Jerry Reed: The Guitarist Behind Johnny Cash’s Hit Songs

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As country music continues to evolve, many forget the pioneers who laid the foundation of the genre. One such pioneer is Jerry Reed, the guitarist and songwriter behind many of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits. Despite his significant contributions to music, Reed often doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at his life and career, his unique guitar style, and some of the notable songs he wrote for Cash. Join us on a journey to discover the man behind the music, and why Jerry Reed is an essential part of country music’s rich history.

Early Life and Career

Early Life And Career
Jerry Reed was a legendary guitarist known for his unique fingerpicking style and collaboration with Johnny Cash. However, before he became a renowned musician, Reed had a humble beginning. Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1937, Reed was exposed to music at a young age by his mother, who played the guitar and taught him some basic chords. His interest in music grew as he got older, and soon he was learning to play from the radio and developing his own style. Let’s dive into Reed’s early life and career, and how he grew to become a guitar virtuoso.

Learning to Play Guitar

Jerry Reed’s journey to become a legendary guitarist began when he was just a child. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Reed showed an early interest in music and was particularly fascinated by the guitar. In fact, he started learning how to play the guitar at the age of eight by watching other guitarists play and imitating them.

Despite being self-taught, Reed had a natural talent for music and was soon performing at local events and talent competitions. He even won his first guitar at the age of nine by showing off his skills at a local radio station contest.

As a teenager, Reed began playing with local bands and honing his skills. He also started writing his own songs, becoming an accomplished singer-songwriter in addition to his guitar playing. However, it was his guitar playing that really set him apart.

Technique Description
Fingerpicking Reed incorporated fingerpicking into his style at an early age. This allowed him to play complex arrangements with both hands, giving his music a unique sound.
Bending Reed’s use of bending, or stretching the strings as he played them, gave his solos a distinct character. He would sometimes bend several strings at once, creating a full, rich sound that was instantly recognizable.
Sliding Reed often used slides to transition between notes or create a smooth, flowing sound. He would also use slides to create tension and release within a solo, building momentum as he played.

Reed’s musical influences included Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, and Maybelle Carter. He would often listen to their records and try to replicate their playing styles. Eventually, he developed his own unique style that incorporated elements of these musicians’ techniques and added his own flair.

Jerry Reed’s early years of learning to play the guitar were marked by his natural talent, fascination with music, and tireless perseverance. His dedication to the instrument showed through in his unique, fingerpicking style that incorporated bending, sliding, and other techniques to create a sound that was distinctly his.

Musical Influences

Jerry Reed’s musical influences played a huge role in shaping his unique sound, and ultimately, his successful career in music. It is said that Reed was influenced by a variety of genres such as jazz, rock and roll, and especially country music. Let’s take a closer look at some of the prominent artists who influenced Jerry Reed’s musical style.

Artist Style/Genre
Chet Atkins Fingerstyle guitar, country, jazz
Merle Travis Thumbpicking guitar, country
Scotty Moore Rock and roll guitar
B.B. King Blues guitar
Les Paul Jazz guitar, guitar innovation

Chet Atkins, in particular, was a major influence on Jerry Reed’s guitar playing style. Atkins had also invented the “Travis picking” style of fingerpicking, which involves using the thumb to play a steady bass line while simultaneously playing melodies with the other fingers. Reed admired Atkins and his ability to seamlessly blend jazz and country elements in his playing.

Merle Travis was another significant influence on Reed. He was known for his skillful thumbpicking technique, which involved using the thumb and fingers in a way that mimicked the sound of a bass and rhythm guitar. Reed was inspired by Travis’ precision and control over the guitar, and took many creative liberties in developing his own version of this style.

Scotty Moore, known for his work with Elvis Presley, was a pioneer of rock and roll guitar playing. His innovative use of distortion, reverb, and other effects on the guitar greatly influenced Jerry Reed’s approach to guitar playing, and helped him to develop his signature sound.

In addition to these guitarists, Reed was also influenced by blues legend B.B. King and jazz guitarist Les Paul, both of whom contributed to the innovation and evolution of guitar playing.

Jerry Reed’s musical influences were diverse and eclectic, allowing him to draw on a wide range of styles and techniques to develop his unique guitar playing style.

