From the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM LEVY (video by Paul Geller)
Legend has it that singer/songwriter Willie Nelson loves his tour bus so much that he prefers to sleep aboard it—parked outside his home—even when he’s not touring. True or not, the story is believable. After many thousands of nights on the road, a bunk is bound to feel more comforting than any bed. Nelson has been touring relentlessly as long as anyone can remember. Unlike most artists, who’ll hit the road primarily to promote a new release, Nelson just keeps on keeping on, whether or not he has a new album to plug.
At any given moment, however, odds are good that Nelson does have a new record out. Since beginning his recording career in the early 1960s, he has released more than 70 studio albums, two dozen collaborative albums, several live recordings, and countless compilations. His latest studio effort, Last Man Standing, was released on April 27, 2018—two days before his 85th birthday.
Many of Nelson’s original songs are now classics of the country canon—including “Crazy,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” “On the Road Again,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” and “Three Days.” Despite his popularity as an artist, he was a behind-the-scenes songwriter first. Consequently, the best-known versions of many Nelson songs are by other recording artists. “Crazy” is most often associated with vocalist Patsy Cline. “Night Life” was a hit for Ray Price, and many blues fans are familiar with B.B. King’s version. “Three Days” was a 1962 hit for Faron Young and did well for k.d. lang in 1990.
Nelson is almost never seen or heard without his well-worn nylon-string guitar, Trigger (named after film cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse), in hand. He acquired this Martin N-20 in 1969. He’d previously been playing a Baldwin nylon-string model, equipped with that company’s proprietary Prismatone pickup, played through a solid-state Baldwin C1 amplifier. That guitar got busted up by a drunken patron’s misstep while Nelson was gigging on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. When Nelson sent the Baldwin guitar back home to Nashville to be revived, the repairman told him it was beyond hope, and mentioned that he had a new Martin for sale. Since Nelson had liked the Baldwin’s amplified tone, he asked the repairman to pull the pickup from his totaled guitar and install it in the Martin, and Trigger was born. Nelson has been playing Trigger ever since, and the guitar and amp setup is as much a part of his musical persona as his voice is.
A Jazz Inspiration
Though Nelson is most easily described as a country musician, elements of jazz have always permeated his style. This may be most apparent on his 1978 album Stardust, on which he croons his way through well-loved jazz standards, such as “Georgia on My Mind” and the album’s title track. But even on other albums, when he’s playing one of his own three- or four-chord songs, Nelson always takes melodic and harmonic chances. Country may be his milieu but jazz is his M.O.
It’s no secret that Nelson’s primary inspiration—on the guitar, at least—is the late Gypsy-jazz luminary Django Reinhardt. Echoes of Reinhardt’s sinuous melody lines can frequently be heard in Nelson’s guitar solos, as you’ll see later in this lesson. The first two examples here highlight Nelson’s notable rhythm-guitar style, which exhibits some Gypsy-jazz sophistication as well.
Example 1 is based on Nelson’s recording of “I’m Falling in Love Again” from his 1992 album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? (Long story short: Nelson owed back taxes. To satisfy his debt, he negotiated a deal to record and release this music, and give the proceeds to the taxman.) The lush passing chords in measures 1 and 2 aren’t typical country fare but are Nelsonic indeed. Db9/Ab serves as a chromatic approach to C9/G. Gb6 functions similarly, approaching the F chord—though without
the parallel voicing motion. Interestingly, the remainder of this passage is purely triadic. Nelson has never seemed to mind mixing jazz flavors with campfire sensibilities.
If you want to dig deep into Nelson’s guitar style, The IRS Tapes is a great place to start because it was recorded without any additional production or orchestration. It’s just his voice and guitar throughout, presumably tracked live in the studio.
Coloring Outside the Lines
VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson is another great opportunity to hear Nelson’s guitar in the foreground. Recorded at a live concert appearance in 1997 (and released a year later), the album features just these two, singing some of their best-loved songs. They both play guitar, and take alternate turns on lead vocal. Example 2 is composite—inspired by Nelson’s freewheeling fills and Cash’s rock-steady rhythm on their version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” from VH1 Storytellers.
The first three measures are straightforward—à la Cash—except for the Ab on beat 4 of measure 1. That’s pure Nelson. (Going to a G chord? Why not get there by half step?) Measure 4 incorporates a rootless A9 arpeggio, starting on the chord’s third (C#). Played smoothly—as Nelson would—the maneuver sounds much more complex than it is.
Example 3a is in the style of Nelson’s intro to “Are You Sure,” from his mid-’60s album Country Willie—His Own Songs. Trigger wasn’t in his hands just yet but he’d already been developing a singular voice on the guitar. This example illustrates Nelson’s uncanny ability to keep the fundamentals covered while coloring outside the lines. You can see how the new chords are outlined fairly clearly at the beginning of each measure, yet there’s some sly chromaticism to be found in between.
