Cat’s unique guitar playstyle is entirely self-taught and hence does not follow established playing techniques. Below we describe notable techniques Cat uses in greater detail.
“I mean, even today, I’m shy of playing in front of someone like Paul Simon because I never learned anything properly. But the way I did it was kind of unique and that’s why I suppose it works in my songs.”Cat Stevens, Guitar World article (Feb. 22, 2021)
Fingerpicking Cat Stevens
For fingerpicking the guitar Cat solely uses the thumb and index finger, often employing unique and individualized fingerstyle patterns.
“As you experiment with chords,” Cat said in a Guitar World article from February 22, 2021, “it starts to get boring when you can only do simple strumming. And that’s where fingerstyle does the job. You’re on a chord, it’s a simple thing, you’ve got the shape right but now you can make it sing in a different way. I never really learnt the intricacies of fingerpicking properly.”
The intro riff to ‘Moonshadow‘ is a perfect example of Cat’s unique fingerpicking technique. Cat can also be seen to mix things up such as in songs like ‘The Wind‘ or ‘Boy ith a Moon and Star on His Head‘. There he transitions from a set fingerpicking pattern to picking the bass with the thumb and then “fingerstrumming”—a mix between fingerpicking and strumming—the chord for the rest of the bar with the index finger. ‘Katmandu‘ is a stunning example as well.
Judging from recent performances, Cat seems to have shifted towards a more conventional means of fingerpicking, utilizing the thumb, index and middle finger for the most part.
“Fingerstrumming” Cat Stevens?
Since we mention fingerstrumming a lot on here, we owe you an explanation.
Fingerstrumming is a special fingerstyle technique Cat uses, a mix between fingerpicking and strumming, where one part of a riff or sequence is fingerpicked using the thumb and index finger, while the rest of the bar is filled in with targeted strums swinging the index finger only, much like a pendulum. No plectrum is used.
Cat often employs this technique if strumming the chord alone is not enough to fill in the blanks, such as in ‘The Wind‘, ‘Ruins‘, ‘I’ve Got a Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old‘, ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest‘ and many other songs.
Cat’s Pick Trick
As discussed above, Cat solely uses the thumb and index finger when fingerpicking. And because he does so Cat is able to tuck a pick, also called a plectrum, barely visible in live performances, between his middle and ring finger. With a little bit of practice it is possible to quickly slide the pick forward for the strumming part of the song—then holding it between thumb and index finger—only to tuck it back again once the fingerstyle bits set in.
This technique is almost mandatory for songs like ‘Moonshadow‘ and even ‘Peace Train‘, where riff parts fingerpicked as such quickly shift into the strumming bits played solely with a pick.
Master of Open E
Most of Cat’s songs were written for standard tuning (low to high: E-A-D-G-B-E), not least for its versatility to handle most keys and key changes in general. Cat sometimes even employs a capo to maintain familiar chord shapes as well as chord transitions from the get-go. But did you know that Cat had actually written singlehandedly the three best songs for Open E, an often overlooked alternate tuning, which is tuned bass to treble E-B-E-G#-B-E (see Figure 1)?
In other words, Open E tuning means the guitar is tuned to the standard E major chord. And since the key of E major is innately one of the best-sounding keys to most ears across the globe, this guitar tuning, with its heavenly use of open strings, sounds awesome by definition, even if changing keys just got a lot harder.
‘If I Laugh‘ and ‘Rubylove‘ are the two seminal masterpieces Cat penned for Open E tuning—really a master class in Open E harmonics and what you can do on guitar in general with such an alternate tuning. The uninitiated should probably start out with the easier “If I Laugh” before diving into proper Greek-rhythm territory of “Rubylove”. The unfinished ‘Fisherman Song‘ (studio demo) is a masterpiece in its own right, standing out for its melodic and rhythmic use of Open E.
Less structually sound guitars—or vintage guitars—should probably tune to Open D (low to high: D-A-D-F#-A-D) instead, and employ a capo at the second fret (see Figure 2). This way you avoid the higher string tension of Open E when the capo is off and you are not playing.
As to how Cat got inspired to use this alternate tuning is not known.
