From the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Download the notation for this lesson here.
In the 1970s, the music of John Denver seemed to be everywhere. Denver scored seven Top 10 singles within a few years, from “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 1971 to “I’m Sorry” in ’75. His albums and songs crossed over the pop, country, and easy listening charts and found multigenerational fans around the world. With his wire-rimmed glasses, honeyed voice, and chiming flattop guitar, Denver serenaded audiences on his own TV specials and sang with everyone from the Carpenters to Frank Sinatra to the Muppets.
How did such a gentle and sincere troubadour, straight out of the folk coffeehouse circuit, become a global superstar? Denver himself put his finger on one reason. “For a long time now it hasn’t been OK to acknowledge certain things about yourself,” he told the New York Times in 1976. “For example, that you love your old lady. That it feels good to be out in the sunshine. That every once in a while on a rainy day you feel sad. That life is good. As I have been able to communicate those things for myself and to reach a large audience, that gives them support in feeling those things. . . . Nobody else is singing these songs. Everybody else is talking about how hard life is, and here I am singing about how good it is to be alive.”
In the ’80s and beyond, the pop-music spotlight on Denver dimmed with the inevitable shifts in musical and cultural fashions, but he continued singing about love, nature, and gratitude until his life was cut short in the crash of an experimental plane he was flying in 1997. And thanks to his gift for simple and emotionally direct expression, the songs Denver wrote and interpreted have remained standard repertoire for any musicians who sing with an acoustic guitar—even if they haven’t always wanted to broadcast that fact.
“I grew up listening to a lot of music, but no small part was taken up by John Denver’s music,” Dave Matthews said in an NPR interview after he contributed a version of Denver’s “Take Me to Tomorrow” to the 2013 tribute album The Music Is You. “I think he was a staple for a lot of people. In a way, he was sort of mocked by the industry that he was at the top of, and mocked by what was considered cool. So there was even a time when maybe I was a little embarrassed that I had an affection for him, and maybe hid it when I was trying my best to be cool.”
While Denver’s graceful melodies and mellifluous voice took center stage in his music, a central feature of all his songs was his crisp guitar work, primarily fingerstyle on both six- and 12-string guitars. He wasn’t a showy player but took great care to craft guitar parts that subtly supported the vocal, often adding melodic riffs and embellishments that became inseparable from his songs. This lesson takes a tour through Denver’s guitar style by way of examples inspired by some of his most enduring songs.
The guitar that got John Denver—born Henry John Deutschendorf—started on the music path came to him from his grandmother when he was 11 years old. That instrument was a Gibson L-37 archtop from around the late ’30s (though Denver himself often said it was built in 1910). On that Gibson, Denver learned to play songs from the Everly Brothers and other hit makers of the 1950s, and by the early ’60s he was hooked by the Kingston Trio and leading voices of the folk revival like Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, the New Christy Minstrels, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. After Chad Mitchell left his namesake trio in 1965, Denver got his first big break as a member of the group, which continued to tour as the Mitchell Trio through the late ’60s.
Denver’s L-37, which currently resides at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, went through some misadventures. At a July 4th party one summer when Denver was working at a lumber camp in Washington state, a member of the rowdy crew apparently objected to Denver playing a Hank Williams song and bashed him with the guitar—an event memorialized with a crack across its top. Later, the Gibson went missing for about four years, and Denver celebrated its return in the song “This Old Guitar,” released on the multi-platinum album Back Home Again. In concert, he performed the song solo, spotlighting his connection with the instrument that, as the lyrics go, “gave me my life, my living.”
“I can’t really tell you how thrilled I was about getting it back,” he said when introducing his Gibson, and the song he wrote about it, in a 1974 TV special. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel where I was staying at here in Los Angeles, and just sit down and be with the guitar again and play it. I did that. I got back to the hotel and we got very comfortable. I told it all that had happened to me since the last time I’d seen it. It told me a few stories. But somewhere in the conversation, we found this song.”
“This Old Guitar” is a classic folk ballad, fingerpicked with C shapes and a pattern similar to Example 1. Capo at the second fret to play in Denver’s key of D major. Keep a steady alternating bass going throughout—pick all the notes notated with down stems with your thumb. Denver normally played with a thumbpick and fingerpicks, but bare fingers (as I use on the accompanying videos) also work fine, producing a softer and rounder sound.
