When Joan Armatrading picked up her first guitar from a pawnshop at age 14, she did not follow the typical route of learning the hits of the day—or taking any lessons at all. “That’s never been my way,” she says. “I would try and do my own songs. So I would make up riffs, and in terms of a chord, you can just play two notes on the guitar and make a nice sound even if you don’t know what that is.”
That find-your-own-way approach, perhaps, gave the budding songwriter a head start toward developing a sound of her own—as Armatrading certainly did, tapping into the harmonies and grooves of folk, rock, R&B, jazz, and reggae. From her 1970s breakthrough ballad “Love and Affection” to ’80s pop anthems like “Drop the Pilot” and “Me Myself I,” and onward through her latest release, Consequences, Armatrading has followed her own path for 50 years. Along the way she’s become one of the most revered songwriters of her generation, particularly in the UK, with a stack of awards including a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her contributions to music, charity, and equal rights.
Armatrading considers herself a songwriter first, and her tough yet tender vocals and emotionally incisive lyrics take center stage. But one of the not-so-secret powers behind her music is her instantly identifiable acoustic guitar—at turns delicate, jazzy, fierce, and funky. In the realm of pop/rock, the acoustic is often assigned the limited role of accompanying soft ballads, but in Armatrading’s hands, the instrument has no boundaries.
“The reason I think my acoustic style developed in the way that it did was because when I write, I tend to hear lots of things—the bass part, the keyboard bit, some strings, what kind of percussive sound it should be,” says Armatrading. “I’m trying to play all those things at once, so my style is quite aggressive.”
While generations of fans have felt the power of Armatrading’s guitar work, both acoustic and electric, the mechanics of how she plays have not been well documented or widely understood. So in this lesson I take a deep dive into her acoustic style, using a series of examples inspired by some of her best songs. And Armatrading herself, by way of a Zoom interview from her home in England, shares observations about her guitar craft—and the songwriting that ultimately drives it.
In 2014–15, Armatrading undertook what she announced as her last major world tour, and while in California she visited Acoustic Guitar to record a video session performing three classic songs: “Down to Zero,” “Steppin’ Out,” and “Love and Affection.” Excerpts from that session are transcribed below, and you can find the complete words and music to “Love and Affection” in the print edition of the May/June 2022 issue. Be sure to check out the videos on AcousticGuitar.com for an up-close look at Armatrading solo, coaxing a band’s worth of sound out of her guitar.
Finding Her Groove
Armatrading was born on the island of Saint Kitts, in the West Indies, but moved to Birmingham, England, at age seven. After delving into piano, guitar, and songwriting as a teenager, she made her entrée into a performing arts career in 1970, when she was cast in a touring production of Hair. Not only did she love singing and playing guitar in the show, but she connected with fellow cast member Pam Nestor, who became co-writer for the songs on Armatrading’s first album, Whatever’s for Us, released in 1972.
A folky production based around acoustic guitar and piano, Armatrading’s debut delivered strong songs like the title track and “City Girl.” But it was on her self-titled album from 1976 that she fully hit her stride as a songwriter and guitarist—and scored her first hit, with the 12-string-powered “Love and Affection.”
By that time, too, Armatrading had discovered Ovation guitars, which have remained core instruments for her ever since. When she was guitar shopping circa 1975, a music store clerk suggested she check out these unique bowl-backed guitars, and she was thrilled to find that their integrated, plug-and-play amplification systems alleviated her frustrations with the crude clip-on acoustic pickups she’d been using. “I tried it and thought, this is perfect,” she recalls. “No more rummaging around onstage because the pickup has fallen off or something. And I liked the tone as well.”
Early on, Armatrading began to experiment with dropping standard tuning a whole step to D (D G C F A D). While some guitarists use low tunings to better match their vocal range, the primary draw for Armatrading is the tone. “It sounds really good,” she says. “I mean, not every song is going to want that tone, or not every song that’s played on the guitar wants that register.”
“Down to Zero,” which kicks off the Joan Armatrading album, is one of several songs in this lesson that uses the D-to-D tuning, which gives the guitar a looser, huskier sound. Example 1 (below) shows the intro rhythm pattern as she played it in her AG video, strumming her Ovation Custom Legend in 3/4 time. Use basic first-position chord shapes except for the Fmaj7#11 in bars 5–7, which you form by holding the bottom of an F barre but leaving the top strings open—a shape she uses in different positions in “Love and Affection” and many other songs. Maintain down-up strumming on the eighth notes throughout; at the end of measure 4, play an up-strum arpeggio that lands on the open sixth string on beat 4, leading to the F chord in the next measure.
While many players would take open chord shapes like these and capo up to play in other keys, Armatrading never does that. Why not use a capo? “I can’t do it,” she says. “I get confused. I think, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m just playing an E in another place. Why don’t I just play the B instead?’” What she describes as a sort of limitation turns out to be a strength, because instead of using a capo to transpose the same shapes, she’s developed the facility to travel all around the fretboard.
