Watch Mason Williams Play “Classical Gas”

In 1967, having completed his first season as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Mason Williams spent a weekend with an old friend he had been neglecting: his nylon-string guitar. He composed an informal piece, thinking it might be handy for playing at parties, and called it “Classical Gasoline.”

The piece was destined for much bigger things.

Warner Bros. Records approached Tom Smothers later that year looking for new recording artists and, based on the strength of Williams’ contributions to his show, Smothers suggested giving him a shot. In 1968, Warner Bros. released Williams’ debut album, The Mason Williams Phonograph, featuring “Classical Gas,” the title’s second word resulting from a music copyist’s error.

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“Classical Gas” hit the top of the charts in August of 1968, and it won three Grammy awards: Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Performance, and Best Instrumental Arrangement. Almost 50 years later it remains both a popular favorite and a staple in the fingerstyle repertoire, covered by heavyweight players like Tommy Emmanuel and Glen Campbell.

The album version of “Classical Gas” clocks in at just over three minutes and packs in so much guitar, so it’s best to take a systematic approach and learn it section by section, and phrase by phrase, isolating any trouble spots along the way. Take a basic fingerstyle approach to the piece—pick strings 6–4 with your thumb and the higher strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers.

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Notice what’s required of your fretting hand in each section. At a glance, the first 23 bars, for instance are all based mainly on basic open chord forms, each of which you should hold down for as long as possible. Bars 24 through 29, which toggle between Am7 and D chords, are best played with a full first-finger barre at fret 5.

On the original recording, the brass instruments play an interlude (bars 33–44 of the transcription), while the guitar sits out. I’ve arranged these brass parts for guitar. This section is not easy on the fretting hand, so feel free to substitute your own voicings here—while keeping things in the spirit of the piece.


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 November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 65.

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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