Although Elvis Costello’s "Alison," a single from his 1978 debut album, My Aim Is True, was only a modest success when it was released, the quirky song has endured as one of his best known tunes. On the original recording, Costello’s backing band provides a solid beat with a soft-rock feel. However, Costello has performed the song solo with just his guitar and sometimes slows the piece down, giving the song a more melancholy flavour.
I’ve arranged this instrumental fingerstyle version in D A D G A D, in the key of G. (Costello recorded the song in E.) Like many pop tunes, the melody and harmony are fairly simple and repetitive; a lot of the song’s appeal stems from the lyrics and Elvis’s vocal inflections. To compensate, I use several techniques to introduce some tonal variety, especially on repeated notes. In addition to slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, I sometimes play repeated notes on different strings (in measures 5 and 11, for example). A strumming technique (see measures 9 and 13) also helps give emphasis to various notes and adds some different colors.
The bass line uses a light-rock, dotted-quarter/eighth-note pattern, which helps give the arrangement a bit of a groove. This pattern can be tricky to play against the melody at times. Take it slowly the first few times, so you can discover which melody notes fall at the same time as the bass notes. I like to play this tune a bit more slowly than Costello did on the original recording, treating it as a pretty ballad and emphasizing the minor-chord changes. The arrangement is fairly straightforward; the main challenge is to bring out the melody and to play lyrically. I find that knowing the words to this tune and hearing them in my head as I play helps me mimic some of Elvis’s subtle variation between phases.