3 Acoustic Licks: The Style of James Taylor


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When you think of the “sensitive singer-songwriter,” there’s a good chance the first image that comes to mind looks and sounds a lot like James Taylor. The first American artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968, he found his first major success in 1970 with the release of what is still one of his best-known songs, “Fire And Rain.” Taylor has continued to make new music for the past forty years, but his style was already fully formed on those early recordings. It was tuneful and relaxed, introspective but uplifting, and driven by a signature acoustic guitar style.

There’s a long tradition of fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing in folk music, from simple cowboy songs to the rhythmic thumb-style of the country blues. In the early and mid-1960s, Bob Dylan’s mix of rhythmically driving protest songs (“The Times They Are A-Changin’") and blues-influenced picking (“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”) put the acoustic guitar front and center. Paul Simon’s playing with Simon and Garfunkel brought a musical sophistication and a classical guitarist’s finesse; listen to the high-capoed fingerpicked opening of “Scarborough Fair.”

Whether James Taylor was directly influenced by Dylan and Simon is an open question, but both were hugely successful and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have known their music. Like virtually every folk artist of his generation, he learned the songs of Woody Guthrie, but also absorbed a wider range of sounds growing up in a musical household. He played cello and piano before switching to guitar, and said that his picking style was an attempt to imitate the piano. The thumb stands in for the piano player’s left hand, while the fingers take the part of the right hand. This is actually the basis for the alternating thumb style of the Piedmont folk blues players like Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, and the Reverend Gary Davis. The thumb plays alternating bass notes in imitation of the bouncing left hand in ragtime or “stride” piano. For a good introduction to this picking style, check out Eve Goldberg’s JamPlay lesson on Elizabeth Cotton’s classic “Freight Train.”

Freight Train by Eve Goldberg

Taught by Eve Goldberg

Eve Goldberg is back with a new tune in her fingerstyle series! This time she introduces "Freight Train," a beautiful song you will be learning and using to pick up new techniques in lessons to come.

Carolina in my Mind Acoustic Lick

Taylor doesn’t play in a strict folk style or mention this music as an influence, but the concept of imitating a piano is the same. However, he often uses his thumb more like a classical guitarist, playing bass melodies instead of just repetitive patterns. Our first example is a great illustration, based on the intro to “Carolina In My Mind”:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

First of all, this example is played with a capo at the 2nd fret. This has the effect of raising the pitch, probably to best match Taylor’s voice but also for the way it colors the sound. Since a capo effectively shortens the neck and therefore the guitar’s scale length, it does change the guitar’s tone in a very satisfying way for ringing fingerpicked parts. However, you can practice this without a capo and not really lose anything. You may find it easiest to start without the capo and then add it later once you’ve absorbed the part. Keep in mind that the notes and fret numbers are relative to the capo, so a note indicated on the 2nd fret would actually be 2 frets up from the capo.

In this case, we’re working off a familiar D chord shape, and using the capo on the 2nd fret raises the sounding pitch by a whole-step. So we’re looking at and thinking about a D chord, but the sound we hear is an E chord. This is important to know when you try to play with other musicians, or find the right key for your voice! The capo makes the guitar a transposing instrument, meaning the pitch you hear is actually not the note (or in this case, chord) that you played.

Looking at the musical notation, you might notice that the notes are stemmed in two directions: the low notes stemmed down, the rest up. The tab doesn’t have these stems, so it’s worth noticing this even if you don’t read notes. The downward-stemmed notes are plucked with the thumb, the rest with the fingers. In the tab, this should be pretty clear when two or more notes happen together. In this particular example, the thumb plays this bass line, starting with the open D string:

G      F#
1 2 3 4
E       E
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4

The bass notes correspond to the chord shapes, which make it a little easier to follow. Note the passing F# on count 4 of the first complete measure, connecting the low G that starts the bar with the open low E that begins the next bar.

If you’re totally new to fingerstyle, this is likely to be a challenge, but the basic approach is pretty simple. Once you’ve identified the bass line and how to count it, finding the other notes is as simple as (1) recognizing the chord and (2) deciding whether each high note lines up with the bass notes or falls in between them. The simplest way to approach the right hand fingering is to use a dedicated finger for each string. Typically this would be the index for the G, middle for the B, and ring (or middle again) for the high E.

Note the eighth-note pickup plucked by the index finger at the beginning, followed by a hammer-on with the left hand middle finger into a D shape. You can see how the bass note and the open first string are played together, and how the hammer-on follows immediately afterward. There are faster “and-a” rhythms in beat 2 of both the first and second bars. A “2 and-a” rhythm plucked with the middle finger on the downbeat and then thumb-index for the next two notes. Listen to the slow audio example to help you hear the rhythm.

