Johnny Cash is easily one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century. And even though he was generally considered to be a country musician, his popularity extended well beyond the genre. Since Johnny Cash is admired by many, plenty of guitarists are eager to learn what types of guitars he played. And if you’re like most of them, you want to learn how to sound like Johnny Cash on guitar, too.
What Guitar Did Johnny Cash Play?
Playing style certainly makes a difference in your sound, but the type of guitar you use is especially important, too. Cash played a range of guitars throughout his career, and you can find similar ones today, too. Here are the guitars that played a key role in Johnny Cash’s rise to fame:
Gibson J-200 – 1958
Gibson crafted two custom J-200s especially for Johnny Cash, and each of these had his name inlaid on the fingerboard. The J-200 especially suited Cash’s style, as it was designed to deliver powerful projection that could fill a room. This guitar has an incredible bass response, so it was an ideal choice for Cash’s picked basslines.
Gibson J-200 Standard
Cash also played an acoustic-electric version of the J-200. This guitar was widely used by other country artists of the time, and the model is often called the “king of the flat tops.” The original design was called the SJ-200. The SJ stood for “super jumbo” and the 200 stood for the guitar’s initial price of $200. Though Johnny Cash didn’t play Gibson guitars for most of his career, the J-200 nonetheless helped shape his famous sound.
Martin D-28 – 1961
The Martin D-28 is probably the brand’s most iconic guitar, and it’s still a top seller today. Johnny Cash really made this particular model his own — he spray-painted it black! This D-28 was first in a series of black guitars Cash played, but it was the only one that he had to paint himself.
Martin D-28 – 1969
With the Martin D-28’s legendary tone, it’s no wonder that Cash picked up an upgraded model at one point. Though the D-28 was a dreadnought and not a jumbo like the J-200, it still delivered the powerful low end that worked well with Cash’s low voice. The D-28’s bassy punch is so prominent that when Martin initially listed it, it was described as a bass guitar!
Martin D-76 Limited Edition “Bicentennial”
Plenty of guitarists get excited about limited edition instruments, so it’s no wonder Johnny Cash was eager to get his hands on a Martin D-76. The D-76 was built a lot like the D-35 (another of Cash’s favorite guitars), but it included star and eagle inlays as well as other special cosmetic touches. Fittingly, Martin only made 1976 units of this limited-run special. Johnny Cash had #375.
Martin D-45 Custom – 1982
The D-45 is Martin’s most ornate dreadnought, so its extra visual flair made it a perfect addition to Cash’s collection. This distinctive model had a D-41 neck and D-35-style three-piece back and sides. It was signed by Cash, C.F. Martin III, and C.F. Martin IV.
Martin D-35 Custom 1989
To many musical historians, the Martin D-35 is the guitar that is most associated with Johnny Cash. Cash’s D-35 was custom-made for him by Martin. And to match his “Man in Black” aesthetic, the D-35 also had a satin black finish. In fact, it was the first black guitar ever released by Martin.
Martin “Johnny Cash” Limited Edition D-35
This guitar was a special release by Martin. And naturally, because it carried his name, Johnny Cash played one. It was his primary guitar on “Solitary Man.” This edition was a fitting tribute to Cash, who mostly played Martin guitars throughout his career.
Martin D-42JC (Johnny Cash)
Martin is best known for its natural-finish guitars, but much like its namesake, the D-42JC broke tradition. It was Martin’s first limited-edition guitar offered in an all-black finish. The D-42JC was limited to 200 units. These exceedingly rare instruments can sometimes be found for sale, but they tend to be very expensive.
How to Play Like Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash certainly had a distinctive way of playing the guitar. If you want to play like him, here are a few pointers:
Use “country chords” — “Country chords” or “cowboy chords” are first-position open chords. They’re used in many folk and bluegrass songs, and they can add an air of timelessness to many pieces of music. As a bonus, they’re even easy for beginners to play!
Pick the bassline — In many of his songs, Johnny Cash picks an alternating bassline. This is usually fairly easy to do — he usually would pick the bass note of each chord before strumming it. Of course, if you want to learn some of the theory behind bassline picking and root notes, working on scales is a good place to start. Most country artists will flatpick the bassline, but if you like the softer sound of fingers on strings, you can also play the bass notes with your thumb.
