The universal popularity of Fleetwood Mac’s music may have delivered him to the biggest stages in the world, but Lindsey Buckingham has never quite been cast as your stereotypical, guitar-wielding rock god.
Although there are plenty of examples of his ability to bust out molten solos (The Chain, Sisters Of The Moon, and more recently, a stunning guest appearance on The Killers’ Caution), he’s perhaps one of the most under-worshipped songwriter-players of all time because his true superpowers are to be found in the more understated world of rhythm guitar.
Known for his aversion to plectrums, the California-born guitarist grew up admiring players like Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, The Kingston Trio and Doc Watson - all of whom were predominantly fingerstylists with the knack for incorporating elements of bass, chords and melody simultaneously. Without any formal training, the young Buckingham developed a pick-less style that evoked these influences, but which was unique to him and could be applied to a rock band setting - and he’s continued to build on this throughout his five-decade-long career.
Working closely with luthier Rick Turner, he’s also had a hand in the innovation of several guitar designs, including the Rick Turner Model 1 with which he’s since become almost synonymous.
Tricked out with complex electronics to provide a one stop shop of tonal possibilities, it’s a beyond average tool for a beyond average craftsman. In a 2011 Guitar World interview, Buckingham recalled his need for such a bespoke instrument thusly:
“Before we joined Fleetwood Mac, I was playing a Stratocaster as an electric guitar, and it was well-suited to my fingerstyle. When we joined the band, they had a pre-existing sound that was rather fat. And it needed a fatter-sounding guitar. I started using a Les Paul, which was not particularly well-suited to the orchestral style of playing that I had. So at some point, after I had met Rick Turner, I asked him if he could design me something that had a fatter sound, something between a Les Paul and a Stratocaster, but that had the percussive elements that would respond well to my style.”
Whether in his work with Fleetwood Mac or in his solo career, one of the most important things to also remember with Lindsey Buckingham is that he’s equal parts a songwriter and a guitarist.
His playing, therefore, is always designed first and foremost to accentuate the overall composition, rather than to highlight his own playing prowess - not that serving the song and blowing minds always have to be mutually exclusive, as we shall discover with the five Lin-credible songs described below…
Never Going Back Again – Rumours (1977)
Appearing on one of the best-selling albums of all time, Never Going Back Again might not be a deep cut, but this pretty little acoustic ditty demands closer inspection because it’s just so deceptively devilish to master on six strings.
A lot of Buckingham’s guitar parts are based on Travis picking, where the thumb holds down an alternating bass pattern, while the index and middle fingers pluck treble notes on top - usually with a syncopated feel. Landslide, from their 1975 self-titled record, is perhaps the most famous example of this in Fleetwood Mac’s catalogue.
Well, Never Going Back Again takes these simple principles and elevates them to polyrhythmic heights with a thumbed eighth note bassline that’s set against a descending triplet pattern played on the higher strings with the index, middle and ring fingers. Put simply, the thumb and fingers are made to pick with two different rhythmic feels at the same time.
Coupled with some interesting chord voicings, well timed hammer-on, pull-off and slide flourishes, executing this piece is a feat of coordination and endurance tough enough to make even the most accomplished players’ hands and brains ache.
In a Guitar World video lesson from 2008, Buckingham revealed that the unusual feel wasn’t exactly a deliberate contrivance so much as a product of his unique approach to playing:
“Believe me, it’s not something I could analyse or say, ‘Oh, I thought about doing this.’ This is where the refinement meets the primitive, you know? It’s all a feel.”
The Rumours album version is performed in drop D tuning with a capo at the fourth fret, although Buckingham has been known to shift the capo down to fret three in subsequent live performances, often using one of his Taylor 814 electro-acoustics for lovely bright tones.
Legend has it that during the original recording session, Buckingham’s tech was tasked with changing his acoustic guitar strings every 20 minutes to retain optimum levels of new set slinkiness!
2. I’m So Afraid – Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Closing out the first Fleetwood Mac album to feature Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, I’m So Afraid is a harmony-stuffed hard rock epic quite unlike anything else the band had produced up to that point.
It introduced listeners to Buckingham’s meticulous orchestral approach to guitar composition that was completely distinct from Peter Green’s blues-based work in the band’s original incarnation.
Buckingham had already penned the tune before joining the band and Mick Fleetwood recalls being “completely floored” when he discovered the calibre of material the young guitarist/songwriter had up his sleeve. In his 2014 autobiography, Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac, he wrote:
“I’m So Afraid was a track that Lindsey had been labouring over for four years; he’d got the harmony of the guitar parts so in tune they were a virtual orchestra unto themselves.”
