Continuing his series featuring modern acoustic bands and players, Stuart Ryan explores the indie folk style of Fleet Foxes, from Seattle, Washington.
This month we’re delving into the style of American group Fleet Foxes and, in particular, main songwriter and guitarist Robin Pecknold. As a songwriter, Pecknold is influenced by legends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Hank Williams, and you can hear that in his guitar style. His love of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys is evident in Fleet Foxes’ amazing vocal harmonies, too.
Hailing from Seattle, Fleet Foxes recorded their first demo in 2006 and came to the attention of that city’s legendary record label, Sub Pop, who signed them up in January 2008 and released a second EP that April. A heavy touring schedule followed and the release of their self-titled debut album, emerged later in the year.
For their second album, Helplessness Blues, Pecknold decided to go for a more raw approach, and he also shifted his influences to the sounds of Roy Harper and Van Morrison. Sometimes the acoustic is at the fore while at other times it lays a foundation over which Christian Wargo weaves electric guitar parts. It’s easy to hear the 60s and 70s acoustic guitar sound in Pecknold’s playing, and at times you imagine Fleet Foxes being a band that Jimmy Page, Bert Jansch and Bob Dylan could easily have been a part of.
It must be pointed out that some of Pecknold’s rhythm parts are themselves ‘fleet’ and he moves chord shapes up and down the fretboard, sometimes using three-finger triads on the first three strings which can facilitate this movement more easily than shifting barre chords or those in the open position. I’ve explored this in this month’s piece and, although there shouldn’t be any tricky moments, the sliding chords will require focus for timing and accuracy.
A good knowledge of triads is essential for any guitarist - acoustic, electric, lead or rhythm. When you put them into an otherwise standard chord progression - espeecially in the context of a band - you can add a great deal more movement and interest than simply moving open chords around. Another advantage of using triads is that you can use a ‘pedal tone’, typically an open string, that remains consistent against all the chords you use. This is great for coming up with some unique voicings and can make a common progression sound much fresher.
Finally, I’ve used a capo on this track, something that Pecknold himself often does – for some people capo usage puts them into an easier register for singing but from a guitar player’s perspective I find raising the pitch tightens and ‘sweetens’ the sound. If you play along with my backing track just remember to place your capo at the 3rd fret.
Pecknold is influenced by legends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Hank Williams and The Beach Boys.
Robin Pecknold: note the double pickguard on his ‘strummer’ Martin