Learn the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” on Guitar

This classic song captures the ethos of the early hippie era and is played in the key of A minor, with a capo at the fourth fret causing the music to sound in C# minor.

In their short time recording and performing together, from 1965 to 1968, the folk-pop group the Mamas and the Papas enjoyed a string of hits—“California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” and others—that captured the ethos of the early hippie era. The first single, “California Dreamin’,” showcased the quartet of lovers and friends with their trademark vocal harmonies, tasteful guitar work, and a bluesy flute solo by jazz musician Bud Shank.

The song is played in the key of A minor, with a capo at the fourth fret causing the music to sound in C# minor. It begins with four bars of melancholy guitar, six- and 12-strings playing intertwining lines. You can play the separate parts on one guitar, as shown in the notation here, though it requires a bit of toggling between the first and third positions, and it can be tricky to play the two-against-three rhythm in bar 2, on beats 3 and 4. If you’d like, just repeat the first measure two and a half times, followed by the last half of bar 3 and then bar 4—or eliminate the intro altogether.


Notated below the intro, the strumming pattern here gives a suggestion for what to play in the first four measures of the verse; the same rhythmic approach will work throughout the song. Just keep a steady down-up eighth-note motion in your strumming hand, sometimes skipping the “and” of the beat.

The 16-bar flute solo provides a good opportunity for improvising on the guitar. If you’re new to soloing, start with simple phrases, sticking mainly to notes from the A natural minor scale (A B C D E F G), but using the note G# whenever there is an E7 chord. And remember that a good rule of thumb is to always keep the melody in your mind’s ear when improvising.

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 January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 56.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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