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From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS

In the summer of 1959, an 18-year-old singer in a bright dress strode onto the stage at the first Newport Folk Festival—a surprise guest of headliner Bob Gibson. Strumming a 12-string, Gibson kicked off the spiritual “Virgin Mary Had One Son,” and she added a crystalline high harmony and sang a solo verse, her voice growing stronger line by line. On their second song, a jaunty call-and-response version of “We Are Crossing the Jordan River,” she started to cut loose—her voice intense and commanding, with a nearly operatic wide vibrato. And when that song ended, in the words of singer/guitarist Dave Van Ronk (captured in David Hajdu’s book Positively Fourth Street), “Newport absolutely exploded.”

That young singer was, of course, Joan Baez, who quickly became queen of the burgeoning folk scene. After Newport, folk fans lined up around the block to hear her perform at Club 47, her home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In short order she was selling out concert halls around the country; her image—barefoot and cradling a guitar—graced the cover of Time magazine; and her first records of unadorned, centuries-old ballads and traditional songs went gold. As Bob Dylan put it in the PBS documentary How Sweet the Sound, “Joanie was at the forefront of a new dynamic in American music.”

In the decades since, Baez has remained one of the defining artists of her generation. Understandably, the primary focus of attention on Baez’s music has always been her extraordinary voice—as well as her commitment to using that voice for political causes, from the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s up through present-day activism on issues such as immigration and climate change. There’s another side of Baez’s musical legacy, though, that has been a quieter but still deep influence: her guitar style. A skilled and precise fingerstyle player who helped bring parlor guitars into the spotlight, Baez modeled an approach to accompaniment that was—in keeping with her music—not flashy, but effective, elegant, and complete-sounding with no other instruments. Like her singing, Baez’s guitar style is all about clarity.

This lesson takes a closer look at the guitar side of Baez, through a series of examples inspired by standout songs in her repertoire, from her 1960 debut to her Grammy-nominated 2018 release, Whistle Down the Wind. Baez, now 78, has said that album may be her last, and her concert appearances that wind up this summer will also be her farewell from touring, so it’s an especially appropriate time to look back and celebrate her contributions to the landscape of the acoustic guitar.

Traditional Roots

Baez’s introduction to the folk world came when she was teenager through a life-changing Pete Seeger concert in Palo Alto, California, where she was inspired by not only the songs but also Seeger’s uncompromising political stands. She discovered great voices such as Harry Belafonte and Odetta, and when her family moved from Palo Alto to Boston in 1958, Joan and her sister Mimi (singer Mimi Fariña) found themselves right next to one of the epicenters of the folk scene—Cambridge’s Harvard Square. As she noted in her 2017 induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I was lucky enough to have found my voice when coffee shops were the order of the day.”

On guitar, one of Baez’s formative influences was her friend Debbie Green (later the wife of singer-songwriter Eric Andersen), who taught her how to fingerpick and shared her repertoire of ballads and traditional songs. Tragic ballads like “Barbara Allen” and “Silver Dagger” became Baez’s core repertoire through the early years of her career. “The ballads were unrequited love and they were beautiful, and love and death and beauty were all somehow tangled in there,” Baez reflected in How Sweet the Sound. “Young as I was, I seemed to have a heart and soul full of the sadness that it took to be attracted to those songs, and almost only those songs. They were sad and long and beautiful. And there I was.”

Example 1 is based on Baez’s version of one of those songs, the Child ballad “Mary Hamilton,” featured on her 1960 self-titled debut. The story is as sad as they come—Mary, a royal attendant, becomes pregnant by the king, casts her baby out to sea, and is convicted for the crime—and Baez plays and sings it with clear-eyed understatement. The guitar part follows a simple arpeggio in a style more akin to classical guitar than folk/blues fingerpicking. The example uses C shapes; to match the pitch of the original recording, tune down a half step.

To get started, practice the picking pattern just on the C in the first two measures. Finger/string assignments can be flexible, but as a rule, pick the bottom three strings with your thumb, the third string with your index, second string with the middle, and first string with the ring. Baez typically plays with a plastic thumbpick and three fingerpicks (she uses aLaska Piks—more on that below), but bare fingers work fine, too.

Another traditional song from her debut album, “House of the Rising Sun” is the basis of Example 2. The example is shown in the key of E minor, but again, on the original recording the guitar is tuned down—in this case, down a whole step to D. So tune accordingly if you want to play along with Baez’s track.

“House of the Rising Sun” has many variations, and you’ll note that the progression here differs from the Animals’ 1964 version that became the de facto standard. As in Ex. 1, you are picking arpeggios but also adding some partial chords. For the double-stops on the treble strings (as on beat 2 of the first two measures), pick the strings simultaneously with your fingers. When you’re playing two or three notes together in the bass (as on the first beat of bar 5), strum with your thumb. In measures 3, 5, and 7, play eighth-note triplets to add rhythmic variety.

Example 3 shows a fingerpicking pattern used in the spiritual “Oh Freedom,” which Baez sang at the 1963 March on Washington. The 1960 recording by Harry Belafonte, one of Baez’s early inspirations, is all vocal, and Baez sings it a cappella, too, on the Live at Newport compilation of her festival performances from 1963–65. A live version of “Oh Freedom” with guitar can be heard on the soundtrack to How Sweet the Sound. The picking style in this example is similar to what’s used in Ex. 1, except that the arpeggio is more linear—it goes up to the first string and then back down. Mark Goldenberg, who played nylon-string guitar on Baez’s latest album, notes that these types of patterns give Baez’s playing a “fluid rolling quality.” Throughout, let strings ring as much as possible, for a legato sound.


