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Paul McCartney's minimalist approach to acoustic guitar

All three "composing Beatles" (John, Paul, and George) were competent guitarists, but the award goes to Paul McCartney in the category of "makes the most out of the least material." In so many cases throughout his time with The Beatles, and continuing into his solo (and Wings) career, Paul McCartney worked wonders with an acoustic guitar and the most basic of chord shapes.

This is all the more surprising given that Paul never really had any substantial formal training, either in music (harmony, composition, etc.) or in guitar specifically. (He was more-or-less coerced into piano lessons twice in his early years, but neither stint lasted more than a few weeks before he quit.) The compositions he was able to produce using only partial chords sound deceptively complicated, but in reality they are much easier to play than they sound because of the simple-form chords he employed.


This song from The Beatles (aka The White Album) is perhaps the best example of the bunch. The chords sound wonderfully complex, taking advantage of closely coupled note clusters and inverted voicings, but Paul is never fretting more than two strings at a time, as these shapes demonstrate:

The second chord in particular is fascinating: a secondary dominant, in first inversion, with an added ninth to dress it up. Not bad for a guy who never really studied composition. (Paul would revisit this same two-string-chords idea for his Chaos and Creation in the Backyard track, "Jenny Wren.")

Mother Nature's Son

Another track from The White Album, this composition finds Paul using a handful of "full" chords, mixed with a range of partial chords all fretted on the top three strings, allowing the open fourth string to ring out. Paul make use of several major chords using this three-string pattern, such as during the instrumental ("do-do-do-do-do") bridge:

He also deploys borrowed minor chords using this same pattern:

In later years, he would utilize these same chord shapes to write the beautiful "Calico Skies", a ballad and ode to Linda from his Flaming Pie album.

I'm Carrying

This hidden gem from London Town is often overlooked by guitarists who are fans of McCartney's career, but it stands as another example of Paul's ability to build an entire song with an absolute minimum of chords and chord voicings. In this case, he never leaves a high neck position near the 12th fret, and never frets more than two strings, leaving us with these very basic descending chord shapes:

The progression is simple, but in the simplicity is a haunting beauty, and the voicings even give the instrument an almost harp-like quality.

Mamunia & Junk

Both of these examples, one from Paul's Band on the Run release and one from his debut solo album McCartney, show Paul enjoying the ability to build riffs around one simple chord shape:

This ties up only one finger, leaving the other three fingers free to wander the fretboard, either to create single-note riffs, or chord voicings, or a bit of both. With "Mamunia" we see a simple one-note descending line that leaves the original chord in place the entire time:

With "Junk" the same fingering pattern stays in place while the bass notes descend (opposite of "Mamunia") to create a moving chord progression:

There are certainly other examples that could be given from McCartney's catalog of compositions, but these are good representative selections that show the different ways he approaches the acoustic guitar. In every case, a minimum amount of work is required from the guitarist to form the chords, but the result is maximum creativity.


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