Collaboration with Johnny Cash

Collaboration With Johnny Cash
As Jerry Reed’s career progressed, he became renowned for his collaborations with some of country music’s biggest names. One such collaborator was the legendary Johnny Cash. Reed and Cash worked together on numerous hit songs, amassing a loyal following and critical acclaim in the process. Their partnership was one of mutual respect and admiration, resulting in some of the most memorable performances in country music history. In this section, we will explore the details of this enduring partnership and delve into the secrets of their success.

Songwriting for Cash

Jerry Reed’s collaboration with Johnny Cash was not limited to performing as a guitarist on stage, but also involved songwriting. Reed wrote several hit songs for Cash that became wildly popular among the masses.

Here are some of the songs that Jerry Reed wrote and recorded along with Johnny Cash:

  • “A Thing Called Love”: This song was written by Jerry Reed and became one of Johnny Cash’s most successful songs of all time. The song was a crossover hit, reaching the top of the country music charts and number two on the pop charts.
  • “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”: Jerry Reed wrote this song, which tells the story of a man who visits his bank only to find that he has just $40 left in his account. This song became a hit and was later covered by other country artists.
  • “Sugarfoot Rag”: This song was also written by Jerry Reed, and it became one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits. The song features Jerry Reed’s signature fingerstyle guitar playing, which was used extensively in his music.

Jerry Reed’s songwriting contributions to Johnny Cash’s music greatly impacted the success of Cash’s career. His innovative and unique guitar playing style, combined with his songwriting prowess, led to unforgettable songs that are still loved by country music enthusiasts today.

Additionally, Jerry Reed’s contribution to Johnny Cash’s music was not just limited to writing songs. He also collaborated with Cash on various recording sessions, which allowed them to create some of the most iconic songs in country music history.

Recording Sessions

During their collaboration, Jerry Reed and Johnny Cash worked together on numerous recording sessions, resulting in iconic country music hits. Here are some of the notable recording sessions that brought their songs to life:

  • “A Thing Called Love”: This upbeat track was recorded by Cash and his band at the famous Sound Studios in Nashville. With Reed on guitar, the song features energetic strumming and a catchy melody, making it a fan favorite.
  • “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”: Written by Kris Kristofferson, this song was recorded by Cash at Columbia Studio B in Nashville, with Reed playing guitar. The song’s melancholy lyrics and Cash’s soulful vocals, combined with Reed’s fingerstyle guitar playing, make it a powerful and introspective ballad.
  • “When the Good Times Come Again”: This song was recorded at the House of Cash studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Reed’s guitar work on this track is particularly notable, with his use of harmonics and intricate fingerpicking patterns adding a unique texture to the song.
  • “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”: This story-based song was recorded at RCA Studio B in Nashville, with Reed’s guitar work serving as the driving force behind the song’s rhythmic sound. The song features a catchy chorus and powerful vocals from Cash, making it an enduring classic.

These recording sessions were not only successful but also showcased the undeniable chemistry and talent between Jerry Reed and Johnny Cash. Their collaboration produced hit after hit, cementing their place in the history of country music.

Recognition and Legacy

Recognition And Legacy
Jerry Reed’s contributions to music have not gone unnoticed, and his impact on the industry has been profound. He is renowned for his exceptional guitar skills and his innovative approach to country music. Throughout his career, he gained a dedicated following among his peers and fans alike, earning numerous accolades and leaving an indelible mark on modern country music. From his early collaborations with Elvis Presley and Chet Atkins to his later work with Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed’s legacy is one of creative genius and unwavering dedication to his craft. Let’s dive into the details of his recognition and legacy, and explore the lasting influence of this talented musician on the industry.

Awards and Honors

Throughout his career, Jerry Reed received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the country music industry. Some of his most notable accolades include:

  • CMA Awards: In 1970, Reed won the Country Music Association (CMA) Instrumentalist of the Year award, and would go on to win it again in 1971, 1974, and 1975.
  • Grammy Awards: He was nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, winning two: Best Country Instrumental Performance for “The Claw” in 1972 and Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for “Sneaky Snake” with Chet Atkins in 1993.
  • Country Music Hall of Fame: Reed was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017, recognizing his contributions as a guitarist, songwriter, and singer.
  • Music City Walk of Fame: In 2009, Reed was honored with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, joining other iconic musicians associated with the city.
  • Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame: In 2017, Reed was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for his songwriting contributions, joining a distinguished group of songwriters in the industry.

These awards and honors are a testament to the impact that Jerry Reed had on the country music industry. He was not only a talented guitarist, but also a skilled songwriter and performer. His contributions to the genre continue to influence and inspire musicians today.

