How to Play James Taylor’s Timeless Cowboy Lullaby “Sweet Baby James”

Here are some tips on how to play "Sweet Baby James,” the 1970 title track of James Taylor’s second album. Taylor himself has called it his best song.

James Taylor wrote “Sweet Baby James” at the tail end of the 1960s, soon after he returned to the United States from England, while driving south to North Carolina to meet his namesake nephew for the first time. He was aiming for a Gene Autry–style cowboy song, a lullaby for a sleepy buckaroo, though in verse two the lyrics broaden into a meditation on the music path. “Sweet Baby James” debuted in 1970 as the title track of Taylor’s second album and has been sung around countless campfires and song circles ever since. Taylor himself has called it his best song.

The guitar part is a lot simpler than in many Taylor songs, built around a bass/strum in waltz time—primarily with a bass note on beat 1 and quarter- or eighth-note strums on beats 2 and 3. When changing from G to D, Taylor often plays a B bass note (on the G chord) to lead to the fourth-string D, as shown here in notation. He picks the bass notes with his thumb and strums with his fingers, but the part works just as well with a flatpick. 


In the intro, hold down the top two strings at the third fret over the G5, Em7, and A7sus4 as chiming common tones. For the balance of the song, you might opt to play the A7sus4 with the first string open. While the chords are straightforward, the way Taylor strings them together is not—there is little repetition in the progression from line to line. The chord diagrams show JT-style D and A fingerings with the index finger on top, but feel free to use your preferred fingerings. 

Taylor keeps his accompaniment sparse but does add a few of his signature D and A hammer-ons at the end of vocal lines. The notation shows a Dsus2-to-D tag; you can follow a similar pattern on an A, hammering onto the second string for Asus2–A. Play the D tag at the end of the chorus, with the hammer-on falling right after the phrase “sweet baby James.” After the second chorus, the hammer-on provides the perfect JT ending to one of his most enduring songs.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 56.

magazine cover

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *