Stuart Ryan checks out the sophisticated solo fingerstyle acoustic technique of Paul Simon.
Paul Simon is a product of the American folk style that counts Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk among its founding fathers.
Transcribing and recording his fingerstyle arrangement of Davey Graham’s Anji for GT made me realise how adept a picker he actually is.
Simon is a product of the American folk style of fingerpicking that counts such luminaries as Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk as its founding fathers. His guitar style is very much in the classic arpeggiated chord and alternating bass fingerpicking style, but his highly developed sound also features elements of jazz, blues and gospel thanks to his ear for unique chord voicings and unexpected progressions.
A recipient of no less than 12 Grammy Awards, Simon met Art Garfunkel in 1952 when they were just 11. They were writing songs together just over a year later and, astonishingly, in their mid-teens scored their first chart hit, Hey Schoolgirl, as Tom And Jerry. It was as Simon & Garfunkel that they found mainstream fame, though, and from 1964 until they split up in 1970, they crafted a string of hits that have become iconic classics. Tracks like The Boxer display Simon’s controlled, uptempo approach to fingerstyle playing, while Mrs Robinson showcases his strumming rhythm work in action.
Incredibly though, Simon & Garfunkel’s first album release, 1964’s Wednesday Morning, 3am, was not a success – with the result that Simon moved to the UK, where he became a fixture on the folk club and coffee-shop circuit. This not only broadened his musical horizons, but gave him the taste for solo performance that would become a hallmark of his career. Success in the US beckoned, though, as The Sound Of Silence from their debut album began to get radio play and, re-united with Art Garfunkel, the duo went on to garner the rave reviews for which we know them now.
Simon’s sound has evolved over the years, from the darker approach of his solo albums like Still Crazy After All These Years to the upbeat African-inspired joy of Graceland. Although he has worked with a host of well-known sidemen and his albums always feature beautifully layered guitar work, underpinning it all is that bedrock of solo guitar accompaniment that defined his early days.
Simon’s style is in many ways a cleaner, more refined version of the folk fingerpickers who preceded him. He makes great study material for this reason, because you need to perfect your picking-hand technique to emulate him properly. Much of the time his fretting hand lives in the open position, but you’ll still find him using plenty of unusual and interesting chords down there to sustain your interest.
NEXT ISSUE: Stuart looks at the timeless playing of James Taylor
Paul Simon: here playing his Martin signature model