Not many artists in music history can be compared to the legendary Man in Black, Johnny Cash. The country star is considered not only one of the leading stars of the genre but also an influential musician, composer, and singer that pioneered the course of music history.
There is no doubt that The Man in Black is one of the most influential country music stars of all time. Although Cash was never happy to stay on the side of the road and always had a rebellious spirit, he once said accurately: “Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the good guy. Cash causes all problems. They fight.”
He has used his iconic baritone voice to sing tunes in a wide variety of musical genres. With his unique voice and musical style, he has consistently achieved to create a particular tone that is recognized the first moment the tune starts playing. He was known for his deep voice, the characteristic boom-chick-a-boom sound of his backing band, the Tennessee Three, and wearing dark clothes, which earned him the nickname “The Man In Black.”
Playing Cash tunes will unavoidably help you progress with your skills as a player and composer. His country and folk-influenced songs excellently prove that you can achieve brilliance with simplicity. From impressive ballads to iconic country tunes, there is much to learn and add to your repertoire.
Johnny Cash’s last song released before his death was the melancholic tune, Hurt in 2002. Despite being a cover of Nine Inch Nails industrial rock song, Hurt remained one of Cash’s most influential releases of all time.
The song is remembered for Cash’s deep vocals full of grief, a simple yet impressive acoustic guitar accompany, and its fantastic video clip with passages from his life. Cash’s cover was heartfelt and shocking, often resonating with his own life and reflecting on it as the finality of death awaited him.
It is an intermediate-level song to play with arpeggiated verses and strummed chorus. The chords are pretty straightforward, with only one barre chord in the progression.
During the ’60s, Cash held a concert at California Folsom State Prison, where he performed Cocaine Blues, among many other songs, for an audience comprised primarily of prisoners. The tune is a western swing song written by T.J. Arnall as a rework of the traditional song Little Sadie. Cash modified the lyrics to make a somewhat less provocative version of the song for his opening performance.
The tune has a traditional country melody and upbeat rhythm with a bass note followed by a palm-muted note. The chords transit between C and G until the outro, where D and F chords are added to the progression. You can add a capo on the 1st fret to match the recording.
If you want to play more folk tunes, you should take a look at my article Top 50 Famous & Easy Folk Guitar Songs – Tabs, Chords Included
(Ghost) Riders In The Sky
Initially composed by American actor Stan Jones, ‘(Ghost) Riders in the Sky’ was a song covered by many artists over time, with Cash being one of the best. Cash’s version of this cowboy-style country / western song had a perfect combination of instruments and vocals that could transport you to the pages of a dusty old book on myth and folklore.
The song is played with 4 basic open chords along with a standard country rhythm. The lead guitar partitions are also straightforward, with repetitive and rhythmic walks on the upper strings.
A Boy Named Sue
Cash was at the top of his career when he played A Boy Named Sue in California’s San Quentin prison in 1969. Written initially by singer-songwriter, poet, and cartoonist Shel Silverstein, the Cash version followed Cash’s spoken blues style, where he used the spoken word format with the basic accompaniment of a string and a percussion instrument.
You can play this song with 3 basic open chords: A, D, and E. The strum pattern is a moderate tempo classic pattern, and the lyrics are spoken instead of sung. It is an utterly entertaining song to play which you can change the lyrics and experiment with your own covers.
You Are My Sunshine
The iconic song You Are My Sunshine has been covered by many artists, including Johnny Cash. The Cash version resembles a country-influenced ballad with Cash’s deep vocals and a sentimental acoustic guitar accompaniment.
The Johnny Cash version uses three easy chords A, D, and E. If you are familiar with fingerpicking, you can arpeggiate the chords to play it like the recording, but if you are a beginner, you can go with a basic strum pattern.
Sunday Morning Coming Down
This song was originally written by American singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and covered by Johnny Cash in 1970, who made the song famous. His cover immediately topped the charts and gained huge success.
It is a relatively easy song to play with all open basic chords along with a quick but simple strum pattern. Just listen to the song carefully to grab the feeling of the rhythm and enjoy playing this country classic.
Man in Black
Cash was nicknamed “Man in Black” for his trademark all-black stage costume. While people thought of it as a style, Cash showed them that black was also the color of rebel and protest. The tune was created by Cash and released on his 1971 album of the same name.
The high tempo of the song makes it very fun to play. There are 4 chords in the progression, including a B chord which can be challenging for beginners to play.