Use a “boom-chuck” rhythm — This rhythm pattern involves picking the bassline like we mentioned above. The “boom” is a downstroke that largely hits the bassline. The “chuck” is a full downward strum. In faster songs, the downstrum is cut a little shorter. To do this, you just need to lift the fingers of your fretting hand just a little to mute the strings. During songs with a slower, gentler tempo, you can let these strums ring out a bit.
Johnny Cash’s style of playing is remarkably simple. But much like Hemingway used sparse words to convey emotion, Johnny Cash was able to make straightforward chords sound beautifully emotive.
Easy Johnny Cash Guitar Songs
Johnny Cash wrote and played a whole range of classic songs. And whether you want to sound like Johnny himself or add your own twist to some of his work, these are some easy songs to start with.
As a side note, Johnny Cash’s voice is a lot lower than most people’s. You may find it easier to sing the songs if you capo up in order to change the key.
“Hurt” is a solemn meditation on how we all let each other down at one point. And though it’s a common theme, the song avoids being cliche. The chorus is especially poignant, and it includes the lines: “Everyone I know goes away in the end/And you could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt.”
The chords you need to play it are relatively straightforward, too. You’ll need mostly beginner-friendly chords: Am, C, D, G, and F.
I Walk the Line
This one may well be one of Cash’s most famous songs. It was written as a love song to his first wife. In the lyrics, Cash makes a promise to stay true even when he’s on tour: “I find it very, very easy to be true/I find myself alone when each day is through.”
This song isn’t too tough to play, either. With a capo at the first fret, you’ll need A, D, E, B7, B, and G. The B7 and B chords are a little bit of a step up from the beginner “cowboy chords,” but with some practice, they shouldn’t be too hard to master.
Riders In The Sky
This catchy, ominous song was actually written by Stan Jones, but Johnny Cash certainly does it justice. The song tells the story of a wayward cowboy who is warned to change his ways. Otherwise, he will end up “trying to catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies.”
You’ll only need three chords to play this one, too. Put a capo at the first fret, and you will only need Am, C, and F.
A Boy Named Sue
This song tells the interesting tale of a boy whose father named him Sue. Though the boy is angry, his father later explains he gave him the name to make him tough. You can hear the boy’s anger in the lyrics: “Some gal would giggle and I’d get red/And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head/I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
In terms of the chords you need, this song might be the easiest on the list. You only need G, C, and D.
Man in Black
In this song, Cash explains that he wears black as a kind of mourning for the poor, dead, and downtrodden. Its final line is especially powerful: “Until things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” It’s a simple song to play; capo at the first fret, and you just need A, B, D, and E7.
Ring Of Fire
This famous Johnny Cash song is another easy one to play, as you only need G, C, and D. You might initially think that the “ring of fire” refers to something sinister, but it actually describes falling in love. You can see that in the first lines: “Love is a burning thing/and it makes a fiery ring.”
Johnny Cash wrote “Big River” after he saw a news article titled “Johnny Cash Has the Big River Blues in His Voice.” True to the headline, he wrote a song about a man so in love that he followed a woman down the Mississippi River. The man in the song eventually gives up: Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf/She loves you, Big River, more than me.” This song is a little tougher than the others on the list. Capo at the first fret, and you will need E, A, B7, and F#7.
If you want to play like Johnny Cash on guitar (or even if you just want to learn more about his guitars), we hope this article has given you a solid introduction. And while you might be inspired by his style, you may find that playing Johnny Cash songs also helps you develop your own creative voice. After all, Cash’s inventive approach to both guitar playing and songwriting has stood the test of time.
Especially if you’re a relatively new Johnny Cash fan, you may still have some questions. Here are a few common ones:
No — he wrote many of his songs, but not all of them. “A Boy Named Sue” was actually written by well-known artist Shel Silverstein. And “I Saw the Light” was written and performed by Hank Williams Sr. before Johnny Cash released his version.
Before he was a singer-songwriter, Johnny Cash was in the military. When that career ended, he started playing at local events in Memphis, TN. His talent drew a lot of attention, and he was soon offered an audition with Sun Records, and the company signed him in 1955.
You sometimes hear conflicting opinions on this, but most experts say that Cash’s voice was naturally a baritone, but it came close to being a bass. Many well-known male singers of today are tenors, so that also explains why Johnny Cash’s voice sounds so unusually deep.
No, but you might be surprised to hear that his last name is real. His given first name is just the initials J.R., since his father wanted to name him Ray and his mother wanted to name him River. But before his time in the military, he officially changed his name to John R. Cash.