Sting (born Gordon Sumner) first rose to fame in the late Seventies, as the bass-playing singer and primary songwriter for the Police, with whom he released five chart-topping albums before the trio disbanded in 1983. (The Police reunited briefly in 2007.)
While the band’s discography is certainly brimming with electric guitar-driven gems, courtesy of Andy Summers, it is Sting’s solo output (1985-present) that features a fascinating array of intricate nylon-string acoustic work, performed by the man himself (and, at times, his six-string collaborator Dominic Miller).
Let’s mine the glorious “unplugged” offerings of Sting’s personal catalog, which, with 57th & 9th, issued in November 2016, now comprises 12 studio albums. For his ingeniously jazz-tinged debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting put down his bass and let his new rhythm section, most of whom were veterans of jazz legend Miles Davis’ touring band, support his distinctive voice.
Sting’s second solo album, Nothing Like the Sun (1987), furthered this adventurous approach and featured numerous guest guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Hiram Bullock and former bandmate Summers, and marks the first time Sting’s own guitar playing abilities were prominently heard on record.
FIGURE 1 is a passage similar to “Fragile,” the album’s fourth single (its supporting video features Sting playing classical guitar throughout), comprising sliding sixth intervals picked over bass notes (notice bar 2’s “thumb fretting”). Multifaceted guitarist Dominic Miller joined Sting’s band in 1991, with the album Soul Cages, and remains a key collaborator to this day. On 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales, Sting and Miller penned “Shape of My Heart,” which is propelled by delicate fingerpicking of three-note chords, akin to FIGURE 2.
If you’re unaccustomed to playing these types of stretch-y, wide-interval shapes, be sure to use your pinkie and index finger to fret all the second- and third-string notes, respectively, in bars 1–3. Nylon-string guitar figures prominently in the title track of Sting’s sixth solo album, Brand New Day (1999), as he lays down a relentless 6/8 groove, arpeggiating B, Em and A chords, as in FIGURE 3. Hone bar 1’s picking pattern, using a back-and-forth “rippling” motion of the thumb and first three fingers, then apply to forthcoming chords.
Sting uses his pinkie to barre the notes in the B chord, freeing up his index and middle fingers to fret bar 4’s single notes. Sting composed an acoustic ballad called “Until…” for the 2001 film Kate & Leopold (starring Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan); it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Song and earned Sting his second Academy Award nomination. FIGURE 4 illustrates the tune’s bouncy waltz feel—a fast 3/4 groove, three quarter notes per bar (think: “bass-chord-chord”)—and “jazzy” seventh chord voicings.
For years, leading up to its 2014 theatrical debut, Sting worked on an original musical, crafting both music and lyrics for The Last Ship, based upon his experience growing up in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, England. (The production’s music was released in 2013, as Sting’s 11th studio album). We’ll close this lesson with a taste of “The Last Ship,” another waltz-feel composition, this one based upon colorful open-position chords, like FIGURE 5.