Was Johnny Cash a Good Guitarist?

Closeup image of standard six string guitar. Selective focus

Johnny Cash is one of the most well-known and beloved musicians of all time. But the first thing people think of when they hear Johnny Cash’s name is his singing, not his guitar skills. So was Johnny Cash a good guitarist?

Here’s what I know from years of listening and seeing him once:

Johnny Cash was a proficient rhythm guitarist but not a great guitar player. But although he wasn’t the greatest guitarist, Johnny Cash was still a competent guitarist and brought his own iconic style to the instrument and surrounded himself with excellent guitarists over the years.

So Cash would probably not make the top cut of greatest guitarists of all time; it wasn’t his focus.

He is known and adored for his iconic look and signature vocals. He had a deep bass-baritone voice and an excellent command of the low register.

All of this made his singing incredibly unique and set him apart from other singers of his time.

Did Johnny Cash play any of the guitar parts on his records?

Johnny Cash did play acoustic rhythm guitar on all his early recordings up until 1977. From 1977 on, he played guitar less frequently on his recordings, but he did play guitar on all of his final recordings, known as the American Recordings.

At the start of his career, Johnny Cash played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant.

Johnny Cash’s brother Roy introduced him to Perkins and Grant. They played together all the time and called themselves the “Tennessee Three”.

Eventually, they scored a contract with Sun Records, and the owner, Sam Phillips, suggested they call themselves “Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two”.

As they continued to make records, Cash focused on perfecting his vocal sound while Perkins and Grant covered the guitar parts. But his acoustic rhythm guitar would always be there in the background.

Cash was so well-known and loved for his unique voice that it wasn’t crucial for his guitar playing to be front and center on his records.

It made sense to have an expert guitarist to make the records sound as good as they possibly could.

And Perkins certainly was an expert. He is responsible for the iconic boom-chika-boom train rhythm that people associate with Johnny Cash.

Why did Johnny Cash play on the neck of his guitar?

One reason Johnny Cash played on the neck of his guitar was because of the sound it produced, as the neck of the guitar is where a guitar’s strings have the least tension. This creates a more mellow sound and fits better for the style of country music that Cash was going for.

Typically, when playing an acoustic guitar, you would strum somewhere near the soundhole. However, Johnny Cash can be seen strumming higher up on the neck of his guitar.

Playing on the neck also allows for faster picking.

Since the strings have more give here, it is easier to pluck them faster and glide between them. Johnny Cash can be seen proudly picking rapidly on the neck of his guitar in a fashion that won adoration from his fans.

More than the sound, playing on the neck of his guitar was about the style and look for Johnny Cash. Image was a huge part of what made Johnny Cash so famous. He had a unique voice, guitar, and clothing.

Playing on the neck of his guitar was just another way he could stand out and impress.

Did Johnny Cash ever play electric guitar?

Johnny Cash was known exclusively for playing the acoustic guitar. While it is possible that Cash played an electric guitar at some point in his career, there is no evidence of this. 

The biggest difference between acoustic and electric guitars is the way in which the instruments amplify sound.

Acoustic guitars are built to naturally amplify sound within the guitar itself. An acoustic guitar has a large body with empty space inside that is called a sound chamber.

Electric guitars have slim, thin bodies with no sound holes in the majority of cases.

This is because an electric guitar does not amplify the sound through the guitar itself. Instead, using pickups, the vibrations are transmitted to an amplifier. This also allows for the creation of unique sounds through sound distortion, which is common in rock and heavy metal.

Since Johnny Cash was mainly focused on vocals, it would have been unnecessary for him to learn to play an electric guitar.

He also had already created an image for himself in which he was always holding an acoustic guitar, generally the all-black Martin D-35.

It might have been jarring for fans to see Cash with an electric guitar.

However, this doesn’t mean Cash’s music was lacking the sound of the electric guitar. Luther Perkins was Cash’s electric guitarist, and the sound is well placed in many of Cash’s songs.

Did Johnny Cash use a capo?

Johnny Cash often used a capo when playing. This enabled him to play easier chord formations for songs in different keys so he could focus less on the guitar and more on his singing.

Capos get their name from the Italian word for ‘head’.

Capos are placed on the neck of guitars and most commonly cover all the strings in the same position. The effect of the capo is that it raises the pitch of the strings by artificially shortening their lengths. Capos are useful for shortcutting to certain sounds and making it easier to play in certain keys.

During the majority of Johnny Cash’s musical career, there was a stigma surrounding the use of capos.

Using a capo was viewed as cheating, and some people even saw it as unmanly. If a professional was using a capo while performing, that was a sign to many that they didn’t have a true mastery of the guitar and needed to rely on a crutch.

This might have been true of Johnny Cash.

He may have needed a capo to make playing the guitar a little easier. However, the stigma around capos began diminishing in the early 2000s, and many professionals since then have used them to play.

While Cash might have been relying on the use of a capo to aid him in his guitar playing, he still found a way to make it his own.

There is a famous story of how Cash would take a dollar bill and fold it over his guitar strings so that the bill would function as a homemade capo.

It is very like Johnny Cash to take something that might be a weakness and turn it into something iconic.

What guitar did Johnny Cash use?

While Johnny Cash played multiple guitars throughout his life, he is most famously known for playing a Martin dreadnaught acoustic guitar, specifically the Martin D-35.

Johnny Cash first learned to play guitar when he was 12 years old.

He was taught by his mother, but it isn’t clear what guitar he learned with. It is clear, however, that Cash quickly found a guitar he liked and one he would stick with his whole career.

The Martin D-style guitars are often considered to be the most versatile of guitars.

The specific shape of these guitars and the wood used in crafting them give these guitars a sound that can work for almost any genre of music.

Cash played with the Martin D-28, the Martin D-76, and the Martin D-45.

However, he became most closely associated with the Martin D-35. This guitar was unique and eye-grabbing since it had an all-black polish. This was the perfect look for Johnny Cash, who was also known as “The Man in Black”.

Johnny Cash’s legendary guitar was built in secret because the head of the Martin Guitar company didn’t like the look of an all-black guitar.

He didn’t even know the instrument existed until he saw Cash playing it on TV. He then decided it was fitting for Cash and was happy with the look.

Learn to play this strum pattern (beginner acoustic Guitar)

Conclusion

Johnny Cash sang on all his records, but Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant are known for playing the guitar parts.

Playing on the neck of his guitar created a unique sound and a unique look that Cash enjoyed. It also allowed him to pick the strings faster.

Cash usually had an acoustic guitar in hand. He is not known to ever have played an electric guitar, and Johnny Cash did often use a capo when he played.

Johnny Cash almost always played with his Martin D-35. This was an all-black acoustic guitar that matched his all-black attire.


Photo which requires attribution:

cash_0010 by Daniel Hartwig is licensed by CC2.0 and was cropped, edited, and added to another image with a text overlay.

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