a la Ex. 4b. The major-key respite is short-lived, however, as the song quickly segues in to a somber E minor progression in triplet feel, similar to Ex. 4c. Cleverly avoiding typical dropped-D “one-finger power chord” clichés, the slackened low string is instead put to more creative use such as anchoring the Eb chord in bar 3.

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During the second half of the verse, Lucas and Buckley’s guitars up the intensity via an ascending series of inversions and diminished passing chords akin to Ex. 4d. To make the voice leading as smooth as possible, fret each four-note grip with your second finger in the bass.

The flavor of another Buckley/Lucas collaboration called “Mojo Pin” is distilled in Ex. 5. Sound the D-centric arpeggios in the first two bars fingerstyle for maximum fluidity. The rising major thirds against an open D-string pedal point starting in bar three are arpeggiated here, but when strummed aggressively with a triplet feel, they recall what Lucas termed the song’s “Bolero” section.” Give “Mojo Pin” an extra-attentive listen and you’ll discern a sprightly assortment of whoops, swirls, and atmospheric sonic events throughout, courtesy of Lucas’ effect-laden Stratocaster. For his remarkable contributions, Lucas is credited in Grace’s liner notes with “Magicialguitarness.” Indeed!

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Amongst the general public, Buckley is probably best known for popularizing the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” Unlike Cohen’s brooding orchestrated version, Buckley strips the song bare, his clean, chimey, Alesis Quadraverb-drenched Telecaster providing all the instrumentation necessary.

Ex. 5 illuminates some of Buckley’s fingerstyle approach, and, like his version on Grace, is capoed at the 5th fret. Bar 3 in particular demonstrates how Buckley, an adroit accompanist, could invigorate pedestrian barre chords by simply picking the strings in alternating pairs of sixths.

There have been numerous posthumously released Buckley compilations including his unfinished second album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, as well as expanded editions of Live at Sin-é and Grace with previously unavailable material. They are all worth exploring and will likely leave the listener pondering what Buckley might’ve accomplished artistically had he lived. Still, if fate saw to it that Grace would be Jeff Buckley’s only official musical statement, he couldn’t possibly have made a more brilliant one.