In our August 2014 issue, folk singer Donovan revealed how, during their famous trip to India in 1968, he taught John Lennon and Paul McCartney “the clawhammer technique that became ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Blackbird.’” McCartney adapted a looser version of this one-bar fingerpicking pattern by incorporating brush strokes across two or more strings (think “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”), but Lennon’s take on it was much more disciplined and rarely deviated from its strictly arpeggiated single-note approach. The first recorded examples of the pattern emerged on The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), prompting George Harrison to later remark that Donovan “is all over the White Album.”
John Lennon made a lot of beautiful music with only a handful of chords and this simple, one-bar fingerpicking pattern. (And, of course, those melodies, but that’s another story!) Let’s investigate how he was able to do so much with so little.
“CLAWHAMMER” VS. “TRAVIS-STYLE”
Using an open E chord and notated with traditional opposing stemming, FIGURE 1 demonstrates the basic one-bar, 4/4 picking pattern, which incorporates all six strings and features alternating four-on-the-floor bass notes played on the bottom three strings interspersed with three treble notes—the first string on beat one, the third string on the and of beat two, and the second string on the and of beat three. The main difference between this “clawhammer” style and the Travis-picking popularized by Merle Travis and Chet Atkins lies in the order in which the four alternating bass notes are played: Travis picking incorporates a sixth-fourth-fifth-fourth-string bass pattern, while the Lennon/Donovan clawhammer technique uses a fifth-fourth-sixth-fourth-string scheme. Let’s break it down.
PART IT OUT
FIGURE 2A isolates the thumb-picked bass notes—B-E-(low)E-E, or, in interval-speak, 5-root-(low)root-root. Grab an acoustic, set a reasonable tempo, and repeat this quarter-note pattern until it feels comfy. Gradually add FIGURE 2B’s three treble notes—one at a time—using your index finger. (Those less concerned with authenticity could also opt for pick-and-middle-finger hybrid picking.) When combined, these two elements form the complete picking pattern, which is re-illustrated in FIGURE 2C using single direction stemming that makes the rhythm much easier to read.
For slower tempos circa 60 to 75 bpm, the same pattern is often notated in 2/4. This simply requires halving the value of each note—the quarter-notes become eighth-notes, and the eighths become sixteenths. FIGURE 3A shows this adaptation, which is again dissected into its bass and treble components in 3B and 3C, before being reassembled into FIGURE 3D’s friendlier notation. (Tip: Practice the picking pattern on open strings while watching TV.)
SHIFTY BASS LINES
Though the fifth-fourth-sixth-fourth-string thumb-picking pattern always remains consistent, the bass note intervals will often change in accordance with the chord shape of the moment. For instance, the downstemmed notes in FIGURE 4A’s open-A shape spell “root-5-(low)5-5,” or A-E-(low)E-E), and FIGURE 4B’s open-G chord shifts to 3-5-root-5 bass pattern (B-D-G-D). Other adjustments may be necessary as well, such as in FIGURE 4C’s open-C chord, which requires alternating the third finger between the fifth and sixth strings to create this root-3-5-3 bass pattern (C-E-G-E). FIGURE 4D’s open-D shape necessitates tuning the low E down a whole-step to D to produce a chord tone on that string.
LESS IS MORE
Lennon also employed two pick-hand variations of the pattern to accommodate five- and four-string chord voicings, especially barre chords. FIGURE 5A uses a barred, third-position C chord that omits the first string entirely. The bass pattern is unaffected, but the first treble note is now played on the second, not first string. FIGURE 5B tightens the pattern up to a four-string variant, where, in addition to eliminating the first string, we also lose the sixth string. This produces a two-string, root-5-root-5 bass pattern (C-G-C-G) when applied to this particular chord shape.
Get your motor running, because it’s time to put this Lennon-style fingerpicking pattern through its paces. Drop your sixth string down to D, and begin with the seven descending chord voicings diagrammed in FIGURE 6A. Establish a tempo circa 75 bpm, apply the 2/4 picking pattern from either FIGURE 3A or FIGURE 3D, play each chord for one bar, and you should hear a pretty close approximation of Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” from the White Album. Here, the 5-root-root-root bass pattern (A-D-D-D) creates a ringing pedal D5 chord that transforms the string of simple, descending triads played on the top three strings into something exquisite. Append this with the quartet of grids in
FIGURE 6B played for one bar each to get even further along, and dig the cool descending bass figure that results. (Shades of Led Zep!)
FROM CHEERY TO DREARY
It’s back to standard tuning for the open Am7, Am6, Emadd9, and Em chords shown in FIGURE 7A. String them together and you get an ominous progression not unlike the one that commences “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Apply FIGURE 3A/3D’s 2/4 picking pattern, play the chords for one bar each, and repeat. Change it up by adding FIGURE 7B’s four-string Dm/A voicing for two bars—note the use of the truncated, four-string variant picking pattern from FIGURE 5B—followed by Asus2 and Am for one bar each.
MUM’S THE WORD
If total authenticity is your thing, you’ll want to clamp a capo on the second fret for the next three examples, but if you don’t have one on hand, just finger the chord grids in open position. It’ll still be correct, but each chord will sound one whole-step lower than written.
Set up the 2/4 fingerpicking pattern circa 66 bpm and use the four grids in
FIGURE 8A to construct an eight-bar progression as follows: Play D-Bm7 for one bar each, observing how this C-shaped D chord utilizes the third finger for both the root and 5 in this root-3-5-3 bass pattern, and then tag on two bars of F#m. Repeat the first three bars, replace the F#m in bar 8 with A, and the combined result should remind you of Lennon’s “Julia.”
Next, repeat the D-Bm7 from bars 1 and 2 of the previous progression, and then add the first five grids diagrammed in FIGURE 8B for one bar each, B7 for two bars, and G9-Gm7 for a bar apiece. Append this with FIGURE 8A and you’ve got a full 12-bar progression. Repeat the whole thing, and then precede two bars of the remaining C#m voicing (which also utilizes the four-string picking variant from FIGURE 5B) with two bars of D.
Follow C#m with two more bars of D, plus two bars of Bm7, and you’re ready to add a bar each of the F#m7, F#m6, F#m+5, and F#m voicings in FIGURE 8C, all of which employ the five-string picking variation from FIGURE 5A. Want more? Jump back to FIGURE 8B to complete another amazing sonic tapestry.
Finally, we arrive at the simple-by-comparison pair of I-VIm-IV-V progressions in FIGURES 9A and 9B. Both were originally conceived on electric guitar versus acoustic—the former in the key of E (E-C#m-A-B), and the latter in the key of A (A-F#m-D-E). The challenge here is the brisk tempo and the goal is to play both progressions in 2/4 at 92 bpm and keep it clean. Playing each chord for one bar yields a likely intro figure, while playing each one for two bars suggests a verse or solo accompaniment. Pull it off correctly and you’re in “Octopus’s Garden” territory, one of the only two examples of Lennon’s fingerpicking style that spilled over into the Abbey Road sessions. Diggers can find the other one, which utilizes lush A6, B6, and E6 chords reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross,” during sections of “Sun King.”
By now you’ve probably grasped what a valuable tool this is. Nurturing this one simple fingerpicking pattern by experimenting with different tunings, voicings, and chord progressions will yield a bumper crop of fresh new ideas.