Cat’s Greek influences can be clearly heard in his music, not least because of the many instances where one-off bars or whole sections in odd time signatures are introduced in his songs, or where chord changes occur at odd intervals.
Even in a fairly steady song like ‘Father and Son‘ we can find the one-off odd bar in 1/4 or 3/4 in there. In ‘Time‘ Cat alternates 4/4 bars with 3/4 ones, and songs like ‘Rubylove‘ are even written in fully authentic Greek 7/8 time.
Talking about working with Paul Samwell-Smith and Alun Davies in the studio, Cat mentioned in a recent interview, “Occassionally, I’d do something on the timing that would be slightly different, and that was the thing which stumped them. And so we’d have to stop and start again until we got that right.”
What we also see often with Cat’s music are chord changes placed at odd intervals in a given bar. In ‘How Can I Tell You‘ for instance there is a premature change to the G major chord, only so that the following G/F# major chord can shine more. And ‘Don’t Be Shy‘ forces you to change chords at the oddest moments in a regular 4/4 bar.
Breaking the monotony, or tediousness, of regular time is truly a staple of Cat’s.
Cat’s Bar Chords
Another pecularity with Cat’s playing lies in his chord fingering for bar chords. In songs like ‘Hard Headed Woman‘ you often hear only the Bb major chord without the bass root note struck, effectively Bb/F, in the quick F-to-Bb chord shifts. After all, a chord only consists of three notes.
Cat does this by barring the chord with the ring finger, neglecting the root bass note (Figure 1). He also tends to use his middle finger to assist his ringer finger with depressing the D through B strings. This specific chord fingering is used solely for the purpose of retaining the familiar and comfortable thumb-over-neck style of guitar playing Cat favors.
However, at certain other times Cat seems secure the root bass note with the thumb. Take his use of B major in ‘Take the World Apart‘ for instance (Figure 2). The thumb secures the bass A string at the second fret, while the ring finger bars the D through B strings at the fourth.
Unfortunately it is far from an easy thing to do. You are trying to depress the A bass string with the thumb after all. Such an overreach with the thumb requires a slim-taper guitar neck, larger hands and lots of practice. Even so, you will often run into not being able to prevent the treble E string from ringing out unwantedly out at the fret barred with your ring finger.
You also often see Cat using chord inversions especially in the bass. For instance, when a B7 major chord is called for he often replaces the root note with the dominant seventh, effectively playing a B/A major chord (Figure 3).
Regarding E-shaped bar chords Cat usually bars the first three – not two – treble strings with his index finger (Figure 4). This is done as a precaution so as to being able to quickly shift to an Em-shaped bar chord. Cat chooses not do so with F major at the first fret because he likes to tap into Fsus2 with its open G string.
Thumb Usage and Inversions
Playing with your thumb over your neck to form chords is universally frowned upon by acoustic guitar teachers for some reason. Cat, however, plays like that all the time (see Figure 1 for a chord example), and it is a very comfortable way to play the guitar given the right hand size and guitar neck shape. You can see electric guitar players do this a lot, too.
Using the thumb, instead of fully barring a chord, also allows for using open strings to your advantage in your chord compositions. Remember that open strings always sound best on guitar (they chime and ring and are perfectly tuned), so play them whenever you can. For example, Cat plays his favorite Fsus2 chord with an open G string, and the chord variation simply sounds fantastic (see Figure 2). The chord could also not be played otherwise when fully barring at the first fret.
For E-shaped barré chords such a F major, there is also the option to leave out the main bass note entirely and rather play an inversion in the bass (see Figure 3). In fact, Cat does this more often than can be transcribed in a digestible guitar tablature. ‘Changes IV‘ and ‘On the Road to Find Out‘, among many other songs, are guilty of this, and it sounds spectacular. This may have originate from playing inverted chords on the piano (F/C or G/D for example) as well, which often sound purer than their standard chord cousins for some reason.
Figure 4 shows another chord variation using open strings and not barring. Cat uses that one in ‘Fill My Eyes‘.
Cat’s G Major Chord
Many of Cat’s song are written in the key of G major. There are many reasons for this. One is that the guitar lends itself especially to that key because it allows for playing a lot with open strings, which always sound the purest.