“Mama Mercy,” from 1977’s Show Some Emotion, is one example of how Armatrading creates propulsive acoustic rhythms with up-the-neck shapes, again on a low-tuned guitar. Example 2 shows the type of rhythm used during the first part of the verse. Play sliding power chords up the neck—think the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” unplugged—with a spiky rhythm pattern that leaves beat 4 open (with a full band, the drummer hits the snare in that spot). Notice also the two-beat measures (bars 2 and 9) that break up the 4/4 meter and add further momentum.
While Armatrading generally sticks with standard tuning, she does have some notable open-tuned songs, especially on her early albums. One is “City Girl,” from her debut, which is played in open D (D A D F# A D) with an opening riff similar to Example 3. Pick a bass line by sliding on the fifth string up to the fifth fret in the first measure, and then follow with a walk-up to the A chord.
During her last world tour, Armatrading played “City Girl” on her Line 6 Variax electric guitar, which simulates different tunings as well as guitar types (acoustics, electrics, even 12-strings) through digital modeling. So while the strings of the solid-body Variax physically remain in standard tuning, in “City Girl” the output sounds as an acoustic in open D.
Another open-D gem from Armatrading’s repertoire is “Woncha Come On Home,” from Show Some Emotion, a haunting song about loneliness mixed with paranoia. As shown in Example 4, play fingerstyle, picking melodies on both the upper and lower strings. On the record, Armatrading adds a touch of African thumb piano to the guitar arrangement.
For Armatrading, the song dictates the instrumentation and arrangement, and her job is to follow. As she puts it, “The song is king or queen, whatever you want to say. The song will tell you what key it wants to be in, the tempo it wants, whether it wants to be rhythmic, whether it wants to be on the guitar or piano. I’ve written songs that really, if I was sensible, I wouldn’t have written it in that key, but the song says, ‘This is the key that I need to be in.’ So that’s the key it stays in.”
Within her guitar repertoire, the song also suggests the type of instrument or setup: six-string or 12-, acoustic or electric, low-tuned or standard. Songs she plays on 12-string, such as “Love and Affection,” “Let It Last,” and “Promise Land,” wouldn’t be the same on a six-string. “You need that sound, really,” she says. “You need that jangly thing going.”
She associates songs with specific guitars in her collection, too. On her most recent album spotlighting acoustic guitar, 2018’s Not Too Far Away, and in concerts promoting the release, she played her Martin 00 and dreadnought guitars (see “What She Plays” below), which she says have a tighter feel very different from her “laid back” Ovations.
Example 5 is based on the intro to “I Like It When We’re Together,” the opening track on Not Too Far Away, played on a low-tuned Martin. Play fingerstyle, picking the notes in each chord simultaneously with your thumb and fingers, and add a light slap with your picking fingers on beat 4. At the end of the intro, add one beat (see the change to 5/4) before resuming in 4/4 in the verse. Continuing in the song, she switches to strumming for the chorus. Her guitar arrangements often use these kinds of textural changes to create contrast from section to section.
Jazzing up the Chords
Armatrading’s songs tap into a much wider vocabulary than basic cowboy chords or power chords. She has a special fondness for extended chords—major and minor sevenths, ninths, 11ths, 13ths, and more—that she traces back to the early and indirect influence of her father.
“You know, my father had a guitar that he wouldn’t let me play,” she recalls. “The song that I heard him play was ‘Blue Moon,’ and it’s very jazzy. So I think that’s where the jazzy chords come from. He didn’t show me how to play any of those chords, but I loved the sound of them.”
One song that exemplifies how Armatrading uses these types of extended chords is “Kissin’ and a Huggin’,” from Show Some Emotion, which she has often cited as her favorite song to play. It’s almost three songs in one, each with its own feel. Try the driving main-chord riff in Example 6a, based on the E7#9—commonly called the Hendrix chord because of its appearance in “Purple Haze,” but Armatrading’s frequent use of this shape makes a strong case for calling it the Armatrading chord. At the end of the second measure, play a quick Am11 to G#7b5 before looping back up to E7#9. The rhythm notated here is closer to recent solo performances by Armatrading than to the original recording.
From that main riff, though, “Kissin’ and a Huggin’” makes a sudden transition into a much more relaxed chorus (not shown) based on strumming straight major and minor chords. And then comes the instrumental section, which has a light jazz feel. Example 6b shows the chord progression: E7#9–A7–Gmaj7–Cmaj7–C13–B7b13. The original record has electric guitar and saxophone solos; performing by herself, Armatrading solos over her own prerecorded rhythm.
Armatrading is generally conversant with the make-up of extended chords but careful not to get bogged down in theory. “I can name chords, and I try to know what it is more by the chord shape that I’m playing,” she says. “But I don’t really want to be playing and thinking, I am doing a ninth or a flattened 13th. I don’t want to play like that. That’s boring. To me, that’s not musical, because music is all about feel and expression.”
