From the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM LEVY


Some guitarists search obsessively for novel chord voicings to spice up their songs or arrangements. While there’s nothing wrong with such predilections, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there’s already quite a bit of variety available within the everyday open-position chords—G, Am, D, and so on.

These static forms can easily be made livelier by momentarily adding or subtracting a finger. While chords built this way may have overly complicated names—Cmaj7(add2), for example, which is just a standard C shape with the first and second fingers lifted—such ostentatious tags belie the simple moves that lead to their construction.

Among the many players who’ve used such tactics to create sui generis riffs and chord progressions, perhaps no one has been more successful than Neil Young, the prolific singer-songwriter responsible for “Heart of Gold,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Harvest Moon,” and dozens of other folk-rock classics.

In this lesson, you’ll examine some of Young’s renowned handiwork, as well as some of the lesser-known songs from his catalog. The examples here were mostly inspired by the guitarist’s work from the early to mid-1970s—a particularly fertile period for him. The hallmarks of his guitar style can all be found on his records from this era, made and released when he was approaching 30 years of age.

Two albums that showcase Young’s style in a stripped-down setting—his voice, his guitar, and nothing more—are Live at Massey Hall (recorded onstage in 1971, released in 2007) and the “lost” album Hitchhiker (recorded live in the studio in 1976), which was released this year (see a review on p. 79). Both of these early-ish recordings feature many songs that would go on to become staples of Young’s concert repertoire, and both offer ample opportunity to examine his guitar style more closely.


Come to G(sus)

There are a few ways to finger the familiar G chord. Example 1a shows one common choice, employing fingers 1, 2, and 3. Young tends to favor an alternate grip (Example 1b), with fingers 2, 3, and 4. Out of context, there may not seem to be much difference between the two. Young’s preference makes sense, however, when you begin to study how he uses that freed first finger to add harmonic variety to the G chord—as you’ll see in the examples to follow.

The spartan, Young-approved G form you’ll be using in Example 1c allows even more harmonic latitude—muting the fifth string and leaving the first and second fingers unfettered. This example is loosely based on Young’s wispy intro from “Through My Sails,” the last track on his 1975 album Zuma. The four-measure phrase is built upon I–vi–IV–V—one of those ubiquitous chord progressions in popular music.

This example is in the key of G major, as is Young’s original, so the progression here is G–Em–C–D. Remember to fret the G chord with your third and fourth fingers. Keep this shape held in place when you switch to the Gsus4 and Gadd9 chords. Similarly, play the Em chord with your second and third fingers, leaving your first finger free to form the Em(b6) chord in measure 2; play Cmaj7/G with fingers 2, 3, and 4, so that you can easily convert it to Cmaj7/G by adding your first finger on the second string. In measure 4, be careful not to sound the first string.

Beach Music

Example 2a is inspired by Young’s electric-guitar intro to “Revolution Blues,” from his 1974 album On the Beach. Here, a static Am chord is enlivened with simple adjustments. The addition of the fourth finger converts Am to Asus4. Lifting the second and third fingers gives you Am11. That said, such a freeze-frame view of the harmony only tells half the story. The other thing that’s going on here is that such moves add melodic interest. You could—and should—try a similar approach to other basic chords, as shown in Examples 2b–d. In these four examples, play the first eighth note in each measure by muting the strings with your fretting hand. Don’t press too hard. The resulting sound should be percussive, with no particular pitch.

Example 3 is modeled on the intro from another On the Beach song—“Motion Pictures (for Carrie).” Here, you’ll be using a whole-step-down variant of standard tuning (low to high: D G C F A D). As such, what looks like a D chord will sound like a C chord, and so on. This slackened tuning drenches the entire song in a swampy, slow-mo atmosphere.

In measure 1, an incremental change transforms the D chord to Dmaj7. You might expect that descending line on string 2, from D to C#, to keep going down so that the next chord is D7. That does in fact happen, but the chord is given a fresh spin through the fleeting appearance of the chord’s fourth/11th, G. On beats 1 and 3, hammer on the third string from open to fret 2. These hammers-ons are meant to be played in time, as 16th notes, so don’t just hammer as quickly as you can. Make sure to feel that rhythm as you play. Also take heed of the accented beats. These give Ex. 3 a particularly Young-ian swagger.