In Example 3b—also styled after “Are You Sure”—the fills get bluer and richer, harmonically speaking. Check out the two-note shapes in measure 2 and three-note shapes in measure 5. As before, these aren’t difficult grabs, but they can sound incredibly cool when you play them with confidence. The rest of the fills here are common blues vocabulary, paced to complement Nelson’s vocal delivery. Make sure to listen to the original recording.
“Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is another song from Country Willie that showcases Nelson’s guitar skills. Example 4 is in the style of the song’s introduction. Guitarists don’t always think of the key of F major as one that can feature hammer-ons from open strings. This example illustrates that there are plenty of melodic possibilities.
Nelson had previously recorded “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” on his 1962 debut album, And Then I Wrote, and he revisited it once again on his 1998 album Teatro. His guitar work on this later recording is completely different, though no less inventive. The next two examples are inspired by Nelson’s thrilling mid-song solo. Example 5a begins simply and spaciously, which serves to heighten the drama that follows. In measure 3, an eighth-note line climbs up the E major scale from its sixth degree (C#).
This line changes direction at the end of the measure, morphing into a melodic pattern that continues downward through the first two beats of measure 4. Beats 3 and 4 here are a tumbling blur with chromatic passing tones.
A few fingerings may work for this passage, but try this one first: Play the triplet with fingers 3-2-1, then quickly shift down one fret so that your second finger is on F#; finger the 16ths 2-3-2-1, then quickly shift down one more fret so that your first finger is on E for the downbeat of the following measure.
Example 5b is more laid back than Ex. 5a, though tension begins to build in measure 3 as the paired notes descend chromatically. The descending flurry on beat 3 of the fourth measure looks thorny on paper but it’s really not. Play the first four notes of the quintuplet with your first finger. Slide from fret 5 to fret 2, then pull off to the open B. Note that on beat 4 of that same bar, the note C# anticipates the A chord in the final measure. (C# is the third of an A major triad.)
This next example is in the spirit of Nelson’s solo on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” a tear-jerking ballad from the soundtrack of the 1981 film Honeysuckle Rose, which Nelson also acted in. The song’s tempo is slow. Trigger—like most nylon-string guitars—isn’t big on sustain. One way Nelson kept his original solo afloat was by re-attacking the notes, very much like you’ll see in Example 6. Nelson’s other effective tactic was the use of chromatic slurs like those in measures 6 and 8. These moves aren’t a far cry from the slurs in Ex. 5b. The difference this time is that the slurs are single notes—not double-stops—and are in the guitar’s lowermost register.
Nelson’s beautiful “Moonlight in Vermont”—from his ’78 album Stardust—is the inspiration for Example 7. Play it fingerstyle to best capture the gentle murmur of Nelson’s original recording. The chord shapes in measure 1 will likely be familiar to you, though the shapes in measure 2 may not if you haven’t played much jazz. Note that this Fmaj7 voicing has no third (A) in it but sounds complete nonetheless—perhaps because the note A is played in the previous measure and seems to linger. Gaug7 is a G7 chord with a raised fifth degree (D#). The Bb7 chord in measure 4 is a familiar first-fret barre chord, though its sound is surprising in this key, as the song’s composer, Hoagy Carmichael, intended. Remember—this example is merely the song’s brief introduction. If the final G chord feels unresolved to you, play a C chord afterward.
Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Lisa Loeb, Amos Lee, and Ani DiFranco, among others. He is also the founder of Guitar Tips Pro. guitartipspro.com
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Willie Nelson is one of the featured artists in Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s—a special exhibit that opened in May 2018 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Though the term “outlaw” has been cheapened by overuse in modern music marketing, it was used throughout the 1970s to describe a thriving musical counterculture. Along with Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, and Jessi Colter, Nelson was one of the pioneers of this movement. While the Nashville studios continued to churn out glossy country hits that clung to the cultural values and aesthetics of the 1950s, these artists sought to express themselves in more personal and progressive ways.
It wasn’t just the Nashville sound that Nelson and others were bucking. It was the system. RCA-Nashville had a contract with the local studio engineer’s union. Any artist signed to the RCA label at the time—as a great many were—was bound to record at RCA studios if they were making a record in or around Nashville. Nelson violated this agreement when—as a producer—he recorded Waylon Jennings at an alternate studio in town, Glaser Sound Studios, also known as “Hillbilly Central.”
After a fire leveled Nelson’s Nashville-area home in 1971, he relocated to Austin, Texas—a city populated with likeminded artists and simpatico music fans. Nelson enjoyed it so much there that he went on to convince many of his Nashville cronies to follow. A couple years later, he launched the Fourth of July Picnic festival, which still goes on. Though the festival has sometimes been held in other cities, its Austin roots have helped cement the city’s reputation as the hub of non-mainstream Country.
The Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit puts the complex Nashville/Austin relationship into fresh perspective—looking back at the artists who shook things up in the ’70s, as well as at modern Americana and alt-country iconoclasts, such as Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Margo Price. —AL
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.