When you hear the name Leonard Cohen, six-string mastery isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
But, in addition to his craftsmanship as a poet and songwriter, Cohen had a unique guitar style and musical approach that are worthy of praise—certainly no less so than other influential guitarist-singer-songwriters like Neil Young. Sylvie Simmons, who wrote biographies of Cohen and Young, once said they both created a “one man genre.”
Cohen’s contribution lies within the Spanish and classical flavors he incorporated into his music. He built a musical bridge above the Atlantic Ocean, even if it was just by using a nylon-string guitar that was (and perhaps still is) considered less conventional in the “West."
Cohen, who claimed to have taken guitar lessons from a Spanish teacher, humbly said the few chords and picking patterns he was taught were the basis of his music. By the way, I recommend hearing this story in Cohen's own words.
Those Spanish finger-picking patterns were clearly shown in his early songs. Here are three examples.
EXAMPLE 1: It Takes You Down
In this example, you'll find an intro in the style of "Suzanne." It uses a picking pattern in 6/4 that uses a repeated bass line—root-5th—and that iconic “Conehic” sus4 note. This creates a sense of three parts: the bass, the chord arpeggios and an additional melodic line that derives from the added note, which turns a major chord almost into a “minor.”
EXAMPLE 2: It’s Soft with Sorrow
Songs like "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" are in common time, although it’s an uncommon meter in Cohen’s repertoire. This example is a variation of EXAMPLE 1, which is adapted to 4/4 and embellished with more additional notes to establish a clearer melodic line.
EXAMPLE 3: It’s Sweeping Up the Jokers
This last example uses a flamenco fingerstyle technique—fast-triplet arpeggios as heard in "The Stranger Song." This time the repeated bass line is a bit more complicated—root-octave-5th-octave—and the sus4 notes are the magic ingredient that lift this sequence to a whole new level.
Sure, Cohen's technical abilities can’t be compared to those of Paco De Lucia and other great flamenco players, but his unique musical influence doesn’t fall short—and it lies deep in the roots of folk music. This lesson is dedicated to Cohen's mighty Tower of Song.
Udi Glaser is a guitarist, guitar teacher, composer, producer and journalist. He has been playing all types of guitars and styles for more than 25 years and has been teaching them for more than 16 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in musicology and philosophy and attained a sound-engineering diploma and an Orchestrating & Producing for Film and Games certificate, for which he received a scholarship in the name of Jeff Beck. Contact him through his website to find out more about his online guitar lessons via skype / facetime.