The Folky-Funky Acoustic Stylings of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”

(Image credit: David Redfern/Getty Images)

Donovan was seemingly at the center of it all in the Sixties: Dubbed “Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan,” the songwriter is shown face-to-face with the iconic folk singer in the 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back (the two swap guitars and play songs for each other).

Donovan’s late-Sixties albums often used a rhythm section comprising John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, helping spawn Led Zeppelin; and a legendary excursion to India with the Beatles prompted “guitar tutoring” sessions from Donovan, shaping fingerpicking moves in several John Lennon/Paul McCartney classics.

That decade Donovan racked up 11 consecutive Top 40 hits, among them “Sunshine Superman,” “Season of the Witch,” “Mellow Yellow” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Today, 50-plus years into his career, the Scottish picker is still going strong; the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (inducted in 2012) has a European tour this spring, music featured routinely in contemporary film and television projects (Minions, Dark Shadows, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire) and recently issued his anthology, Retrospective. Let’s delve deep into Donovan’s folky-funky picking style.

In 1964, Donovan cut a songwriting demo that included “Catch the Wind,” which oozed Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack influences—coincidentally, influences shared by Dylan. Issued as a single in 1965 (through Pye Records, later re-recorded on his What’s Bin and What’s Bin Hid debut), Donovan’s strategic low-high picking pattern (like bars 1 and 3 of FIGURE 1) and harmonized bass line (bars 2 and 4) quickly invited inevitable, yet unfair, Dylan comparisons.

Grab an open C chord and add your pinkie to the high-E string’s third fret; keep this note in place as you change between the C, F and G grips.

Donovan’s second single, “Colours,” appears on his sophomore effort, Fairytale, and is an open-D tuning gem, not unlike FIGURE 2. Each bar uses the same strumming rhythm, with country/folk-flavored hammer-ons (from different open strings) on beat three.

In 1966, Donovan—credited as the pop star who imported “flower power” into the U.K.’s pop culture—abandoned “British folk” for more psychedelic sounds. Sunshine Superman, a mix of acoustics, sitars and a rock rhythm section (with Page, years before Led Zeppelin’s formation), was issued later that year, and is one of the first psychedelic pop albums. For the title track’s infectious groove, akin to FIGURE 3, fret D7 and keep your pinkie fixed to the third string throughout; that note serves as a “common tone” over Donovan’s low-register riffing.

With success skyrocketing in early 1968, Donovan took some time off and trekked to India with the Beatles to study transcendental meditation. The Hurdy Gurdy Man was issued later that year, and includes “Jennifer Juniper” (penned for Jennifer Boyd, sister of George Harrison’s wife), similar to FIGURE 4. This style of fingerpicking profoundly impacted Lennon and McCartney during their India trip (e.g., the White Album’s “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”).

We’ll close this lesson with one of Donovan’s heaviest offerings, “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which gets its girth from relentless downstrokes and chords with their fifth in the bass (Bm/F#, C/G and D/A), like FIGURE 5.

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Dale Turner

A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"