Shape Shifting

Besides amending common chords, another simple yet effective technique that Young uses in several songs is moving a single, non-barre shape up the fretboard to change its character while open-string notes sustain above and/or below the fretted notes. This is particularly effective in double-drop-D tuning (D A D G B D; sometimes called D modal). A good example of this is “Old Laughing Lady,” from Neil Young, originally released in 1969.

Example 4a is modeled on the first two measures of “Old Laughing Lady.” No shifting-shape technique just yet. Instead, this two-bar phrase is similar to the examples you’ve already seen in this lesson, where chords are modified by adding or subtracting fingers. In this case, D5 becomes Dsus4. This example illustrates the kinds of sound that D-modal tuning is so perfect for. Notice how rich the D-type chords sound as the open first and sixth strings ring out.

In Example 4b, based on the song’s verse chords, you can see how a simple two-finger shape—the D5 in measure 1—is subsequently used to make D6/9, Dmaj7, and Dsus4 chords. Conceptually, this is not unlike the single-shape chord sequence Young used for the verse chords of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” from After the Gold Rush, released in 1970. Young employed a similar tuning for that song, with all six strings dropped an additional whole step (C G C F A C).

Use this low variation of the modal tuning for Example 4c, based on the verse chords for “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” Here, a D5 grip (measures 1 and 2) is shifted up three frets and reused as Dm7 (measures 3 and 4), then moved two frets higher to make Dsus4 (measures 5 and 6), before finally being abandoned for other chord forms (measures 7 and 8). Play the 16ths here with a slight swing feel, as Young does on his original recording. In such an asymmetrical groove, the down-strummed 16th notes should last just a tiny bit longer than their up-strummed counterparts. Experiment with the down-up ratio until it feels authentically Young-like.

Begging Your Pardon

Example 5 is kindred with the intro to “Pardon My Heart,” from Zuma. The tuning here is drop D, down a whole step. If you’re still in the “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” tuning, simply raise your first string up a whole step. The picking-hand technique for this example is more closely related to clawhammer banjo technique than to typical guitar strumming or fingerpicking patterns. Begin with your hand in a loose fist. Strike each down-stemmed bass note with your thumb, then feather the up-stemmed chords with your fingers by opening and closing your fist in the appropriate rhythms. (This technique will already be familiar to those of you who know how to play John Mayer’s “Stop this Train.”)

As with the hammer-ons you played in Ex. 3, the hammers here (on beat 3 of measures 1 and 3, and on beat 1 of measure 2) are key to making this feel authentically Young-like. Be sure to play them in time, and with enough force to match the dynamics of the non-hammered notes here. If it takes you awhile to get this groove to actually feel groovy, don’t despair. It’s not easy, but definitely worth the effort.

Back to Basics

This lesson’s final two examples are in standard tuning and both are meant to be played with a pick. After spending some time in Young’s low-down alternate tunings, you may find that standard tuning feels fresh to your ears and hands once again.

Example 6 has echoes of “Look Out for My Love,” from the 1978 album Comes a Time. Once again, the elements here are simple and familiar, but are assembled in a distinctive way. In measure 1, the top-line melody adds the ninth (F#) of the E5 chord on beat 3. A similar move happens two measures later, where A briefly turns to Asus4.

While the rhythms here are meant to be played as written, a quarter-note pulse should be ghosted throughout. (If you’re not sure what this means, listen to Young’s original recording.) Bring your strumming hand down on each quarter—hitting the strings a little harder when there’s a specific bass note to play (as in measure 1, beat 1) and a little lighter when there’s not (measure 1, beats 2 and 3). You’ll catch the chords and melodic flourishes (all up-stemmed) with the same pendular motion—using downstrokes for any downbeat notes, upstrokes for any upbeat notes.

“Heart of Gold,” from Young’s 1972 album Harvest, is the inspiration for Example 7. Like your first couple of examples here, Ex. 7 uses common chords—Em7, D, and Em—to build a mighty riff. Part of what gives this sequence its rugged feel is the lone bass note sounded on the downbeats of measures 1 and 3, immediately followed by a slew of unrelenting eighths. Another powerful factor here is the hammered melodic line—built from the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D)—at the ends of measures 2 and 4. Rocket science? No. Folk-rock gold? Yes. 


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This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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