The basic shapes are shown in the chord grids, but notice how at the ends of measures you often change a note to anticipate the next chord. In measure 3, on the “and” of beat 4, for instance, play the third string open to lead to the E minor chord. In measure 7, both the D on the second string and E on the first string function similarly, anticipating the next chord and creating a little syncopated melody.
Denver first made his mark as a songwriter with “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” In his autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver described the song’s birth one night in Virginia. “I picked up my guitar and wrote a song with my soul wide open and my mind picturing the scene as it stood before me, real enough to touch,” he wrote. “I called it ‘Oh, Babe, I Hate to Go.’ I wrote the song not so much out of the experience of feeling that way for someone, as out of the longing to have someone to love.”
In 1966, Denver included the song on his self-released record John Denver Sings—it was the album’s sole original alongside four Beatles songs and other covers—and pressed a few hundred copies to give as Christmas gifts. One disc wound up in the hands of Peter, Paul, and Mary, who released their version of the song (which Denver had retitled as “Leaving on a Jet Plane” at the urging of producer Milt Okun) in 1967 on Album 1700. Two years later, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” had taken on new associations as a Vietnam War song; Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover was released as a single and became a Number One hit.
Though Peter, Paul, and Mary dressed up “Jet Plane” with some major sevenths and chord substitutions, Denver’s rendition used a dead simple I–IV–V progression in G. In fact, as former Denver lead player Pete Huttlinger noted in his four-volume set of Homespun videos teaching Denver’s songs, Denver stripped down the chord/bass movement in “Jet Plane” even further late in his career: He played the C as a C/G (in other words, keeping the same bass note under both the G and C chords) until the final chorus.
Denver picked “Jet Plane” on a 12-string. On six-string, the sound is less sparkly but still effective. The first four measures of Example 2 are based on his intro, which hangs on the V chord (D). Over a drone bass on the open fourth string, play a melodic riff on the top strings, mostly on the offbeats. During the verse, shift between G and C (as in measures 5 and 6) three times and then move to a D5 (with your fourth finger on string 1, fret 5).
The song that really launched Denver as a solo artist was “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” first released on the 1971 album Poems, Prayers, and Promises and co-written with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. The duo, who performed at the time as Fat City, was also the source of “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” (which, though seemingly tailor-made for Denver, was actually written about banjo picker and author Dick Weissman) and other staples of Denver’s repertoire.
During a late-night hang after a show at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., Danoff and Nivert shared with Denver a fledgling version of “Country Roads.” Danoff thought the song would be a good fit for Johnny Cash and didn’t expect Denver to like it, but Denver was immediately smitten and helped Danoff and Nivert finish the song in the wee hours. They performed it the following night and recorded it together for Denver’s album a few months later.
Though many players strum “Country Roads” (and sometimes Denver himself did), it was normally a fingerpicking tune. In Example 3, run an alternating bass on three strings: On the A, for instance, play strings 5, 4, 6, 4. Over the D chord in measure 7, pause the alternation for a moment to play a descending bass line back to the A. One somewhat tricky maneuver comes in measure 2, where you hammer on to the second-string D at the same time you pick the low E bass note.
Example 4 tips its hat to the lead playing of Denver sideman Mike Taylor. The riffs shown fit over the “Country Roads” chorus progression and decorate the chords with double-stops and arpeggios. If you want to play the example with a flatpick, use hybrid picking for measures 1 and 7: play the lower note with the pick and the upper note with your middle finger.
In addition to playing lead guitar, Mike Taylor, who passed away in 2010, was Denver’s co-writer on “Rocky Mountain High” as well as another hit from Poems, Prayers, and Promises, “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” In his autobiography, Denver recalled writing the latter song “in a fit of melancholy one wet and dismal late-winter/early-spring day in Minnesota—the kind of day that makes every Minnesotan think about going down to Mexico.”
In “Sunshine,” Denver capoed at the third fret (again playing a 12-string) and used shapes and picking patterns similar to those in Examples 5 and 6. Be sure to use the G fingering shown, with your third and fourth fingers, since that’ll facilitate the shift to C—keep the latter digit in place on string 1 for both chords. When you switch to the C chord in Ex. 5, play the open fourth string with your index finger while your thumb picks the fifth-string C, and quickly hammer your second finger onto fret 2 of string 4. Ex. 6 shows the type of ascending chord pattern used in the second section of the verse. On the Am7 and D7/F# chords in both Exs. 5 and 6, pick the top two strings simultaneously with your middle and ring fingers.
