Hole Notes: Fleet-Fingered Mac-Oustic Madness

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Delving deep into Lindsey Buckingham’s unique Travis picking rhythms.

When Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac in late 1974, he helped transform the veteran British blues-rock band into an incredibly successful mainstream pop act. In his formative years, Buckingham drew inspiration from Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, who was an early practitioner of Travis picking within a pop/rock and roll context. This somewhat country-like fingerstyle approach was named after Fifties country session musician Merle Travis. Buckingham was also a huge fan of Chet Atkins. Couple these influences with his experience playing banjo as a youngster, and you have the foundation for the unique fingerpicking guitar style, which Buckingham employed to great effect during his tenure with Fleetwood Mac.

In this lesson, we’ll tackle his famous polyrhythmic Travis picking style via a passage modeled after parts in “Landslide” from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham performed the studio version with a capo across his Martin D-18 acoustic’s third fret. We’ll forego capoing in this lesson.

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Let’s begin by building up Buckingham’s intricate fingerstyle passage over the Cadd2 chord in FIGURE 1. While holding down this chord and those that follow, Buckingham plays a quarter-note bass line, alternating between different chord tones (plucked with the thumb, p), as in FIGURE 2. Over this, Buckingham arpeggiates a descending cascade of notes on strings 1 through 3: a repeating three-note passage played in eighth notes, plucked with the ring (a), middle (m) and index (i) fingers (a “banjo-style” roll), as seen in FIGURE 3. Note that the first six eighth notes (two groups of three; think of it as “1 2 3, 1 2 3”) are capped off with the two eighth notes (think “1 2”) at the measure’s end.

Buckingham’s use of “1 2 3” notes plucked in a rhythm of twos creates what’s referred to as a polyrhythm, the simultaneous conveyance of two or more contrasting rhythms. This particular polyrhythm has its own name: hemiola, the rhythmic relation of three against two. You’ll find plucking this arpeggio part over Buckingham’s bass line is tricky—a groove that could be illustrated as (bass notes occurring where underlined) “1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2.”

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Let’s break this passage down into bits, adding one string at a time from the arpeggiated figure over the thumbed bass notes, beginning with the first string (pluck with ring finger), as in FIGURE 4. Take note of each moment your thumb and other plucking-hand fingers sound notes simultaneously; coordinate those first, and it will become easier to add the “between the bass” notes. FIGURE 5 adds the second string (plucked with the middle finger) to the picture, while FIGURE 6 incorporates the third string (plucked with the index finger) for Buckingham’s complete figure.

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FIGURE 7 runs Buckingham’s complete plucking-hand pattern through Cadd2, Em7, A7sus4 and G chords. Notice that each of these chords shares the same note pair on the top two strings. The only mechanical difference between FIGURE 6 and the approach in FIGURE 7 is that the thumb plucks the sixth string for the Em7 and G chords to sound their respective roots.

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We described FIGURE 3 with the terms polyrhythm and hemiola. In that example, a repeating three-note pattern (“1 2 3, 1 2 3”) is capped off with an extra pair of “compensating” notes (“1 2”), creating a user-friendly passage, repeatable at each chord change. If you’re up to the challenge, FIGURE 8 shows the result of a relentless “1 2 3” pattern (a true hemiola), yielding a groove that feels like “1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3,” with the bass notes occurring on the underlined beats. As chords change (at beat “one”), the first upper-register note plucked will be on a different string each time.