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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.