Dave Matthews: Acoustic Guitar Ninja
Armed with his daring guitar style, Dave Matthews has remarkably expanded the instrument’s vocabulary for singer/songwriters.
•Take a deep dive into Dave Matthews’ unique and challenging guitar style.
•Learn new chord voicings you can use in your own songs.
•Spice up your playing with different rhythmic approaches.
Dave Matthews’ songwriting encompasses a vast array of styles, but along with his voice and an eclectic cast of musicians (namely the Dave Matthews Band), what most defines his sound is his singular guitar style. When I first became aware of DMB, I assumed Matthews’ playing would be along the lines of other singer/songwriter projects of the era—mainly open-position and barre chords, some fingerpicking, and possibly a few alternate tunings. But I would soon discover just how wrong I was.
Wait, He Plays That and Sings?
Let’s begin with the song which introduced Matthews to much of the world, “What Would You Say,” from his 1994 breakthrough album Under the Table and Dreaming. With a mix of chords, slides, and a sly bend, its main riff is a bit of a juggling act, especially when you consider he continues playing the same figure as he sings. When writing songs, it often seems as if Matthews is simultaneously thinking like a guitarist and a drummer. Often, if you simply bang out the rhythm of his guitar parts, they make for compelling drumbeats. Ex. 1 is based on the song’s intro.
On this album, Matthews also showcased other approaches which would become hallmarks of his playing. His frequent use of single-note riffs is unique for an acoustic guitarist, and he does this in both ballads and rockers. In “Satellite,” Matthews begins to show his deep connections with chords, as here he plays a single-note line, but it’s based on power chords (root and fifth) throughout. Ex. 2 brings to mind the song’s main riff.
Matthews continues the same approach in the next example, but extends the concept to full triads (root, 3, 5). Ex. 3, based on “Rhyme & Reason,” is still only comprised of single notes, but here, each of the first three chords is outlined in second inversion, meaning the lowest note is the 5 of the chord. The last two dyads, Bb and C, feature the interval of a major 10th, which is simply a major third with an additional octave separating its two notes.
Matthews also likes to use chords that feature both the 3 and the 10th, such as in “Ants Marching.” Ex. 4 is based on its chorus progression. Note how the initial G chord has the 3 (B) twice, in two different octaves.
Drones — But Not That Kind
Let’s have another look at that 10ths shape, as Matthews uses it quite often, especially when strumming — but he often adds a twist. For example, Ex. 5 is an infectious groove based on “Tripping Billies” from DMB’s second album Crash. In this song, he uses 10ths (major and minor) but adds the open 4th string to each one, which acts as a drone. We’re in the key of D major, where D functions as a chord tone for each chord, save one. In the Aadd4, it acts to contribute some welcome tension as its added 4th.
Matthews used the same sort of drone concept in one of his most-loved songs, “Crash Into Me,” and Ex. 6 is based on its main chord progression. The difference here is that a full E5 chord functions as a multi-note drone against a moving bass line.
Keeping Us on Our Toes
Matthews often writes songs in time signatures other than the well-worn 4/4 and 3/4, for example, his use of 6/8 in the song “Drive In Drive Out” from Crash. In 6/8 time, there are three eighth-notes to a beat, felt as if they were a triplet in 2/4. Ex. 7 is based on the song’s main riff.
On 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, Matthews pushes the envelope even further with “Rapunzel,” which is in the odd time signature of 5/4 (“odd” referring to the use of an odd number of beats). In addition, he also adds a bit of rhythmic intrigue in the form of syncopation—accenting the weaker parts of a beat. Ex.8, based on the song’s opening riff, features syncopation in its initial 16th-note pick-up, as well as in its final two beats. To get the rhythm more easily under your belt, try singing the riff a few times first. This will make for a quicker transition to guitar.
Take Away the Pick and It’s Still Dave
The title track to the DMB album Everyday features Matthews ditching his pick and playing fingerstyle. Though he seldom does this, he still thinks like a drummer, creating a memorable guitar part which, not surprisingly, includes some syncopation. Ex. 9 is inspired by the song’s intro.
“Here on Out,” from 2018’s Come Tomorrow, also finds Matthews fingerpicking. Ex. 10, reminiscent of the song’s verse guitar part, revisits his use of multiple drones with a moving bass line.
With seldom-used chord forms, darting single lines, and an emphasis on rhythm, Dave Matthews has written unique and memorable songs for over 30 years. And with the extended versions he regularly performs with DMB, he seems to endlessly search to make them even more so, as he breathes new life into them each night.
