How to Play Like Nickel Creek Guitarist Sean Watkins  

Watkins has developed a guitar vocabulary quite different from the classic boom-chuck.

As Nickel Creek has ventured far from its bluegrass roots, Sean Watkins has developed a guitar vocabulary quite different from the classic boom-chuck, often employing partial chords, open voicings, hybrid picking, and other techniques. To shed light on his approach, I asked him about several standout tracks from Celebrants.

The first set of examples is based on “Strangers.” Capo at the second fret, and either use hybrid picking, as he does, or play fingerstyle. Nickel Creek arrangements frequently call for switching between individual notes and strumming, so hybrid picking eases the transitions.

Start with the A7 in Example 1a, which is like a fifth-position A with the top three strings left open. Play the down-stemmed notes with the pick/thumb and the up-stemmed notes with your fingers. In the verse, he dips down to Fmaj9/A (Example 1b) and back up to A7. Then go to the Fmaj9/A again and follow with the sequence in Example 1c, eventually moving up the neck to the tenth fret. Every one of these chords includes the open third string, creating a drone that holds the whole pattern together.


The next example is based on “Holding Pattern.” True to its name, the song is built on a fingerpicking part on one chord that never changes. The album track has two interlocking parts: one is capo 2, as shown in Example 2; the other is capo 7 on a Nashville high-strung guitar. This song is a rare case of Watkins playing straight fingerstyle, with no pick.

Example 3 is a small piece of the rhythm part from “Going Out…,” an instrumental inspired by Swedish folk groups like Väsen. The meter here is in seven, and Watkins adds chiming chords below what he called the “crazy angular melody” on mandolin and fiddle. He uses suspended chords like the Asus2 in many songs. “They’re just different colors from the typical chord,” he says, “and adding a ninth without a seventh makes it sound less jazzy and more open.” 

In a very different vein, Example 4 is based on the minimalist, percussive accompaniment for “Stone’s Throw.” “I like messing around with playing two notes on the guitar, and then singing the third note of what would be the chord,” Watkins says. “Incidentally, I started that [pattern] thinking about the Radiohead song ‘Kid A,’ and then it morphed into something else.”


As in many Nickel Creek songs, “Stone’s Throw” breaks from this stripped-down part into full, loud strumming and back again. “We’re conscious about letting songs grow and evolve and not staying for too long in one mode,” Watkins says. “If something happens in one chorus, we want the next chorus to be a little different. Maybe that means getting louder. Maybe that means adding a new part or a new instrument comes in.” In many of the album’s big moments, Watkins overdubbed a baritone guitar to add heft. 

One of the album’s most intense tracks is “Where the Long Line Leads.” “It’s meant to be a cross between something like an old bluegrass tune and garage punk,” Watkins says. In Example 5, based on the beginning of the verse, let the top strings ring as you switch from E5 to E7sus4, Cmaj7, and E.


In Nickel Creek arrangements, every instrument has a very clear role, and every detail is carefully crafted. “I mean, on this album, there’s no chord voicing that wasn’t 100 percent deliberate,” Watkins explains. “It was all worked out.”

Nickel Creek guitar lesson music notation sheet 1
Nickel Creek guitar lesson music notation sheet 2
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 341

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Sean Watkins photo by Josh Goleman

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.