In 2008, guitarist and producer Matt Sweeney found himself backstage at UCLA’s Royce Hall, wondering what to say to a longtime hero, Richard Thompson. The occasion was a 50th anniversary concert for McCabe’s Guitar Shop, the Los Angeles–area institution. Thompson was the event’s musical director, and Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy were performing as a duo on the bill, which also featured Odetta, Jackson Browne, and Loudon Wainwright, among others.
Sweeney suddenly remembered an instructional video that Thompson had filmed in the 1980s, and this seemed like a safe topic for a conversation starter. “I thought I’d bring up the BBC thing, because I learned more from watching five minutes of that video than from any guitar lessons I ever took,” Sweeney says. “But he was horrified, completely apoplectic that I brought it up. He was just like, ‘I f-ing hate that thing. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.’”
At 48, Sweeney is an in-demand collaborator and producer, with a long list of credits—for everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Johnny Cash to Neil Diamond—under his belt. Most recently he’s played guitar on records by the bands Chavez, Endless Boogie, and Soldiers of Fortune; toured with Iggy Pop and Josh Homme; and co-written songs for the John Legend album Darkness and Light. In between these gigs, Sweeney hosts his own instructional web series, Guitar Moves, on Noisey/Vice, in which guest guitarists break down their techniques.
The idea for Guitar Moves came about just after the McCabe’s anniversary concert, when Sweeney shared Thompson’s reaction with his friend Jesse Pearson, then the editor-in-chief of Vice magazine and also an excellent fingerstyle guitarist. “I told him the story about what happened, and we kind of laughed about it. Then he was like, ‘We should totally do a show like that [a guitar instructional series]!’
Sweeney filmed several episodes for Vice’s website, but the project was shelved and Pearson moved on from the magazine. A few years later, Sweeney’s friend Trevor Silmser was put in charge of Noisey, Vice’s music website, and reached out to him. Sweeney says, “Trevor called up and said, ‘I really dug those guitar things you did. Are you still interested in doing the show?’ And it seemed silly not to.”
Guitar Moves debuted in 2013, in an episode with James Williamson of the proto-punk band the Stooges picking up a Martin dreadnought to demonstrate, among other things, the virtues of Nashville tuning. Sweeney, with his mustache, trucker’s hat, and relaxed demeanor, has an aura that belies his deep knowledge of the guitar. In 10 or so minutes, he guides guitarists like Williamson into revealing their musical DNA.
A big part of the show’s appeal is its authenticity. Though the ideas Sweeney exchanges with his guests have a coherent narrative, there’s an air of spontaneity and levity to the episodes, a genuine dialogue between Sweeney and his guests. “It’s pretty unscripted, and I think it’s best that way,” Sweeney says. “The person who deserves the most credit for the show is the editor—Andrew Reuland, who’s in [the rock band] Les Savy Fav. Because Andrew’s a great guitar player, he totally gets the show and knows how to put it together.”
Guests on Guitar Moves more commonly play the electric guitar than the acoustic, but the show is much less about gear than concept. This is especially evident on a double episode with Keith Richards filmed at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. Instead of playing his customary Fender Telecaster, Richards uses a prewar Martin to demonstrate the pseudo–Spanish guitar lines his grandfather taught him, leading into Chuck Berry–style riffing and then the I-IV-chord hammer-on move that’s at the heart of so many Rolling Stones songs. “It was so cool to have him trace the entire evolution of his style right there,” Sweeney says.
Though Sweeney himself is most often seen playing an electric guitar, his style on the instrument is rooted in acoustic technique—especially noticeable on Superwolf, an album he made in 2005 with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “My style is kind of a dumbed-down fingerpicking based on a Fahey/Jansch/John Hurt/Tinariwen/Junior Kimbrough/R.L. Burnside approach, which is meant to be played on steel-string acoustic,” Sweeney says, self-deprecatingly. “If you play the electric guitar with acoustic moves, it’s much cooler-sounding.”
In an episode of Guitar Moves with singer-songwriter Cass McCombs, Sweeney exchanges some fingerpicking tips and plays them on his only acoustic guitar, an instrument of special provenance. Sweeney played as a sideman on Neil Diamond’s 2008 album Home Before Dark, and after the record was released made an impromptu visit to the singer-songwriter’s Los Angeles studio. “There were a ton of guitars lying around, as Neil was thinning his collection. He just handed me a really nice late-’60s Martin [D-18] and said, ‘I think you might like this. You know what, you should have it.’ It was great, because I had predicted the only way I’d ever get a Martin was through somebody’s extreme kindness.”
Sweeney used the Martin to record the guitar solo on singer-songwriter Adele’s cover of the Cure’s “Love Song.” He also had the instrument with him when he worked on Yusuf Islam’s (aka Cat Stevens) 2014 album Tell ’Em I’m Gone. Richard Thompson happened to be at the recording session as well, playing on the song “Babylon.” “It was so cool to watch those guys sitting around together, and watching Cat Stevens show Richard Thompson how to play ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest,’” Sweeney says. “I didn’t have the nerve to bring up Guitar Moves, but it would be amazing to get them on the show sometime.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.