On Cowboy Chords and Dreadnoughts…….

Photo credit:Linda McCartney


When I’m teaching, I look for ways to reinforce the relationship between styles, guitars and techniques. One particular class of grips are what I refer to as the ‘Cowboy’ chords: basic chord shapes, or ‘grips’, that accompany a right-hand strum or fingerpicked pattern.

Typically, I’ll make the ‘cowboy’ reference in relation to ‘Dreadnought’-sized guitars. My intention is neither to be dismissive of the chords nor the instruments, but rather to create a shorthand reference within some pop culture context.

In reality, there is nothing specifically ‘cowboy’ about the grips (or the guitars), nor are they always simple to execute (F chords in particular). They are, however, the fundamental building blocks of western music and, for the guitarist, essential shapes to play a multitude of songs in pop, folk, traditional and country styles. They are not going to give you the extended harmonies that are built-in to a Gershwin song, for example, but those require an understanding of what I refer to as ‘Adult’ chords.

As the jazz age of the 1920’s gave way to a depression era, the  percussive ‘chunk’ of the Gibson arch-top guitars replaced the banjo in swing jazz bands, with their sophisticated harmonic vocabulary.

Simultaneously, folk heros like Jimmie Rogers, ‘the Singing Brakeman’, sang with simple strummed chord accompaniment and laid the foundation of country music with his flattop Martins.

In the 1930‘s, studios churned out reels of western ‘cowboy’ movies*. The cowboy pop singers of the era translated this ‘wild-west’ iconography into their songs and the radio carried hits like ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘Back In The Saddle Again’. Their guitars sported pearl inlays, mirroring their Colt 45’s. The Martin Orchestra Model (OM) guitar, was the ideal size and volume for singers like Roy Rogers.

But, guitar-wise, there was a new sheriff in town.  Guitarists and singers like Hank Williams and Gene Autry enjoyed a volume boost from the significantly larger body of the ‘Dreadnought’-sized guitar. It became the perfect foil for the banjo, mandolin and fiddle of the bluegrass ensembles and quickly established itself in both ‘Country’ and ‘Western’ music.

In time, this iconic instrument came to represent the American acoustic guitar in other styles too. Elvis wielded a D18 on the cover of his first RCA album. The chart successes of the Kingston Trio  helped to sell enough D28s to prompt Martin to move to a bigger factory to keep up with the orders. Lennon and McCartney took D28s to India and wrote much of the ‘White Album’ on them.

There is a wide variance in the specifications of Martin ‘Dreads’ over the years, but those of the 1930’s ‘Golden’ era and their relatively ‘authentic’ modern reproductions in particular, are among the most powerful and dynamic guitars ever made.

As a fingerstylist and studio musician, my personal preference is for the OM-size of my signature model, but there is no denying the iconic role of the Dreadnought and its ‘Cowboy’ chords in the history of American music.

*My home town of over 30 years, Studio City is named after Republic Studios, producer of the Gene Autry movies.  Later, Republic became CBS Studio Center, where as a young girl, my wife Hope would go after school to visit her dad, Sherwood Schwartz, on the set of his TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island’.

  1. #1 by Lawrence Bullock on August 27, 2012 - 2:03 pm

    Love the “cowboy chords” reference. Once, a long while ago, when on a tour with the show “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” D.C. Fitzgerald (a Pittsburgh Pennsylvania guitar legend) made a mention of cowboy chords when he was showing me some things. I asked him what they were and he did a “chunka, chunka, chunka” GCD variation and said, “You know, like that.” He didn’t mind them either, but he could make that guitar swing without using them, too. Good blog!

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