- Develop an understanding of how to approach chord tones with bends.
- Learn to think and phrase like a pedal-steel player.
- Create old-school, honky-tonk lines with a twist.
Let’s face it folks, pedal-steel is a pillar of the country music sound. It’s one of my favorite instruments—not just in country, but all music genres. The ability to play complex chords, the range of the instrument, the way you can manipulate bends (with knee levers and pedals), and the lyrical quality and tone add so much to the country sound. The textures and chord voicings can really beef up a rhythmic part, but also can make you cry in your beer with a single-note line that includes so much articulation and manipulation it can make your head spin. We are going to mainly focus on a one element that really makes the pedal-steel guitar special and very difficult to emulate on guitar: bending notes.
Most guitar players typically will bend with their ring finger. In some of these examples you will be bending with your index and middle as well—in a very foreign fashion. Think of it like lifting weights and adding more independence to each individual finger. It’s not easy and will take time if you’re not used to this technique. Keep in mind, you do not need any bender built into your guitar. Your fingers will do all the work. I also didn’t include any licks using a volume pedal although you could incorporate one if you desire
Now let’s break down these licks!
The first two examples will give you a good idea of how to start thinking like a pedal-steel player. Ex. 1 is a simple A major scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G#) but certain notes are bent instead of fretted. Note the half-step bend on the 3 (bend that with your middle finger) and the full-step bend on the 7th fret of the 2nd string, as well as the half-step bend to get back to the A. Mastering playing in tune is vital to having that pedal-steel effect on guitar. I would also let the first note played in this example ring until you’ve reached the 2nd string. This will give the line a cascading effect. Listen to the audio example and try to match the phrasing and articulation of the line. For all examples a healthy dose of reverb helps notes “sing” more.
Ex. 2 is a descending line that starts with a pre-bend. You will see this technique a lot. It’s a key component in getting the sound. Ring finger does all the bends on this lick.
While there is only one bend in this example, you’ll need to hold the bend on the 12th fret of the 3rd string while moving your pinky from the 13th fret down to the 12th fret on the 1st string. This is a pretty standard type of steel lick that I always use in my playing. It works great over a C chord.
The tricky part about Ex. 4 is connecting the two separate bends. You do this by releasing the bend at the 11th fret on the 3rd string and sliding down to the 9th fret then bending up again. It should be seamless and immediate to get the phrasing correct. All bends are done with your ring finger. This is just a great lick to play over an E chord.
In Ex. 5 we add an element of chicken picking with a “cluck” or dead note before the first three bends. We work down the neck with a series of pre-bent double-stops. It’s a standard but effective pedal-steel technique, but it’s tricky. The first bend in measure 1 bends the 1st string up a half-step while the 2nd string goes up a whole-step. It sounds complicated, but because of the differing string gauges, it actually works pretty naturally. Just go for it. The next double-stop bend requires both the 3rd and 2nd strings to go up a whole-step. Attitude is more important than intonation, so do it with no fear. For the final Gsus2 to G bend, barre your pinky on the top two strings and use your middle finger to bend up a whole-step.
Ex. 6 works well if you’d like pedal-steel bends over minor chords. This lick uses some open strings, which creates a nice tension that emphasizes the 9 (B) against the Am chord. As you work your way down the neck, you’ll need to bend with the middle finger on the 7th fret of the 3rd string. More notes in this lick but well worth the work.
Ex. 7 is another pre-bend lick that uses unison notes, which is common for steel players. In this turnaround lick, use your in index to bend down on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string. You could think of this as an end of a tune lick so using rubato or a free feel is cool.
Here (Ex. 8) we move into a repetitive lick with a triple-stop slide at the end barred with the index finger. Notice we start in a simple D minor shape. Adding a bend gives it lots of texture and once bent, the chord functions nicely as a G7. The middle finger is busy on this lick, bending up a whole-step on the 14th fret of the 3rd string.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed some of these licks. They aren’t easy but they add some cool textures, tension, and resolution to your guitar lines. Make sure to really try to nail the part as close to the recording as you can. It’s taken me years of practice and thousands of gigs to really have some of these ideas and licks under my fingers. This is just a small microcosm of the possibilities of these kinds of licks. Let them inspire you to try to write your own or fit them into a tune you already play.
I like incorporating pedal-steel bends into my playing because it makes me think about different musical elements. Experiment with half- and whole-step bends, as well as pre-bends, and learn to phrase more like a pedal-steel player. It’s fun and challenging and will add tons of color and options when creating musical lines.
