Mack the Knife is one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin since well before his 1959 version was a #1 hit in the US. I found Darin’s lyrics quite faithfully recorded at sing365.com, making only slight changes in spelling or caps for my chart below. The song was originally in a German operetta – music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertholt Brecht – that premiered in Berlin in 1928. The history of this song is a musical education in itself- fascinating! I was motivated to learn to play this one in response to a request by one of the complex care patients I entertain on Mondays at the local hospital. The reason I’d passed over it before is because it rises chromatically five times from concert Bb to Eb. It was beyond my guitar chops in 1959 to put this together, but if you can play bar chords it’s not that tough to follow what I’ve done here. If you plunk your capo on fret 1 you can start off in a comfy A and play along with this great YouTube video shared by Armadilloman.
Using a capo for this piece isn’t all that necessary. I just like the way it ends with me playing in a comfy key of D which, because of the capo, sounds like Eb, a key I still shy away from if I can.
About that last, very cool, chord:
I loved the brassy, squealing last chord the orchestra played and was determined to use something similar.
I found that the chord shown above (capoed up one to concert Eb) is similar in dramatic effect to what the orchestra did and not that hard to play. It is notated with a 9 over the 13 to indicate that it is a particular inversion. The above chord, if the capo weren’t used would be a D 9 over 13. An un-inverted chord would naturally contain the root, major 3rd, 5th, b7th, 9th and 13th in this exact order. Yep, six totally different notes, each higher in pitch than te one before. That means D, F#, A, C, E and B, but they’re all over the place in the above chord and the highest two notes are the 13th on string 2 and the 9th on string 1. Because the 9th is in a higher pitch than the 13th, it’s “out of order.” The chord’s name shows the guitarist that this inversion is what’s wanted. There are other weird things about the notes in this chord. I discovered that the two really low notes on strings 5 and 6 make it even more dissonant and add depth and texture. They are pretty weird inversions themselves. They play with nature and the natural physics of sound.
The whole effect is to produce a complex dissonance that surprises us at the end but doesn’t sound “off” or bad.
If you are interested in some of these ideas (too much to go into here) I suggest you take a course or two in music theory at a local community college or university. I am fascinated by the way harmony and the physics of sound are related. Chord structure has as its basis the harmonic overtone series. Check it out here, thanks (again) to Wikipedia!
Confused? It gets worse, or more fascinating, depending on how curious you are:
The above chord, if played without the capo, would begin with the open 6th string E (the 9th) totally out of place, followed by the open 5th string playing the 5th note of the chord (A), followed by C, the chord’s flattened 7th, followed by F# the third note of the chord, followed by B the 13th note of the chord, followed by another E, the 9th again. So the last 9th on the first string is sounded higher than the 13th. This is the inversion that is shown by the 9 being written above the 13 in the chord’s name.
N.B. This chord doesn’t even contain the chord’s root note, D. It ain’t needed. If you look closely at some of the more complex guitar chords (like 7ths, 9ths, 13ths) you will often find the root and the fifth notes absent. This is also due to the physics of sound. The ear, when it hears a third and a flat seventh together, also hears the root and the perfect fifth and the octave of the root, etc. This is because of overtones that are produced in subtle resonance on the guitar’s soundboard, by vibrations of the strings and by what the brain expects. Mother nature ensures that when a string is plucked it will vibrate in several different frequencies that are related to the basic (fundamental) note of the string.
When we play an octave harmonic we touch the string in its exact middle, causing it to vibrate in two waves instead of one. See this link on how harmonics are produced on a guitar. It has great diagrams. My goal here is to make you aware that there’s a world of amazing knowledge that you can use to make your own chords. Your natural ear is just one tool, but a good ear is critically important.
This last fact reminds me of the blues player from New Orleans who, when asked whether he could read music, said:
Not enough to hurt mah playin’