Good to Be Back Home
The next two examples come from Denver’s Back Home Again album, which won a string of hits and awards (and prompted the notorious incident when Charlie Rich, announcing the Entertainer of the Year at the 1975 Country Music Awards, lit Denver’s name card on fire at the podium).
Example 7 is based on “Annie’s Song,” which Denver wrote for his first wife after an argument and reconciliation. The song came to him during a ride up a ski lift in his home of Aspen, Colorado—he often described figuring out song ideas in his head and then going to the guitar to learn them.
Originally picked on a 12-string, “Annie’s Song” is in waltz time. In the first two measures of Ex. 7, play the D–Dsus4 move up at the fifth fret. On the final repetition of this pattern, you may find it helpful to substitute the open fourth string for the last note (the second-string G), to facilitate the shift down to the open G chord in the next measure. Using a first-finger barre for the A chord makes an efficient change to B minor in measures 4 and 5, and I’ve also suggested a barre version of an open D chord in measure 7 that allows you to keep the first and second fingers in place while moving to D/C# in the following bar.
The title track of Back Home Again is in a different vein than the other examples here, with a loping country/cowboy rhythm. In Example 8, play with a swing feel, where pairs of eighth notes sound like the first and third notes in a triplet. On each chord, alternate the bass on strings 6, 5, and 4 as shown, while picking the same pattern on top of all the chords: third string with your index finger, top two strings together with your middle and ring fingers, and then third string again with your index.
Like so many of Denver’s songs, “Back Home Again” sounds effortless—both the melody and the words. As a songwriter he cultivated that quality, trying not to control or force the process but to let the song unfold. “There are times when I’d be struggling with a song,” he wrote in Take Me Home, “and then when I’d get out of the way, the song would be there. In neon lights. Right in front of me. It’s a way of looking, I think. What you need to see comes forward once you stop trying to see it.”
Denver’s last Number One hit came in 1975 with “I’m Sorry,” a tearjerker breakup ballad released on the album Windsong. Two decades later, he delivered a moving performance on the 1995 Wildlife Concert album and video, on which he opted to play a nylon-string—a nice match for the song’s intimate mood.
“I’m Sorry” is a good example of how Denver used melodic hooks in his guitar parts to tie a song together. In the final volume of his Homespun video series, Pete Huttlinger built on Denver’s melodic picking to turn “I’m Sorry” into a sweet instrumental. (Huttlinger, a fingerstyle master as well as in-demand Nashville sideman, passed away in 2016 after a series of strokes—like Denver, he was only in his 50s.)
The first two measures of Example 9 are based on the intro/interlude of “I’m Sorry.” Rather than using an alternating bass pattern, pick bass notes only on beats 1 and 3; create a descending line by altering the Gmaj7 chord first to G6 and then to G. For simplicity, don’t bother fretting the first or fifth strings in the G chord during the intro; just hold down the notes you actually need.
In measure 4, while holding down the G shape, add an A note on the third string and then a C on the second string at the end of the measure. These notes set up the change to the A minor chord and also anticipate the melody—the kind of small, elegant detail that was characteristic of Denver’s style.
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Writing for the World
In early 2019, some new Denver music came to light, as the band Railroad Earth released The John Denver Letters, featuring two new songs, “If You Will Be My Lady” and “Through the Night,” on which front man Todd Sheaffer set to music some rediscovered Denver lyrics. Both are lovely settings that sit comfortably alongside the Denver songs that have been circulating now for decades.
“Through the Night” opens with a soft fingerpicking melody and these lines:
Here beneath the starry sky
I lay me down to rest
Peace around me, peace within
For this, my life is blessed
As the song proceeds, the lyrics come back around and replace I with you:
Here beneath the starry sky, love
Lay yourself to rest
Peace around you, peace within
For this, your life is blessed
In terms of the mood and the message, it’s a perfect John Denver moment—a simple, personal expression of gratitude that opens up to include anyone listening or singing along. Utterly uncynical and hard to resist.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is author, most recently, of the AG lesson book/video Beyond Strumming.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.