It’s worth noting that the 12-fret parlor guitars that Baez favors—in particular petite 0- and 00-size Martin models—are ideal for this type of playing, with their easy articulation, balanced sound, and fingerstyle-friendly string spacing.

Thumb and Strum

Not all of Baez’s early songs were slow ballads. “The Lily of the West,” a traditional Irish song featured on her second album, Vol. 2, in 1961, is a bit of a picking workout. The guitar part is more like flatpicking accompaniment, or Carter-style picking, with bass notes followed by brush strums on the high strings. Try it in Example 4. Use E-minor shapes and capo up at the sixth fret to sound in Bb minor.

The opening measures lay out the basic pattern: bass note on beat 1, one or two strums on 2, hammer-on for the bass note on 3, and one or two strums on 4. Use your thumb for the bass notes, and strum up or down with your fingers. If you prefer fingerpicks, this is where the type of picks matters. Fingerpicks that curve over the pad of your fingers will catch on the strings if you try to strum down (toward the first string). The aLaska Piks Baez uses fit over your nail—they are basically a reinforcement or extension of your nail—so they allow you to pick both up and down, as with banjo frailing. Where the notation shows eighth notes on the treble strings, try a down-up strum with your index alone or index and middle fingers together. The motion is more like a light flick than a hard strum.

Baez’s original recording zips along at about 144 bpm, which will keep your picking hand busy. To learn this song, “Slow it way down,” advises Allison Shapira, who plays in the Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell tribute duo Joan and Joni along with fellow songwriter Kipyn Martin. “Build up muscle memory so both the picking pattern and the hammers become second nature, and then slowly speed it up.”

In measures 5–12, create a dramatic intro by replacing the bass notes with a melodic line that descends from the fourth fret of the third string all the way down to the open sixth string, while keeping the strums going on beats 2 and 4.

The Dylan Connection

In addition to popularizing many traditional songs, Baez has been influential for spotlighting the work of contemporary songwriters—most famously, the early music of Bob Dylan. She first heard the little-known troubadour in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s Greenwich Village—she later described him a “scruffy little mess” at the time, but she found him captivating nonetheless. Two years later Baez and Dylan played a couple of duets at Newport and she invited him on tour, using her star power to introduce him to mainstream audiences. The two musicians were romantically involved for a while, too, but their musical and personal relationship soon frayed, as captured in painful detail in Dont Look Back, the documentary chronicling Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.

Baez has recorded a slew of Dylan songs, including a full album’s worth on Any Day Now in 1968. One of her notable Dylan covers is “Forever Young,” which she put out as a single in 1974, shortly after Dylan himself released it on Planet Waves. Baez played an accompaniment part similar to Example 5. Capo at the second fret to sound in the key of A. In the first four bars, move up the neck on the second and fourth strings before settling into the picking pattern on the G shape. The quick hammer-on/pull-off in bar 5 recurs at the end of the example, to punctuate the end of a verse.

Dylan also inspired some of Baez’s own songwriting. In “To Bobby,” released in 1972, she made a direct (and, she understood later, futile) appeal to Dylan to pick up the mantle of political protest. And a few years later, a phone call from Dylan stirred one of her best original songs, “Diamonds and Rust”—memorably turned into a hard-rocking anthem by Judas Priest. Example 6 shows a passage similar to Baez’s intro in that haunting song.

In “Diamonds and Rust,” the Spanish flavor of Baez’s guitar style shows through, especially in the recurring fingerstyle rolls, as in measure 2, starting right after the downbeat. Pick the top three strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers in quick succession, aiming for a smooth and even flow of notes. Starting in measure 4, the low notes of the pattern climb up the fourth and third strings—this is reminiscent of the intro passage in Ex. 4, except ascending rather than descending.

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Telling the Story

The final example of this lesson is inspired by the title track of Baez’s most recent album, Whistle Down the Wind. Though her voice has lost some of its range and power, Baez’s singing on the album is emotive and deeply affecting, and her playing is featured on most of the tracks—she brought out her original 1929 0-45 for the sessions. Producer Joe Henry, as in many of his projects, wanted to take a live, organic approach. The sessions started with all the players listening to Baez play and sing the songs alone, recalls Mark Goldenberg.

“Originally Joe had me there to support Joan in the event that she had difficulty playing her parts as she sang,” says Goldenberg. “But that did not turn out to be the case, so I moved over to nylon-string. Greg Leisz was on electric, steel, mandolin, and everything else. It was then a matter of finding parts that would fit in the overall picture. We had a full band playing live, with Joe gently coaxing the best out of everyone. Those were great sessions.”

On “Whistle Down the Wind,” one of two Tom Waits songs on the album, the rich tones of Baez’s guitar are at the center of the arrangement. Example 7 shows a part similar to her intro. Use key-of-A shapes (and capo at the first fret to be in the album key), and add hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides as shown to bring out a bit of melody on the second string. In several spots, use chord rolls (indicated with wavy vertical lines); these are similar to the rolls used in Ex. 6, except played faster, so the sound registers as a chord rather than a quick series of single notes. You could play these chord rolls as a strum with your finger(s), slowed down enough that the notes register individually, but you can get a cleaner sound by picking each string in succession.

As you delve into these examples, remember that the guitar parts don’t exist in isolation—they are carefully crafted to support the song’s melody and mood. “The dynamics of her playing are coupled to the dynamics of her singing,” notes Scott Nygaard, the flatpicker (and former AG editor) who has performed with Baez’s band. Pay attention, he says, to “how she uses both to communicate the feeling and meaning of the song she’s singing.”

That is, to me, the most important lesson of Baez’s guitar style. Good technique is necessary to create accompaniment parts that are clear, graceful, and tonally rich, but ultimately the melody and the words matter most. The job of the guitar is to help tell the story.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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