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The Acoustic Artistry of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy

(Image credit: Larry Hulst/Getty Images)

Taking their name from the military/aviation radio communication abbreviation for “will comply” (a bit of rock and roll irony), Wilco, fronted by singing guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy, has steadily risen from the Chicago underground since their 1994 formation, netting two Grammys (both for 2004’s A Ghost Is Born) and consistent critical acclaim, all with a largely unclassifiable body of work that could be described as “rootsy space rock with acoustic underpinnings.”

A guitarist since age six, Tweedy’s fingerpicked/strummed style covers ground trodden by legends like Nick Drake, Neil Young and John Cale.

Ever the entertainer, Tweedy has contributed some hilarious musical appearances on TV shows such as Portlandia, Parks and Recreation and @midnight with Chris Hardwick. The guitarist also fronts a side project, TWEEDY, with his drumming son, Spencer.

As we celebrate the September 2016 release of Wilco’s 10th studio album, Schmilco, let’s look back at some of Jeff Tweedy’s many acoustic gems.

After issuing four records with Uncle Tupelo (alternative country pioneers, with influences ranging from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, to Black Flag and Dinosaur Jr.), internal tensions led to the band’s breakup; most of its members reformed as Wilco in 1994. While their debut album A.M. (1995) followed musical traditions set forth in Uncle Tupelo, it was Wilco’s sophomore effort, Being There (1996), that exuded a more experimental “indie rock” edge, marking the emergence of a brave, new, eclectic rock act.

FIGURE 1 depicts Tweedy’s “modern” take on “Sunken Treasure” (drop-D, capo 2), as the song’s original atmospheric/surreal “lumbering” feel has since evolved in concert into a speedy fingerpicking groove, performed with just the thumb and index finger.

Wilco endured numerous lineup changes, including the 2001 departure of collaborative guitarist Jay Bennett, who tragically passed away in 2009, until 2004, the year in which awe-inspiring electric axman Nels Cline was added to the Wilco fold. 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Cline’s first studio recording with the band, boasts “Impossible Germany” as one of its many highlights, a cut crammed with Cline’s inventive, intense lead guitar work, floated over Tweedy’s colorful thumb-strummed chords, like FIGURE 2.

Cut mostly “live” (many songs were recorded in just one day), Sky Blue Sky marked a slight departure from Wilco’s previous experimental outings, with some songs influenced by the Byrds and Fairport Convention, like “Please Be Patient with Me,” its folky fingerpicking (capo 3) approximated in FIGURE 3. During the two-year tour for Sky Blue Sky, a new song, “One Wing” (capo 2), was often performed as an upcoming album preview.

FIGURE 4 cops its relentless eighth-note strums (w/thumb), as documented in 2009’s Wilco (The Album).

We’ll close this lesson with a look at “One Sunday Morning,” à la FIGURE 5, from 2011’s The Whole Love, the first album Wilco released on their own label, dBpm (short for “decibels per minute”). Tweedy tuned his Fifties-era Gibson J-200 down one whole step for this quasi Travis-picked passage, which features alternating thumb-picked bass notes while the index finger picks the higher strings. Master bar 1’s C/G pattern and apply it to the remaining chords.