Influence on Modern Country Music

Jerry Reed’s influence on modern country music is undeniable. His unique blend of fingerstyle guitar and Chet Atkins’ “Travis Picking” style has inspired countless musicians in the genre. Below are some of the ways in which he has impacted the contemporary country music world:

  • Inspiration for Current Country Artists: Jerry Reed’s innovative guitar technique has served as an inspiration for many musicians. His style has been famously emulated by guitar virtuosos such as Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Tommy Emmanuel. In fact, Brad Paisley has said that Jerry Reed is one of his biggest influences and that he often listens to his albums for inspiration.
  • Crossover Appeal: Jerry Reed’s music was not limited to just the country genre. He had great crossover appeal and was able to incorporate elements of rock, jazz, and pop into his music. His style and versatility have served as a blueprint for many contemporary country artists who aim to appeal to a wider audience.
  • Songwriting: In addition to his guitar skills, Jerry Reed was also a talented songwriter. His ability to craft catchy, memorable tunes with relatable lyrics has helped to shape the modern country music landscape. Many contemporary country songwriters have cited Reed as an influence on their own writing. For example, Luke Bryan has praised Reed’s song “Amos Moses” as one of his all-time favorites.

Jerry Reed’s influence on modern country music cannot be overstated. His unique blend of guitar styles, songwriting ability, and versatility have paved the way for a new generation of country musicians.

Jerry Reed’s Guitar Style

Jerry Reed'S Guitar Style
One of the most impressive aspects of Jerry Reed’s musical career was his remarkable guitar style, which set him apart from other musicians of his time. In fact, his fingerstyle technique and unique use of Chet Atkins’ ‘Travis Picking’ style cemented his place in music history. As we delve into this section, let’s take a closer look at what made Jerry Reed’s guitar style so distinctive and iconic.

Fingerstyle Technique

Jerry Reed was a master of fingerstyle guitar technique, which he used to create intricate and complex arrangements that earned him widespread acclaim. His innovative use of thumb, finger, and palm components allowed him to produce a full, rich sound that sang out effortlessly from his guitar. Here are some key components of Jerry Reed’s fingerstyle technique:

  • Thumb Independence: Jerry Reed’s thumb had a crucial role in his fingerstyle technique. He used it to play the bass, which provided the underlying structure of his music. His thumb was also incredibly independent, allowing him to play two or more strings at once, while maintaining fluid motion.
  • Alternating Bass: Reed often used an alternating bass pattern, where he played the root note of the chord on the downbeat with his thumb, followed by the fifth or sixth string with his index or middle finger. This pattern allowed him to create a driving rhythm and an energetic sound.
  • Harmonics: Reed was a master of harmonics, using them to add colour and interest to his music. He often used natural harmonics, which involved lightly touching the string with his left-hand finger, and then plucking the string with his right-hand finger to create a bell-like tone.
  • Hammers and Pull-offs: Reed frequently used “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs,” which involve using the left-hand fingers to sound notes, rather than picking them with the right hand. This technique allowed him to produce fast, fluid, and effortless runs of notes.
  • Chords, Arpeggios, and Melody: Reed’s fingerstyle technique allowed him to play chords, arpeggios, and melody simultaneously. He used this to create complex arrangements that included bass, melody, and chords, which filled out the sound, without needing a backup band.

Jerry Reed’s fingerstyle technique was intricate, innovative, and highly influential, and his music continues to inspire guitarists to this day. By mastering these key components of Reed’s technique, guitarists can learn to create their own unique sound, and capture the essence of a true master of fingerstyle guitar.

Use of Chet Atkins’ ‘Travis Picking’ Style

Jerry Reed was known for his exceptional guitar playing, particularly his use of Chet Atkins’ ‘Travis picking’ style. This technique involves a complex fingerpicking pattern where the thumb plays the bass strings while the fingers play the melody, resulting in a unique and intricate sound.

Reed, however, added his own twist to this style, incorporating percussive slaps and pops that added an extra layer of complexity and excitement to his playing. This technique can be heard in many of his recorded songs, including “Guitar Man,” “Amos Moses,” and “The Claw.”

Incorporating this technique allowed Reed to bring a unique and innovative sound to Johnny Cash’s recordings, adding an extra dimension to Cash’s classic songs. The use of this technique is a testament to Reed’s talent and innovation as a guitarist, and was a major factor in his success in the country music industry.