Interestingly, she also does not use these more sophisticated harmonies in the initial stages of songwriting. “When I’m writing, the start of the song is always a basic chord—E, F, G, D, A, B, C, that’s it,” she says. “You don’t need anything else. Once I’ve written the song, then I’ll start to put the advanced chords on if it needs it. If it doesn’t need it, you obviously don’t do it.”
The title track from Show Some Emotion is another classic song that uses some jazz harmony and feel without really sounding like jazz. In the first measure of Example 7, play the speedy A minor pentatonic riff that carries the verses. Vintage live clips show Armatrading casually ripping through this riff—on a 12-string, no less—while singing. No easy feat.
Then the chorus of “Show Some Emotion” modulates to A major and goes into a string of minor seventh, ninth, sixth, and diminished chords, as in measures 2–9. Between the D6 and A7, play quick natural harmonics at the 12th fret on the top two strings to suggest a passing E chord. (This is a touch I noticed in live footage.)
Along with her powerful rhythm, Armatrading is an adept lead player—though audiences may not always realize it. “I mean, I’ve been onstage with an electric guitar and playing a solo,” she says with a chuckle, “and the audience is looking at the other guitarist who’s in the band.”
Frequently, Armatrading is her own band. On her last six albums, going back to Lovers Speak in 2003, she has played nearly all the instruments (guitars, bass, keyboards, programmed drums, and so on), layering and engineering the tracks in her own studio, called Bumpkin Studios.
Even when she’s performing solo with guitar, Armatrading likes to incorporate instrumental breaks. One example is the solo version of “Steppin’ Out” recorded in her AG video. The song is mostly a two-chord jam, going between the I and IV (E and A shapes, tuned down a step), with a few quick touches of the V (B). She starts in open position but soon jumps up to the fifth and 12th frets for variety. And then she cuts loose in a full-blown instrumental, moving around the neck and toying with the tonality with major, seventh, minor, and 7#9 voicings of E.
An excerpt from her solo is shown in Example 8. Start with E and A7 up at the 12th fret, and add rock-style (up and down) vibrato on the A7, which is easier with the low tuning. Then head down to the seventh and sixth frets in measure 2, followed by a single-note line in measure 3. Along the way, spice up the harmony with touches of Amaj9 (measure 2) and E7b13#9. Throughout the solo, Armatrading plays hard, with plenty of additional percussion and open strings. As you work through the example, focus more on the overall feel than on re-creating every scratch and note.
“You have to naturally keep the rhythm going,” she says when I ask how she approaches an improv section like this. “And when you’re in the feel, then it’ll happen, won’t it? I’m trying not to analyze how I’m playing it or work out beforehand what the little bits will be. I just play it and hope that it works, because I can’t spend my time trying to second-guess myself.”
One of Armatrading’s most arresting guitar moments on record is the intro to “Like Fire,” from Show Some Emotion. In Example 9, again in the low tuning, open with a bluesy passage played mostly around the fifth fret. The harmony is ambiguous here, with hints of A minor and D but no obvious root chord. In measure 3, though, kick into the song’s sly, funky primary groove in E, as used in the verse. Notice how the repeating riff goes for six beats, so it starts at the beginning of measure 3, in the middle of measure 4, and again on the downbeat in measure 6.
In measures 7 and 8, slide a minor 11th shape from C# down to the B, and then wrap up the intro with a real stretch, a 7#9 with a fourth-finger barre on the top two strings, climbing from A back up to B. Armatrading takes these kinds of finger-buster chord moves in stride.
On the Path
While Armatrading, at 71, has retired from extended touring, that doesn’t mean she’s hanging up her hat as a musician. Writing songs, she says, is “as natural as breathing really. I think this is what I was born to do. It’s something I have to do, and I know I’ll never stop doing it.”
And for all she’s accomplished over 50 years and more than 20 studio albums, she still feels the simple drive to get better on the guitar.
“I find it quite a difficult instrument to play, and I’m still learning,” she reflects. “I know I’m good, but I think I could be better, so I try all the time to get better at it—just to get the chords that I want quicker and cleaner, and play better solos… Just understanding the guitar more. It’s a lovely instrument to play, and when you get some measure of control over it, it’s such a great feeling.”
What She Plays
Joan Armatrading has been playing Ovation guitars since the mid-1970s, and two of her current companions onstage are a six-string Custom Legend and a 12-string Legend. Among her other acoustics are two Martins, a DCPA4 cutaway dreadnought and a smaller-bodied 00-28. Live, she sometimes uses a Boss chorus pedal with her acoustics but otherwise goes direct into the mixer.
Her main electric guitar for performing is a Line 6 Variax, which uses digital modeling to create a wide range of instrument types and tunings. She runs the Variax through a Line 6 HX Stomp amp and effects processor, and has no amps onstage.
Armatrading’s six- and 12-string acoustics are set up with D’Addario phosphor bronze extra-light strings (.010–.047). On electric, she uses D’Addario EXL110 nickel-wound regular lights (.010–.046). For flatpicks, she uses a .73mm Dunlop, and she’s a big fan of Roadie automatic tuners for keeping her guitars and basses in tune.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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