Play It Like That Matchbox Twenty

You could say the guitar slingers of Matchbox 20 arenít the flashiest kids in town, but that certainly isnít a put-down. It takes a special maturity in a guitarist to put aside his egocentric ways and play whatís best for the song rather than pepper it with self-indulgent licks.

These guys have been all over the charts lately, as their tunes employ an almost infallible formula: big meaty guitars, a strong rhythm section, emotive vocals (courtesy of Santana buddy Rob Thomas) and catchy tunes, all with a classic pop-combo delivery.

Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook share the guitar chores here, and that alone isnít easy to do. But the real lesson to be learned here is conceptual: how to approach the guitar and the tune. You can address a song as either a guitarist, a songwriter, or in rare instances both. Itís obvious Cook and Gaynor know how to serve a song, and ultimately thatís the best thing a guitarist can do.

On M20ís recent Mad Season release, Cook and Gaynor create infectious parts that are concise and memorable, ones that reappear throughout the song. Their sonic palette comes courtesy of a curious blend of high-tech and low-tech guitars; they favor both exotic PRSís and retro Danelectros, and live in a world where tone and melodic lines, not hot licks and technique, rule.


Their latest smash single, "Bent," serves as a good example of how they go about their business. The form is as follows:
Intro (0:00-0:20)
Verse (0:21-1:01)
Chorus (1:02-1:23)
Verse 2 (1:24-1:40)
Chorus 2 (1:41-2:08)
Bridge (2:09-2:37)
Intro themes (2:38-3:32)
Chorus 3 (3:33-3:40)
Outro (3:41-5:11)


The main tuning is standard tuning,, with some Nashville tuned acoustics in the mix as well. Nashville tuning is like taking the standard strings off of a 12 string, leaving just the unison and octave strings (the skinny ones) 11, 14 ,9, 12, 16, 26 (high to low on a set of 11ís)


The first thing many guitarists will notice here is the absence of any real solo. But the intro theme is reintroduced after the bridge, and in its own way takes the role of a solo. There are some sprightly single-note fills (2:05) and the glassy outro actually has some spirited staccato noodling, but an actual "hey, watch this" solo section never takes place.

In the dramatic intro (0:00 Ė 0:20) a tasty 4 measure phrase is repeated. A forceful F#m (root 6, 2nd fret) prods a long the slow-motion hook line that features a pre-bent C#, which drops down a whole tone to B. The sweeping strums that announce the verse (0:22) showcase a decorative Bm9 (root 6, 7th fret), its shimmering sound is courtesy of gentle upstroke, and some Nashville tuned guitars (basically a guitar strung with the octave strings from a 12 string set). The verse progression is a simple Bm9 | E | F#m | F#m.

Gaynor and Cook are all about descending basslines ó when they hit A major at the end of the verse (0:55) they fall down A, G#, F# (over A) while arpeggiating. (A measure each of D and E follow.) Then they quickly arrive at their next trick, doubling the bass lines leading to the next chord change. Just before the first chorus (058) they do 2 in a row: F#, F#, G#, A, B then B, C#, D, E.

The chorus holds more chord/bass lines with a faint E octaves lurking in the background. Start out with A, then begin descending the bass line. A\G# (A chord with a G# in the bass), A\F#, A\F#, finally just hold D and E chords and let íem ring. They signal the end of this section with a deliberate sounding single note line: A, G#, F#.

The bridge changes are a bit of a departure:

(2:13): || F#m | D | F#m | D | F#m D | F# | D B\D# | D ||

After that, M20 plops you back to the intro. Another chorus follows, then they make a hairpin turn into a dreamy outro that hangs on staccato fills, and echoey ascending lines.

The ideas here: thoughtful voicings, simple majestic arpeggios, swirling single note hook figures and bass line doubling are things that can be applied to any tune, in any genre.


The keying to playing like Matchbox 20 is approaching the guitar as a songwriter more so than an instrumentalist. That is, you want to bring to the foreground the parts that further the songs progress, define sections, and create movement. You can create structure with bass lines and descending movement in chords, and add color with clever voicings and tasty tones. Itís deceptively simple and painfully hard at the same time, but it all can be done, with the right amount of focus and inspiration.

To understand the concept and come up with your own ideas, try playing an open position D, and work the bass line down the 5th string (D, D/C, D/B, D/A). Dozens of classic tunes are derived from this. Try it also from an open G chord, moving the bass note down the 6th string (G, G/F#, G/E). Now give it a shot from an open C, descending down the 5th string toward an open Am (C, C/B, Am). Descending bass lines provide a smooth transition between changes, and working out several such transitions will open up both your playing and your songwriting.

M20 also have a clever way of making a simple arpeggio turn into a hook, by deliberately picking in time with the tune, and often adding a few extra notes as an embellishment. (as in they do at the end of the verse, and in the chorus).

With these moves, plus adding some leading tones and bass line walk ups, youíll see your tunes become more powerful immediately. The best part is, not only will your songs sound better, but also youíll be a more valuable member of a band.

by David Malachowski