The regular G major chord (G-B-D-G-B-G) sounds somewhat loaded on guitar. Therefore, Cat often plays the G major chord with the A string muted instead, to better reflect a more harmonious, cleaner chord (G-x-D-G-B-G), comparable to playing the chord on piano, with G and D as the left-hand bass notes.
He achieves this by muting the A string with the fleshy part of the middle finger (2), which itself rests on the low E string. The figure on the left illustrates Cat’s original fingering of the chord.
Alun’s Heavenly Acoustic Vibrato
Especially on electric guitar, the common vibrato technique comprises of rapidly bending the string up or down and releasing the string afterwards. That can vary the pitch a lot and often doesn’t sound all that great on an acoustic guitar, which lacks the sustain of an electric.
Alun’s vibrato technique is different. Instead of bending up or down, he rather rocks the string back and forth along its longitudinal length. As a result, the pitch is less affected—or much more stable—and a much sweeter vibrato effect (at least on an acoustic guitar) can be achieved.
Cat does so as well even when employing chords, playing dyads or the like, such as in the intro of ‘On the Road to Find Out‘ for example.
Alun’s “Pumping” Rhythm Guitar
Paul Samwell-Smith, who really likes Alun’s rhythm guitar playing (as do we), once said that Alun would reach a certain point in a recording “where [he] start[s] to pump and move air.” You can also see this in effect live in the 1971 BBC Threatre Concert when Alun’s strumming sets in and which actually throws off Cat at one point during his singing ‘Tuesday’s Dead‘ due to the sheer percussive onslaught.
Alun says, “It’s a strange thing and I wouldn’t know how to teach a class how to do this, but it’s using the heel of the hand to dampen the strings and release them again afterwards.” Try it, it really works!
The Beethovenian Silence in Cat’s Music
The overarching theme in Cat’s music, starting with his album Mona Bone Jakon, is his well-placed use of pauses in his music, to further heighten a melody, phrase or simply a word. Consider ‘Father and Son‘. Towards the very end Cat suddenly palm-mutes his guitar to deliver the final line “but it’s them they know, not me, now” with extra verve.
Silences were occassionally used by early composers in other contexts, but Cat’s use is more similar to Beethoven’s range, especially towards the end of Ludwig’s life in his late string quartets. In its most dramatic form the general idea is that the listener gets steadily lifted up note by note by a musical phrase, towards a climax in sight, at which point the music suddenly stops (seemingly), leaving the listener in a state of weightlessness, followed by a free fall, just to be picked up by Cat’s music again and flung far into the sky with a grand finale. And because the music stops so suddenly, the listener’s mind activates in an attempt to construct the missing part of the musical phrase all by itself.
Other examples include ‘Boy with a Moon and Star on His Head‘, ‘Fill My Eyes‘, ‘Hard Headed Woman‘, ‘Never‘, ‘Where Do the Children Play?‘, ‘Wild World‘ and many, many more. Just have a listen!
Cat’s Secret ‘Father & Son’ Chords
We are sorry you have probably been playing ‘Father and Son‘ with the wrong chords all this time. But who could have guessed that Cat made use of these strange chord shapes in his hit song?
The custom D/F# shape (Figure 1) is used for all the verses sung by the father, while the son gets the more dramatic Bm7/F# chord (Figure 2). These chords are particularly difficult to identify by just listening to the record, because in this case two upper bass strings need singling out, which is very uncommon for this chord family. They have never been properly transcribed until now.
The only other songs that come to mind where Cat uses at least one of these chord shapes are ‘I Want to Live in a Wigwam‘ and ‘Into White‘.
The C-Major Chord Situation
When it comes to the vanilla C major chord Cat favors almost exclusively the following two shapes: either the standard C major shape with an added G in the treble (Figure 1) or the bassier C/G (Figure 2) with an added G in the bass.
Cat is, however, not consistent in his application. He interchanges these chords at will. Take ‘Changes IV‘ for example. At ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test‘ he favors the first variant for the verses, whereas at his famous BBC Concert he opts to use the more percussive C/G version exclusively for the entire song.
Similar deviations can be observed for songs like ‘Katmandu‘, ‘Father and Son‘ and many more. Even in the same song Cat may switch it up from one part to the next.