Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “Travelin’”

“Travelin’” is the instrumental that follows “Travelin’ Man” as an instrumental journey to follow in the footsteps of the its counterpart. In its incarnation as a featured song of the Montreal band Harlequin in the mid-1970s “Travelin’ Man” was always followed by this roughly five-minute instrumental. Now it’s part of the “Travelin’ Man” / “Travelin'” / “Know You Rider” medley on Roots and Branches.

I wrote “Travelin’” with Harlequin co-founder violinist Joel Zifkin. The song started out on fingerpicked acoustic guitar in “drop D” tuning in which the low E string is tuned town a step to provide a pedal tone for the song, which starts out and ends in the key of D. The fingerpicking rhythm is unique to the song—I had never heard anything like it prior to composing the core chordal figure of the song.

The song consists of two primary movements, first D major then A minor with a descending transition section between the two. I brought the core chordal figure of the song and three variations to the party and Joel composed the melodies and their variations on violin.

As we performed it—and we did, many times, as a trio with bass—it wasn’t a jam, it wasn’t jazz, it was a head arrangement that evolved over time in the violin melodies. I never varied the guitar part at all. Joel, on the other hand, would almost always feature any number of melodic figures that I was used to interspersed with variations that may have been one-offs on any given night.

The number of bars was set in stone. My arrangement stays true to that until the song arrives at the transition to “Know You Rider.” In its Harlequin incarnation, the instrumental ended with a de-escalation to a repeating octave to which Joel added increasingly simple gestures in what was essentially a live fadeout.

In the recorded version for Roots and Branches I added a tempo-changing  transition to “Know You Rider” that was probably taken from its previous incarnation in a different medley with Harlequin. 

The instrumental opens with a solo guitar riff based on harmonics that slides to a modal D and C. In this instance, modal means that the two chords had multiple extensions of sixths, major sevenths, and ninths that leave them unresolved. This riff introduces one of the signature motifs of the song, the bass D (the “add-nine”) played as the bottom note of the C chord. This is an uncommon inversion that emphasizes the pedal-tone support of the D root throughout the piece. It also inserts a normal add-nine effect  in relation to the bass guitar that sits one octave plus one note below the acoustic as the bass plays the tonic of the C chord in a syncopated figure.

The guitar then introduces the root melodic chord structure at 6:27 followed by three variations. Each variation lasts 4 bars, and is played twice, so 8 bars per theme times four themes covers 32 bars until the solo electric guitar makes its appearance at 7:18.

Rethinking an Inimitable Part

In this recording of  “Travelin’” I play a loose version of the melody solo structure on electric guitar (a Strat), which is a marked departure from the violin solo. I didn’t try to deviate from the melody as playable on violin, it’s just that an electric solo guitar carries the melody in a manner completely different from a violin. And Joel’s virtuosity has never been a secret.  Maybe a guitarist like Steve Vai could catch up to Joel’s licks, but the whole folk-trad grounding of the song would also be lost. Consider my solo as a minor tribute to a great violinist.

The fundamental quality of the melody is right there in my version. It’s essentially two chords, D and C through the first movement, but the scales and extensions employed offer a lot of melodic options, especially on the C chord variations, which contrasts a variety of Cadd9 against Cmaj7, and that allows the soaring nature of the melody to exist.

I resolved to not try to imitate any element of the violin’s sonority in the solo, with maybe one exception, at 8:22, when I dialed in a long sustain without distortion, more a nod to Carlos Santana than Joel, but it allows the solo to “rest” for a moment, holding the notes for up to 6 beats at a time.

Speaking of that sustain, I dialed in a lotof tones throughout that solo, using my secret sauce, which shall remain a secret. I will say, all those tones went straight to the final product in ProTools, with no effects added.

The other radical departure from the original arrangement of the song was the introduction of drums. The tight syncopations of the fingerpicked acoustic guitar invite some extraordinary drum parts and John O’Reilly, Jr. was the perfect drummer for the job. You can feel how natural it is to him in the from the moment comes in at 6:36. It’s just fingerpicked guitar, bass and drums until the guitar solo comes in at 7:18. The delicacy of the thing is its beauty. Check out also the guitar/drums interplay on the descending transition to minor part, starting at 9:30, followed by the Miles Davis “In a Silent Way” meets pocket orchestra vibe from 10:03 – 11:07, with the bass anchoring the pedal tone.

It resolves to the major key with a new iteration of the D to Cadd9 inversion with a melody line that sounds like the mechanism has been cleared, “travelin’ man in vain” has been resolved, and now on the “miss me when I’m gone” of “Know You Rider.”

Coda

Four months after I finished the electric lead guitar tracks for the medley I shattered my left index finger in a freak accident. The medical treatment required two surgeries over six months followed by many months of rehab, right up to the outbreak of the pandemic.

Seven months after the injury I started to try to play guitar again, and I haven’t stopped to this day. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it reality and I need to play daily just to keep the mechanism functional.

As far as rhythm guitar on acoustic and electric, I’m probably at 85%, where I figure I’ll stay if I keep it up every day. But I haven’t been playing in a band for obvious reasons or recording anything, so I have no idea what my lead guitar skills might be like today.

It’s a long road, always. I’ll let this track, “Travelin’,” stand as a little roadside monument to where I was when I left off. Someday I hope to let folks know where I landed on lead guitar. And I’ve got a few new songs that might call for an album someday. Until then, I’ll take “Travelin’.” I hope you enjoy it.

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