deep cuts

Open tunings aren’t just for bottleneck licks.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to use open-G tuning in other keys.
• Develop a stronger fingerstyle technique.
• Create contrapuntal rhythm parts.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

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.

Click here for Ex. 1

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.

Click here for Ex. 2

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.

Click here for Ex. 3

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.

Click here for Ex. 4

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.

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Dig into the multi-genre style of a little band from East L.A.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:

• Discover the subtle rhythmic complexities in Hidalgo’s phrasing.
• Learn how to play octaves à la Wes Montgomery.
• Understand how to create melodic phrases on a single string.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Welcome to Deep Cuts, my new column for Premier Guitar. In each installment, we’ll be looking into the work of one particularly cool player on one particularly cool recording. Now, these won’t be the same old songs or players we’ve seen lauded time and again in guitar mags. The big idea here is to explore stuff you may have missed—stuff I hope will inspire you to take your playing in some new directions. Okay, let’s get started.

Los Lobos celebrated their 40th anniversary as a band last year. The East L.A. combo’s sound is a unique blend of roots-rock, blues, folkloric Mexican music, and other styles. Their contributions to the soundtrack of the 1987 film La Bamba brought them some mainstream attention. The band won a Grammy award in 1989 for their La pistola y el corazón album. Other releases—such as their artfully ambitious Kiko—have garnered critical acclaim. But, as with any great band or artist, there’s more to Los Lobos than their high-profile bullet points. The band has been turning out records full of great songs for decades now, and there’s always lots of standout guitar playing—alternately dreamlike and Herculean—woven in. The man making those strings sing is David Hidalgo.

Hidalgo’s parts are unfailingly well crafted, his blues-tinged phrasing exquisite, and his tones—sometimes boutiquey, sometime lo-fi—always compelling. Some of Hidalgo’s most sublime playing can be heard on “The Town,” from Los Lobos’ 2006 album The Town and the City. What’s particularly striking about his solo breaks on this song is the rhythmic diversity he employs. Rather than building phrases on just one type of subdivision—like eighth-notes or quarter-note triplets—Hidalgo casually combines them, shifting gears mid-phrase with ease. It’s enough to make you wonder: Will he make it to the last note and land on his feet? Indeed he does, over and over again.

Ex. 1 is the 8-measure chord progression that cycles throughout “The Town.” Play it a few times before getting into the remaining examples. This will help your ears appreciate them in context.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 is a simple pentatonic melody played in low octaves, based on Hidalgo’s lines at the top of “The Town.” His gritty tone on the recording is noticeably warmer in these first few measures, so perhaps he used his thumb—à la Wes Montgomery—for these phrases. Such soul-jazz moves aren’t the most obvious direction for a tune like this, but Hidalgo plays with so much grace and conviction that he defies us to imagine any other choice. For each octave pair, fret the lower note with your first finger and the upper note with your third or fourth finger—whichever feels more comfortable to you. Take care to mute the unused string in between with the pad of your first finger.

Click here for Ex. 2

Ex. 3 paraphrases a line that Hidalgo plays at 2:16 on the original recording. Check out all of the different rhythms packed into this one little phrase. In Hidalgo’s hands, such metric complexity feels loose and natural, not mathy at all. He’s deep in the groove one second, floating above it the next. If you can get this line to swing just right, you’ll feel the same sort of freedom.

Click here for Ex. 3

There’s rhythmic variety in Ex. 4 (based on Hidalgo’s improv near the end of “The Town”) as well, particularly in the first measure. Notice here how the G#, B, and C# all pile up together. It’s a bit of a stretch for your fretting hand, but the gnarly effect is worth the effort. The remainder of the phrase is a winding descent to the bottom of the guitar, via the E major pentatonic scale (E-F#-G#-B-C#).

Click here for Ex. 4

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