Why did you take up the acoustic guitar? Was it cheaper than a Les Paul? Easier to haul to band practice than a Steinway? Was it from a mistaken impression that doing so would phenomenally increase your attractiveness in the eyes of a member of the opposite sex?
Or perhaps you heard someone like André Segovia, Django Reinhardt, Michael Hedges, or Joni Mitchell play the guitar and said to yourself, “I’d give anything to be able to make that sound.”
In this article, you will learn how to play in the styles of Chet Atkins, Libba Cotten, Bob Dylan, Michael Hedges, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Leo Kottke, Joni Mitchell, Django Reinhardt, Doc Watson, Neil Young, and Andrés Segovia.
In these mini-lessons you’ll get a glimpse into the playing of 11 such inspiring guitarists—an opportunity to explore the various fingerpicking styles of Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and Elizabeth Cotten; the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins; the creative accompaniment techniques of legendary songwriters Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan; and the instrumental virtuosity of Segovia, Reinhardt, and Watson. And if you’re wondering “why 11?,” perhaps a viewing of Spinal Tap is in order.
Chet Atkins: His effortless boom-chuck rhythm and clear melody made the country fingerpicker sound like two guitarists. With video.
Elizabeth Cotten: The simple yet subtle fingerpicking style of the folk legend who wrote “Freight Train.” With video.
Bob Dylan: Walking bass lines and slash chords define Dylan’s influential solo guitar backup. With audio.
Michael Hedges: Once revolutionary techniques such as two-handed tapping, slap harmonics, and percussive effects have become standard practice. With video.
Lightnin’ Hopkins: Idiosyncratic timing and impassioned solo performances made Hopkins one of the most influential of the postwar bluesmen. With video.
Leo Kottke: A propulsive alternating thumb drives Kottke’s groundbreaking fingerstyle compositions. With video.
Joni Mitchell: Alternate tunings and unconventional strumming techniques capture the quintessential confessional singer-songwriter’s modern sound. With audio.
Django Reinhardt: Fluid melodic lines, quicksilver arpeggios, and melodies played in octaves are some of the hallmarks of the Gypsy jazz king’s flamboyant style. With video.
Andrés Segovia: The Spanish guitarist’s mastery of the nylon-string established the classical guitar in concert halls worldwide. With video.
Doc Watson: The folk master launched modern flatpicking with his rhythmic style and infectious rockabilly and swing-influenced licks. With video.
Neil Young: The classic-rock icon uses palm muting and simple embellishments in his thumping, propulsive accompaniment figures. With audio.
Acoustic Guitar Icons: Chet Atkins
His effortless boom-chuck rhythm and clear melody made the country fingerpicker sound like two guitarists. You can get more free lessons at Guitar Player World.
Few guitarists have had as much of an impact as the legendary Chet Atkins, who served as inspiration for everyone from a young George Harrison to modern fingerstyle masters such as Tommy Emmanuel. But Atkins’s influence extends far beyond his country roots, and even beyond the guitar.
As a performing artist, studio musician, and executive at RCA Records, Atkins helped define the Nashville sound of the late ’50s and early ’60s. He was a master of a wide range of guitar styles, from country to classical, but his quintessential boom-chuck thumbpicking sound remains his most-recognizable legacy.
Example 1 demonstrates a basic alternating bass pattern under a simple melody—a combination that characterizes Atkins’s style. The notes are easy to play, but it’s a challenge to make them sound like Atkins. One hallmark of Atkins’s sound is the remarkably clear separation between his bass and melody notes. Even today, when listening to Atkins, it is sometimes hard to believe you’re hearing just one guitar.
To achieve this effect, lightly mute the bass strings, and allow the higher melody strings to ring clearly. A thumbpick will go a long way toward getting the right tone on the bass notes. Strive for rock-solid time, with a strong muted accent on the upbeats—the notes on beats two and four.
The phrase boom-chuck is a great approximation of the intended sound, where the “chuck” cracks like a snare drum. At the same time, the melody must ring clearly, with the same phrasing you would use to play the melody if you were playing it by itself.
Atkins always sounds relaxed, clean, and effortless, which often makes his tunes sound easier than they are. Even when playing at breakneck speed, Atkins never seemed to work up a sweat. Example 2 demonstrates a more up-tempo example of Atkins’s style.
As with Example 1, the underpinning is a rock-steady boom-chuck, but the tempo of the bass pattern is doubled, with the “chuck” sound on the upbeats. The syncopated chords combined with a simple melody line create a bluesy country feel.
Although Atkins’s playing usually sounds understated, with an emphasis on the melody, he could match flashy licks with anyone, and he would sometimes use fast cross-string or chromatic runs similar to those in Example 3 as intros or endings.
Even when exploring the broader range of Atkins’s music, mastering his effortless boom-chuck will provide a base for not only his music, but the styles of all those who followed in his footsteps.
Perhaps the most geographically distant example of Atkins’s powerful musical influence is Australia’s Tommy Emmanuel, who told this year’s Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention the story of how he was mesmerized by Atkins’s playing. “Back when I was 17 years old, I was in a small town in the center of Australia, surrounded by the desert.
There was a little music shop there, and they had a brand-new copy of Chet’s For the Good Times and Other Country Moods. I carefully untaped the plastic wrapping and took out that beautiful, perfect new vinyl and put it on the turntable. I’ll never forget that moment. As soon as I heard ‘Chaplin in New Shoes,’ that was it. The next thing I knew it was time for breakfast.”—Jim Ohlschmidt