Deep Cuts: Ry Cooder’s Funky Fingerstyle
• Understand how to use open-G tuning in other keys.
• Develop a stronger fingerstyle technique.
• Create contrapuntal rhythm parts.
To many musicians and music fans familiar with his work, Ry Cooder is that slide guy. Cooder’s reputation as a bottleneck badass is well deserved, as he has been putting glass to string with stellar results for a good long while. But what fewer folks know about Cooder is that, when the slide is off, he’s also a tremendous rhythm guitarist. On his early ’70s albums in particular, Cooder was up to some really interesting things—using open-G tuning (and its capoed variants), fingerstyle technique, and funky syncopations to create a rhythm-guitar vernacular all his own. One prime example from this period is “Tattler,” from his 1974 album Paradise and Lunch.
One of the most intriguing things about Cooder’s rhythm playing on the original recording of “Tattler” is that he uses open-G tuning (D–G–D–G–B–D) to play in the key of D, rather than G.
A quick note: The examples below are written with fingerings relative to the capo, but to play along with this lesson’s audio (and Cooder’s recording), you’ll need to clamp a capo on the 3rd fret.
Ex. 1 is just a simple I–VIm–IV–V chord progression (not a “Tattler” excerpt) to help orient your hands and ears in this tuning. The only tricky business here is the Bm chord. Fret the top note (D) with your second finger while fretting the three lower notes with the flattened pad of your third finger in sort of a half barre. Be sure to cover only strings 3, 4, and 5 with your third finger, leaving the 2nd string free to ring clearly.
Ex. 2 is similar to the figure Cooder plays in the intro to “Tattler.” In his recorded arrangement of the song, the figure recurs between verses and comes back again as an outro. Don’t let the chord names here overwhelm you. They help to describe the moving dyads over the D pedal in the first three measures, and the G pedal in the final measure, but aren’t meant to indicate complete harmonies. You can think of this section, broadly, as three measures of D and a measure of G. The fret-hand shapes aren’t all that tricky. The challenge here is in the rhythm, with nuanced syncopations in the bass line and the chords as well. You may want to practice the up-stemmed notes on their own first, then just the down-stemmed notes. Combine the two parts only when you feel you’ve really got the hang of things.
Ex. 3 includes a nice walk-up move (in measures three and four) like the one Cooder plays in the pre-chorus sections of “Tattler.” As with the other examples here, it’s not so much a knuckle-buster as a brainteaser. You won’t be familiar with most of these grips unless you’re already fluent in open-G tuning, but they’re not hard to handle. Practice as slowly as necessary to execute each bit cleanly before ramping up to tempo, which is 116 bpm.
In the choruses, Cooder plays moves similar to those shown in Ex. 4. Nothing too fancy here, but to get it to really feel good will take some practice.
There are two great “Tattler” clips on YouTube—one from 1974, taped during a promotional performance at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California. The other one is from 1977, originally aired on the British TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Check them out below.
In both, Cooder plays his Daphne-blue 1967 Fender Stratocaster with a P-90 in the bridge position. (This guitar has undergone additional alterations over the years.) You may want to check out these clips for insights into Cooder’s unique physicality on the instrument. Cooder played through a Leslie cabinet—with a rotating speaker—on his Paradise and Lunch recording. If you don’t have one of those handy, a phaser, tremolo, or Uni-Vibe-style pedal will help get your tone in the zone.