Explore John Lennon's acoustic guitar technique with the Beatles

(Image credit: Max Scheler - K & K/Redferns/Getty Images)

In the decades since his passing on December 8, 1980, John Lennon’s legend has continued to grow, both for his contributions to the Beatles and his accomplishments as a solo artist.

Even so, he is rarely singled out for his acoustic guitar playing. This is perhaps due to the spotlight-grabbing abundance of standalone acoustic Beatles cuts written by Paul McCartney, such as Blackbird, Yesterday, Michelle and Mother Nature’s Son.

But Lennon - wielding his Gibson J-160E or Martin D28 - is the man behind many other Beatles acoustic classics, including Norwegian Wood, Julia, Happiness Is a Warm Gun and Dear Prudence.

Let’s look at what makes these tracks tick. Lennon used a version of Travis picking, a somewhat country-flavored fingerstyle approach named after session musician Merle Travis, to shape much of his acoustic output.

FIGURES 1a–d deconstruct Lennon’s favorite pattern via an open C chord, beginning with bass notes, to focus on the pick-hand thumb’s activity (FIGURE 1a). With the C chord held down, use your fret-hand’s ring finger to alternately fret C (A string, third fret) and G (low E string, third fret), on beats one and two, respectively. These notes, and the E note at the second fret on the D string (struck between each bass note), are plucked with the thumb (p).

As FIGURES 1b–d unfold, one note is added at a time - plucked on the high E string with the ring finger (a), on the G string with the index finger (i) and then on the B string with the middle finger (m) - until the entire pattern is pieced together (see FIGURE 1d). 

Once you have this pattern down, you’re ready to tackle a host of Lennon’s acoustic Beatles songs, like Julia (from The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album), which informs FIGURE 2. (Note: Lennon used a capo at the second fret on the original.)

Written as an homage to Lennon’s mother, this track features C, G, Am7 and Em chords, each with a high G common tone fretted with the pinkie on the high E string’s third fret. Interestingly, although two of these chords, G and Em, have sixth-string roots, Lennon employs his fifth-string-root pattern throughout Julia. As a result, instead of hitting the roots of the G and Em chords first, he sounds a different chord tone the moment the chord change occurs. This creates the sound of temporary inversions (chords with a third or fifth in the bass).

Happiness Is a Warm Gun (from The Beatles), hinted at in FIGURE 3, also uses this fingerpicking approach - with Em, Em(add2), Am13 and Am7 voicings - as does Dear Prudence. While George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun is viewed as the pinnacle of standalone acoustic Beatles pick-style tunes, Lennon’s Norwegian Wood (from Rubber Soul), which FIGURE 4 approximates, certainly isn’t far behind.

This riff - performed in 6/8 and played with a capo at the second fret on the original -- is nestled within an open D chord shape, with the fret-hand’s pinkie and index fingers employed to interject melody notes. Carefully study the string pairs/trios shown in the tablature and pick them using the indicated pick strokes to best bring out the melody.

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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!"