During the mid-1980’s, I would while away countless hours attempting to learn the guitar parts that weave through the ten tracks on Reckoning, the sophomore album from R.E.M.
I became a fan of the band via this record (or more accurately, after seeing them perform ‘Pretty Persuasion’ on a T.V. show) and discovered their first E.P. and debut album shortly after. Compared to their other two releases, Reckoning had a more immediate, open sound and the guitar was front and centre in the mix. This definitely helped me to decipher the codes of Peter Buck’s playing, alongside the various bootleg VHS cassettes of R.E.M. gigs I purchased at record fairs.
It’s also worth noting that, at the time, studying how Buck approached the guitar was something of a lone pursuit. None of the friends who I jammed with were into the band that much. We’d swap notes on The Clash, U2, The Jam, Bunnymen & The Smiths but never R.E.M. and there wasn’t much info in the public domain either. Peter wasn’t the type of player that would crop up often in guitar magazines and the like, particularly in the UK.
Fast-foward to now, with the wealth of info available online, it’s heartening to see/hear that I wasn’t so far off in my interpretation of his style back then. But it’s also a reminder that any ‘mistakes’ I might have made ultimately helped to inform how I approach the guitar. On the one hand I love the fact that we now have access to all this information but am also aware that working with limited sources is more likely to bring out your individual creative personality as a musician and force you to actually listen to every note.
Riff #1 – Pretty Persuasion
The opening riff to Petty Persuasion contains a number of signature elements that often appear in Buck’s playing: lots of downstrokes on single note lines in combination with pedal tones via open strings (high E in this case), eighth-note arpeggios and a Townsend approach to first position chords. A small detail to watch out for on this one is the open E string immediately after the A chord that occurs the first time around he plays the riff. I repeated it to highlight this.
Riff #2 – Little America
Although not really recognised as a technician on the guitar, there are a number of songs in the R.E.M. canon where Peter deploys some additional dexterity. As a result, working through/learning these songs definitely requires extra concentration. Reckoning’s final cut ‘Little America’ is a good example. Again, some familiar features of his playing are in evidence like the D pedal drone but he also indulges in some string-skipping which can be somewhat finger-twisting given the pace of the song; it moves along at a fair old tick.
Riff #3 – Second Guessing
Possibly the easiest to play of the the seven captured here, but no worse for it. It kicks off via a E5 power chord and then bounces between this and a Cm7 before resolving to Badd11. He then wanders down the neck whilst leaving the open B & E strings to ring out. Using open strings to create harmony with upper extensions is very much a feature of the early R.E.M. sound. The descending chords are Aadd9, G6 then F#m11. This final chord in particular, can be heard in a number of songs prior to 1985.
Riff #4 – Letter Never Sent
This mid-tempo track was one of the first I attempted to learn back in the day. The opening riff implies a D – Bm7 – Cadd9 progression through the application of double stops and playing it on the Rickenbacker 12 string definitely highlights this to my ears. The G6 chord, which Buck uses throughout the record, makes an apperance in the pre-chorus. Another key feature is the single note line that follows the ‘Heaven is yours’ (is that the lyric? Not sure…) chorus hook. Lots of economy in his playing on this one which really suits and supports the vocal melodies.
Riff #5 – 7 Chinese Brothers
Should have probably been riff #7, but this blog reflects the order in which I recorded them :). Here, I start at the chorus before leading into the bridge/middle eight and then back to the verse riff. The technique of playing melodies with a open string pedal note (D here) is a signature guitar move from the Buck school. You’ll hear it on this track, ‘Green Grow The Rushes’, on ‘Hyena’ and a few others. F#m11 rears its head again in the middle section followed by a dramatic B with a flattened 6 arpeggio. Definitely an unusual chord to deploy in this type of song and it really leaps out of your speakers when you hear it.
Riff #6 – Time After Time (Annelise)
A number of the songs on the album are based in the key of D. When the band played this live it would indeed be in this key, but on the album recording it is in E flat. Possibly the track was varispeeded up a semitone in the studio or they tuned up a half-step to add some variety. Either way, I’ve opted for the live approach. This one is, on the face of it, a fairly simple riff. However, its important to get the correct loose swinging feel to the bar-long main repetitive part. As a result, this is one of those weird ones that is actually trickier to get right the slower you play it, as my video demonstrates.
Riff #7 – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
For probably the most harmonically sophisticated song on the record, Peter Buck opts for the simplest approach by strumming through the chords on a 12-string (and I’m sure plenty of other tracked guitars). Disappearing down the gear rabbit hole for a moment, it doesnt sound to me like he is using a Rickenbacker in the studio. This is because I hear a guitar strung in the ‘traditional way’, particularly on the opening riff. For those who don’t already know, a Rick 12 is by default strung with the heavier gauge string first, so on a downstroke you hit those before the lighter ones. This is the opposite of how most other 12 string guitars are configured.
And that concludes our (relatively) fleeting visit to the riffs of Reckoning. Obviously not an exhaustive trek but hopefully enough to get you started on trying to cop some of his signature guitar moves from this period.
There’s plenty more content to go at from Chronic Town through to Document (and some of Green), so follow me on Instagram or like my Facebook page for subsequent analyses of his approach.
On the rickresource forums Mitch Easter said that Peter used Mitch’s Fender XII for So. Central Rain.