Learn how to solo effortlessly using the CAGED system.
- Learn how to map out the neck with five CAGED shapes.
- Create melodic lines by targeting chord tones on strong beats.
- Discover how to enhance your phrases with chromatic notes.
Originally published on March 15, 2015
The CAGED system is a subject we’ve explored many times before in Beyond Blues, and as you may know, it plays a big role in the way I teach. If you need a quick refresher, or if you’re totally new to the CAGED concept, read “A Guitarist’s Guide to the CAGED System." This CAGED approach doesn’t often generate resistance, but when it does, I usually find that it’s because of a misunderstanding of the system—there’s a lot more to it than just barre chords. While we’ve discussed arpeggios and scale fingerings several times over the years, this lesson will finally bridge the gap between those two.
When I was first learning the CAGED system, there was a time when I lacked harmonic grounding. For example, I’d be improvising over an F Lydian vamp and once you removed the chords, my lines would sound like A minor. This proved that although I was able to navigate the neck well enough, there was no sense of hierarchy in my phrasing. I was viewing all the notes in a particular scale as equals. Over time I discovered that laying a foundation in chord tones was the key to breaking out of this rut. I had to learn which notes were chord tones and which notes served as melodic embellishments. This meant I’d be able to hit all the important notes at all the important times! No more landing on the 4 of a chord and suddenly panicking.
In previous columns, we’ve focused heavily on arpeggios, and if you’ve been following this series you’ll hopefully have a solid grounding in these patterns. But to be sure you’re clear on the details, let’s highlight these again using the “C” shape of the CAGED system.
As you can see above, we’ve got three things to learn, but really they’re all very similar since the arpeggio contains the chord and the scale contains the arpeggio—that’s very important. Your goal is to be able to see the chord right away and instantly fill in the arpeggio and the scale around it.
In my experience, confusion can sometimes come when guitarists move between the chord, scale, and arpeggio. To deal with this, I came up with a little exercise (Ex. 1) that alternates between the arpeggio and the scale. You’ll start to see the scale, but won’t lose sight of where the chord tones are. I’ve done this for eight measures, but you could easily do it for 100. Remember that it’s not about numbers, you’re not learning patterns or thinking about tab, you’re seeing the two pieces of information and how they sit—and work together—with each other.
Now if we transfer this arpeggio-scale relationship to other shapes of the CAGED system, you might find yourself in the “E” shape, which would look like this:
The next step would be to transfer the concept from Ex. 1 into the “E” shape (Ex. 2).
Now check out how this would work in the “G” shape with the corresponding diagrams and exercise in Ex. 3.
Now we can apply these ideas to some actual music. Ex. 4 shows a 12-bar blues progression in the key of G. We’re using the shapes we outlined above and simply moving them around the neck as needed. I’m still thinking of the relationship between the chord, arpeggio, and scale, rather than a mode. For example, even though I’m technically playing C Mixolydian in the second measure, I’m just thinking of C7. I see the chord and the arpeggio and just fill in around it. Simply look for the chord shape.
That’s the way to do this: Look for the chord shape, make sure you land on a chord tone when the chord changes, and allow the scale to fill in around it in that position. This strategy really gives us the sound of each chord as we move through the progression.
In the final few examples, we’ll use the same approach but add in some chromaticism to enhance the lines. This highlights the fact that we’re not thinking about scales. In fact, we’re so focused on chord tones that we play melodic embellishments even if they aren’t diatonic to the key of G. Check out the last note of the first measure in Ex. 5. The Bb doesn’t actually fit over a G7 chord, but we don’t have to worry about that since we’re targeting a chord tone on the first beat of the next measure.
In Ex. 6 we take the same approach, but in the “E” shape with a few additions. In measure two, approach the chord tone on the downbeat of measure three from above. Going into the fourth measure, we descend chromatically from the b7 to the 5 and add some chromatics in the fourth measure before resolving on the 3.
We use the “G” shape for Ex. 7. It’s the same thing as before, only we’re using an enclosure at the end.
Our final example (Ex. 8) applies our chromatic approach notes to a 12-bar blues progression—an approach that really helps to smooth things over between changes. Take this one slowly and try to come up with some of your own ... then apply them while playing over the backing track below.
If you devote time to this technique in all five CAGED areas, you’ll open up your knowledge of the fretboard in a significant way. You’ll soon be in control of your phrases, no matter where you are on the neck. So good luck and get practicing!