Ring Of Fire
One of the most popular and must-learn country songs by the legend Johnny Cash is, undoubtedly, Ring Of Fire. The tune is regarded as one of the best 50 country songs ever written and is globally well-known.
Undoubtedly, the song’s chord progression is very easy to play. The strumming pattern is straightforward country style, but the high tempo requires a strumming hand with good stamina. The intro and outro riffs are also straightforward to play, which gives a nice touch to the song.
Definitely, it is a must-learn piece for country fans.
Jackson is the song in which Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter join together in a moving performance. Originally a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood pop hit, ‘Jackson’ saw a country-style rendition at the hands of the Cash-Carter duo. With Cash’s burgeoning popularity, the song became a country hit even with audiences outside the country.
It is a melodic and harmonic country tune that defended the powerful voices of Cash and Carter. The progression features some complex chord shapes which may need some practice before playing for inexperienced guitarists. As the song has a high tempo, you should start slow and build up the speed later.
I’ve Been Everywhere
The song was written by Australian country singer Geoff Mack in 1959 and was covered by Johnny Cash in 1996. Although many artists covered the song and sung their own versions, Cash’s unique deep voice added to it a signature characteristic that transformed it into a more charming tune.
The song is pretty easy to play with 6 chords and a moderate-paced tempo. There is only one unconventional chord, B7, that can be a little challenging for beginner players. In addition, if you want to achieve the same tone with the recording, you should use a capo on the 2nd fret.
I Walk The Line
One of the earliest and most iconic songs of the country legend Johnny Cash is I Walk The Line from 1957. The tune had a huge success, with almost 2 million copies sold. It became a globally famous hit and one of the pioneer songs of the genre due to its unique sound.
The tune’s easy version can be played with three chords; C, G7, and F. The barre chord F can be challenging for beginner guitarists who are not having a hard time using the barring technique. But, starting slowly and practicing is essential to learn this key technique to add many new songs to your repertoire.
This 1958 song was written by Cash during a break from touring inspired by a newspaper article with the title “Johnny Cash has the great river blues in his voice.” Considered as one of the best works of Cash by the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, the tune has an upbeat rockabilly tone with blues and country influences.
It is an intermediate-level song with power chord variations and repetitive chord embellishments as transitions. The palm mute technique and dynamics are crucial in the riffs to play the tune properly.
Folsom Prison Blues
Now here’s a song that almost became synonymous with Johnny Cash’s career as a singer-songwriter. Folsom Prison Blues was the incorporation of the prison song and the train song, two dominant themes that would be found in many of his later themes.
Folsom Prison Blues became one of his signature songs, and the live performance of the song at Folsom Prison earned him a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1969.
The song can be played with single-picked bass notes followed by traditionally strummed chords along with an upbeat tempo. With several simple solo fills in between verses that create a bluesy character, it is a great song to play and have fun and also to add to your country repertoire.
One Piece At A Time
Cash released One Piece At A Time on his same-titled album in 1976. The song tells the story of a man who wants a Cadillac and works in a Cadillac car factory. He steals one piece at a time, eventually building himself the car in his dreams.
The song’s spoken word format with its easy progression was something Cash pulled off flawlessly, which resulted in the top position in the Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. You need 4 chords and a capo on the 1st fret to play the song. If you find B and B7 chords challenging, try to play the alternate versions of the chords.
The At San Quentin album is the successor of At Folsom Prison, both live prison concept albums, a subject that occupied Cash’s imagination for quite some time. The unique album was recorded live in San Quentin prison in 1969.
Like many of Cash’s songs, this one is also played with an upbeat country rhythm and a capo on the 1st fret. You only need 3 basic open chords to master the tune, which is very easy to play. It is an excellent piece to start playing some Cash compositions.
Understand Your Man
Released as the first single from Cash’s same-named album in 1964, I Walk The Line was written and composed by Cash himself. The song was primarily influenced by Bob Dylan’s 1962 single “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in terms of both lyrics and melody. The song became an instant hit due to its catchy melody and riveting lyrics.
The chord progression of the tune consists of 6 chords, including an F barre chord. The strum pattern is a pretty standard country-style pattern with a moderate-paced tempo—an utterly enjoyable song to play.
Five Feet High And Rising
Released in 1959, Five Feet High And Rising is the country standard of Johnny Cash which tells the story of the 1937 Mississippi flood that Cash, who was 5 years old back then, endured with his family.