Acoustic Lick: Something in the Way She Moves

Example 2 is based on the intro to “Something In The Way She Moves.” This time, instead of a chord cycle, we have a sliding riff and near-steady alternation of the picking hand thumb and fingers. The capo is at the third fret, so while we finger an A formation the sounding chord is actually a C.

Exercise 2

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Hold down the opening A shape with just two fingers. We’re not going to pluck the 3rd string as part of this chord, so there’s no need to hold it down. Use the left hand middle and ring fingers to fret the fourth and second strings respectively. Pluck the first three notes with thumb-thumb-middle, then strike the open A once again with the thumb. Then strike the D string with the RH (right hand) index finger, slide the LH (left hand) middle finger up 2 frets and bring the LH index finger in to play the 3rd fret of the B string. This creates a partial inverted D shape (actually a partial C form). The picking pattern continues on beats 3 and 4 as follows (we’ve already sounded the 4th fret note on beat 3 with the slide, so that fingering is indicated in parentheses):

4 2 5 3 5 4 5 2
(i) b th i th i th m
3 e & a 4 e & a

There are other finger combinations we could use, but in this case allowing the RH thumb and index fingers to cover more than one string gives us a nice strong rhythmic alternation. Note that the second bar is identical to the first except for the hammer-on from the open D string to the 2nd fret at the beginning of the measure. Allow the notes to ring out whenever possible, holding the LH fingers down throughout the move up to the D shape in the 2nd half of each bar.

Acoustic Lick: Fire and Rain

Our third example is based on the intro to Taylor’s classic “Fire And Rain,”and is the most involved of the three. This one features sliding chord shapes, an independent bass line, and some very cool pianistic chord licks.

Exercise 3

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

It might be best to start this one without the capo. Using a capo is simple when playing open chords, but as soon as you move a couple of frets away it becomes a little more challenging to keep track of where you are. Without the capo we would start with a simple A triad at the 5th fret, a 2-string barre covering strings 1 and 2, and the middle finger on the 3rd string at fret 6. Place the capo on the 3rd fret and your opening chord is still 5 frets up from the capo, putting your barre on the 8th fret (creating a C chord). We’re still thinking in the key of A because of the shapes we’re going to use. As before, the fret numbers given here are assuming no capo.

Start off with the LH middle finger on the fourth fret of the G string, and strike it simultaneously with the open A string. Slide the finger up two frets and then place the partial barre to cover strings 1 and 2, as your right hand plucks the arpeggio across the strings. Then strike the 3rd string together with the low E string, slide back down 2 frets with the LH middle finger, and again lay the partial barre down to complete the chord. It looks like a G triad, but combined with the open E we’ve actually created an Em7 chord. If you’re using the capo then we’re actually in C, and opening with C and Gm7 chords…but as we continue we’ll continue to refer to the shapes as if we were in open position)

Measure 2 begins with a pickup, as the thumb strikes the open D string on the last 16th note of measure 1. The open D string continues to ring, so don’t strike it again on the downbeat of measure 2. Use three right hand fingers to pluck strings 1, 2, and 3 together as you hammer the LH middle finger onto the 2nd fret. You should recognize the D shape, and the hammer-on is a fairly common D chord lick. The middle finger lifts right away as we pluck the 1st and 2nd strings and then hammer back again.

We then move back into an A chord, but only using one LH finger to hammer into the second fret of the B string as we pluck it together with the 5th and 1st strings. This lick is followed in quick succession by a 3rd string A (plucked with the RH index finger) and two open A’s on the 5th string (with the thumb) before moving into one more very pianistic lick. We’re working off an A formation here, but adding a moving melody line against the chord. This is something piano players do with ease, but it’s a bit more challenging on guitar.

I should mention here that if you watch video of James Taylor playing this song, you might notice that he uses some unusual fingerings. Taylor plays an A chord by holding the 3rd and 4th strings with ring and middle respectively, and plays the 2nd string with the index finger! This makes the hammer-ons and pull-offs nice and strong, but if you’re used to playing the A more conventionally you might find it challenging. Play the A chord the way you generally would, using 3 fingers, but makes sure to keep the fingers in place on the 3rd and 4th strings. The moving part on the B string would likely be played with the pinky covering the 3rd fret, and then either the ring or pinky on the 2nd fret to execute the quick pull-off to the open string and the final hammer-on back.

These are not easy examples, but they should be manageable bite-size pieces to give you a taste of James Taylor’s approach to fingerstyle. Don’t worry about playing these up to speed just yet. Use this weekend to get the notes and the coordination under your fingers. As always, slow practice is crucial when you’re first learning new patterns; as you become more and more secure in the part, the speed will take care of itself. Have fun!

Have a great weekend learning these James Taylor licks. Feel free to post videos of you playing these beautiful and soulful snippets on the JamPlay forums!

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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