Jerry Reed’s use of Chet Atkins’ Travis picking style with added percussive elements set him apart as a guitarist, and helped contribute to the evolution of country music during his time.

Notable Songs Written by Jerry Reed for Johnny Cash

Jerry Reed was not just a talented guitarist but also a gifted songwriter, having written numerous hit songs for Johnny Cash. Many of these songs became staples in Cash’s repertoire and helped solidify his status as a country music icon.

‘A Thing Called Love’ was one of the songs that Reed had written for Cash. This song was released in 1972 and became a huge hit, climbing up to the top of the country music charts. It was later covered by artists such as Elvis Presley, Bonnie Raitt, and Neil Diamond.

Another famous song written by Reed was ‘The Ballad of Gunga Din.’ This song was recorded by Johnny Cash and became one of his most beloved tracks. The song tells the story of a soldier fighting in India during the British Empire, drawing on Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Gunga Din.’

Jerry Reed also wrote ‘Straight A’s in Love.’ This song was released in 1960 and was one of Johnny Cash’s early hits. It tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a woman who is smart and successful, but ultimately realizes that what matters most is her love for him.

Another notable song written by Jerry Reed for Johnny Cash was ‘I’m a Newborn Man.’ This song was released in 1973 as part of Cash’s album ‘Any Old Wind that Blows’ and is a catchy and upbeat track that showcases Reed’s talent for songwriting.

Jerry Reed’s songwriting contributions to Johnny Cash’s career were invaluable. His ability to craft catchy and memorable songs helped to establish Cash as one of the greatest country music artists of all time.


After delving into the life and career of Jerry Reed, we can confidently say that he was an exceptional guitarist and songwriter who left an indelible mark on the world of country music. His influence on modern country music can still be felt today, inspiring artists to incorporate fingerstyle and Travis picking techniques into their songs.

Jerry Reed’s collaboration with Johnny Cash was a match made in heaven, resulting in some of Cash’s most iconic hits like “A Thing Called Love” and “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”. Reed’s talent as a songwriter and his ability to bring unique sounds to the studio made him an invaluable part of Cash’s creative process.

Reed’s fingerstyle technique and incorporation of Travis picking sets him apart from other guitarists of his time, earning him a well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative guitar players in country music history. His style of playing has influenced countless musicians, and his legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire new generations of country music artists for years to come.

In conclusion, Jerry Reed was a true pioneer in the world of country music. His contributions to the genre will stand the test of time, as his legacy continues to inspire and influence musicians around the world. Whether through his fingerstyle technique, songwriting abilities, or his collaborations with artists like Johnny Cash, Reed’s impact on country music will never be forgotten.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who was Jerry Reed?

Jerry Reed was a country music singer, songwriter, and guitarist born on March 20, 1937, in Atlanta, Georgia.

2. What was Jerry Reed known for?

Jerry Reed was best known for his virtuosic guitar playing, as well as his collaborations with top country artists like Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash.

3. How did Jerry Reed learn to play the guitar?

Jerry Reed taught himself how to play the guitar by imitating other guitarists and listening to records. He also took lessons from a local musician named Mance Lipscomb.

4. Who were Jerry Reed’s musical influences?

Jerry Reed was influenced by a diverse range of musicians, including Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and Django Reinhardt.

5. What were some of the songs that Jerry Reed wrote for Johnny Cash?

Some of the songs that Jerry Reed wrote for Johnny Cash include “A Thing Called Love,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.”

6. How did Jerry Reed collaborate with Johnny Cash?

Jerry Reed worked closely with Johnny Cash both as a songwriter and as a guitarist. He also played on many of Cash’s albums and toured with him extensively.

7. What was Jerry Reed’s guitar style?

Jerry Reed’s guitar style was characterized by his virtuosic fingerpicking and his use of Chet Atkins’ “Travis picking” technique.

8. What recognition and honors did Jerry Reed receive?

Jerry Reed was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. He also won two Grammy Awards and was a frequent guest on television shows like Hee Haw and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

9. How did Jerry Reed influence modern country music?

Jerry Reed’s innovative guitar playing and songwriting have had a lasting impact on modern country music, inspiring generations of guitarists and songwriters.

10. What is Jerry Reed’s legacy?

Jerry Reed’s legacy is one of virtuosic guitar playing, innovative songwriting, and collaboration with some of the biggest names in country music. He continues to inspire musicians and fans alike with his music today.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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