Featuring one of Buckingham’s most deeply impassioned solos, the track became a staple of live shows with awe-inspiring extended six-string throwdowns coming as standard.
Beyond being a semi-rare chance to get to see Buckingham really wail at the upper reaches of the fretboard, one of the fascinating things on display here is the fierce middle and index 'finger flick' technique he uses to impart tonnes of attack into the strings.
Skip to the 7:20 mark in the live version above to see exactly what we’re referring to.
The large hand/arm movements and sheer physical force involved seem at odds with the level of accuracy that Buckingham is able to retain, which will no doubt leave those more used to digging in with a small triangular piece of plastic wondering how he:
A) Hits only the strings he’s aiming for
B) Escapes without a blood-spattered guitar every night.
3. Instrumental Introduction/This Is The Time – Out of the Cradle (1992)
In need of another outlet for all of his wide-ranging musical ideas, Lindsey Buckingham began releasing solo material alongside his work with the band as early as 1981. This pair of contrasting compositions, however, comes from the first record he made after his 1987 departure from Fleetwood Mac (which, at the time, appeared to be permanent).
From the complex baroque stylings of the intro to the sparse chiming guitars, meaty power chord riffs and searing licks that make up ‘This Is The Time’, this is Lindsey Buckingham at his most creatively unencumbered.
It’s an incredible mashup of musical worlds that shows off the sheer sonic scope of the guitar as an expressive tool. But perhaps most importantly, it’s not just a demonstration of technique for technique’s sake; it’s a great – if slightly underrated – song in its own right.
Check out this stellar live version above (which unfortunately doesn’t feature the introductory piece) in which Buckingham is backed by no fewer than four additional guitarists!
4. Time Precious Time – Gift of Screws (2008)
If you’ve never encountered this languid nylon string pick-a-thon before, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that its enchanting harp-like guitar part is performed at absolutely superhuman speed.
A relentless picking pattern grouped in sixes cycles throughout the entire song, while Buckingham performs a beautiful progression of ascending and descending chord shapes up and down the entire length of the neck.
Using a tuning of his own design, open strings fall among the fretted notes to generate cohesive drone sound, and a generous dose of reverb and delay accentuates the whole effect - like rain falling from the sky or grains of sand running through an hourglass.
Speaking with Guitar World around the time of the album’s release, Buckingham revealed that the piece took its cue from an orchestral composition by Wagner featuring “swirling strings kind of coming up in a very impressionistic way and then back down again, and then up again. Very liquid - very much like a waterfall - and I was going to try to somehow, you know, state that with a guitar piece."
"On that song, the actual finger pattern of the right hand is just an arpeggio back and forth between the thumb and three fingers," Buckingham added in an interview with MusicRadar, referring to that waterfall idea. "In order to get that, I had to find a tuning that was specifically geared towards the notes that I wanted to use and then to find the new thumb notes that needed to be used with those, which were a root and a fourth.
"I figured out a tuning that was more or less open so I didn't have to do a lot of fretting. And then I taught myself the positions all the way up and down the neck that would that would get to those things. It was an interesting exercise."
Full of dramatic swells and dynamic rise and fall, we’d say it’s a resounding mission accomplished!
5. Big Love – Tango In The Night (1987) / Subsequent live versions
The original album version of Big Love is an irrefutable ‘80s pop rock classic, but from a guitarist’s perspective, it barely holds a candle to the awe-inspiring solo acoustic arrangement that Buckingham perfected in subsequent years.
Powered by a driving eighth-note bassline thumbed on the low E and A strings, and with furiously picked chords and syncopated melodic lines on top, he first wowed audiences with this astonishing feat of musical multitasking during his first solo tour in 1993, and it’s been a set staple ever since.
Live, he’ll normally reach for one of his Gibson Chet Atkins electro nylon string guitars, which he’s had modified with Rick Turner electronics and synthesiser pickup systems. Each string gets its own individual gain and pan controls and the guitar signal is split between a regular amp sound and a rack-mounted Roland GR-50 Guitar Synthesizer – believe it or not – using a pedal steel patch.
With a little added reverb to fill out the sound, Buckingham’s digits really work overtime to create the illusion of two guitars being played at once.
As the pre-performance picking hand shake-out suggests in the performance above from the Bass Performance Hall in 2008, the solo arrangement remains a heck of a workout even for him!