Richard Thompson: The Thinking Man’s Guitar Hero
Get inside the style of folk-rock’s most influential 6-stringer.
• Understand the essential elements of Thompson’s distinctive playing.
• Create Irish-influenced licks that work over rock grooves.
• Explore unusual open tunings. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Very few guitarists fit the description of a “musicians’ musician” better than Richard Thompson. For five decades now, Thompson has not only been one of the premier songwriters of his generation—Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, REM, and the Neville Brothers are just a few who have covered his songs—but also one of its most original, jaw droppingly virtuosic guitar heroes on both acoustic and electric.
As a teenager in England, Thompson co-founded Fairport Convention, one of a handful of bands that would go on to define the British folk-rock sound, in 1968. After five albums with Fairport, Thompson left the band and made a string of what are now considered classic albums with his then wife, Linda Thompson, in the ’70s and early ’80s. He subsequently embarked on a prolific solo career that continues today (he released his 18th album as a leader, 13 Rivers, in 2018).
Although his playing has evolved over the years, the basic ingredients of his sophisticated sound were in place from the very beginning. His instantly recognizable hybrid-picking style combines elements of bagpipe drones, Irish reels, Gypsy jazz, and Bakersfield twang, all wrapped up in a decidedly rock ’n’ roll presentation that never relies on blues clichés. Thompson’s use of open strings, creative double-stops, rhythmic syncopation, hammer-ons, and glissandos are just a few elements that make his playing as soulful as it is technically impressive. Let’s take a look.
Ex. 1 is similar to the rubato intro you hear on “The Cavalry Cross” from 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, a masterpiece he recorded with Linda Thompson. Here, you’ll want to tune your 6th string down to D to create a drone that helps give the intro an Indian raga feel.
A fairly involved example of Thompson’s approach to double-stops is 1975’s “Hokey Pokey.” Ex. 2 is my take on it, which begins with a country-tinged single-note line and then evolves into a series of syncopated sixth and third intervals. For those double-stops, use a hybrid flatpick-and-fingers technique.
Easily one of Thompson’s best-known compositions is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” For this song, Thompson drops the 5th string to G and harnesses some serious fingerpicking to hold down a I–V movement in the bass. Ex. 3 is my interpretation of the vibe.
One of the most interesting sounds Thompson employs is a two-note bend. For example, while holding the C# on the 1st string, he’ll pre-bend the 3rd string at the 12th fret up a whole-step to A, thus creating a major third, and then release the bend down to the 12 fret for a G. This forms a tritone between the two notes—an interval that perfectly outlines an A7 chord (Ex. 4).
Ex. 5 is not exactly an RT lick—it’s two Irish reels. Reels are essentially short instrumental folk tunes that can be strung together in any variety of ways. The first one centers around the key of B minor, and the second toggles between E minor and D major. It’s the kind of sound that is at the heart of Thompson’s style and sets him apart from other guitar players.
And finally, for Ex. 6 I picked some choice RT-isms woven together over the solo progression of his composition “Can’t Win.” We start with a hammer on/open string combination that’s a staple of the Thompson sound, and then move on to bent double-stops that essentially outline an A chord. The segment finishes up using minor pentatonics in a decidedly un-bluesy (but most rocking) way. Obviously, nobody can play like he can, but here’s my humble attempt.
For those interested in diving deeper into RT’s unique musical landscape, I recommend getting your hands on a recording of any live show—or better yet, go see him in concert. Also, check out any of these albums. It’s a good start. Have fun!
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Shoot Out the Lights
soundtrack to the film Grizzly Man
Rumor and Sigh