The tune is played with 6 open chords in which there is a B major chord. As it is a quick-paced song and the barring technique is always challenging when beginning to play the guitar, take your time with the tune if you are a beginner.
Originally a rock tune by Soundgarden, Rusty Cage was covered by Johnny Cash on the 1996 album, Unchained, which won a Grammy Award for Best Country Album. The cover became so successful even Chris Cornell, the vocalist of Soundgarden, dedicated the song to Johnny Cash.
It is an intermediate-level song to play with many lead guitar partitions. This song is perfect for it if you want to get familiar with some country-style lead guitar licks and riffs. With many legatos and licks on the upper strings with embellishments and transitions, it is a complex but enjoyable song to play that makes you feel the country spirit in your bones.
Released in 1955 as a single, Hey Porter is the first recording of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. It is a song that Cash re-recorded many times in his career. With a fast beat, Cash’s deep baritone voice is a wonderful fit for the country-rockabilly sound of the song.
The piece is played with 4 open chords and a fast-paced standard country strum pattern. To match the recording, you will need a capo on the 1st fret.
Daddy Sang Bass
Written by Carl Perkins, Daddy Sang Bass is a song recorded and released by Johnny Cash in 1968. The song topped the charts and became Cash’s 36th song to enter pop charts, a massive achievement.
It is straightforward to play a song with 4 chords and a classic strum pattern. The chord progression goes as E, A, B7, and E7. It is another easy yet fun-to-play country piece.
Guess Things Happen That Way
Guess Things Happen That Way was written by Jack Clement and recorded by Johnny Cash back in 1958. It was the country star’s 4th song to reach number 1 on the lists. The tune about a man struggling after the death of his love is also heard in the Clint Eastwood movie A Perfect World.
It is one of the easiest Cash songs to play with 4 basic open chords; E, A, D, and A7. The chorus with “buh-do-buh-do” lines is very fun to play and sing along with.
Ballad Of A Teenage Queen
Another Cash-Clement collaboration product is Ballad Of A Teenage Queen. With the background vocals of The Tennessee Two, the song appears on the Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous album from 1958.
Working with a more blues-embedded country sound, Cash perfectly synthesized the two genres. It can be played with 3 easy chords; G, C, and D, along with a capo on the 3rd fret. The strum pattern is fast yet not challenging. It is one of the beginner-friendly songs of the country star.
Flesh And Blood
Flesh and Blood is a country ballad that appeared in the movie I Walk the Line, which was also released as the soundtrack of the movie. The song tells about a man and his love for nature, but eventually, he realizes he needs flesh and blood, meaning his loved one.
This one is yet another beginner-friendly country tune to play which consists of 4 basic chords. A capo on the 2nd fret will be necessary to play it in the same tone as the recording. As this is a ballad, the pace of the strum pattern is slow, making it ideal for newbie players.
Frankie And Johnny
Frankie And Johnny is a traditional American folk song about a woman finding his man cheating on him and shooting him to death. Johnny Cash released his version in 1959 with the name Frankie’s Man, Johnny.
The tune has a moderate tempo and 3 straightforward chords; G, C, and D. It is not a complex song to play, perfectly suitable for beginners.
The One On The Right Is On The Left
Written by Jack Clement, the country song appeared on Cash’s 1966 album Everybody Loves A Nut. Although it was the third single from the album, it became the most successful song reaching number two on the US Billboard Country Singles Chart.
The lyrics of the song explore how individual differences, especially political ones, negatively affect the unifying nature of music while criticizing the bands with massive musical potential losing their souls dealing with political issues.
The tune consists of 4 simple chords and a standard country rhythm. It is an entertaining song to play and sing with its catchy melody and lyrics.
The innumerable tunes of sorrow and redemption, along with a deep baritone voice and 6-string dreadnought guitar, create the unique characteristic of Johnny Cash, aka The Man In Black. He was one of the genre pioneers of country, rock and roll, and gospel. His songs vary from iconic country tunes such as I Walk The Line and Ring Of Fire to some of his later covers like Hurt or Rusty Cage.
Behind the different tones and mainly rebellious messages of the country legend, there is the hidden pearl of his simple yet impressive guitar playing. He has a particularly distinctive sound in his solo recordings, as well as his solid train-like sounding backing band, elevating him to the degree of one of the best-selling musicians of all time.
It is undebatable that every guitarist, especially country fans, has a lot to learn from Johnny Cash. And the best way to do so is to grab your guitar and start playing some of his tunes to understand his soul deeper.
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