Guitar lesson for

Pancho and Lefty

by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard  •  Lesson #57

Video lesson

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Editor’s notes

In this lesson, I show you how to play the song “Pancho and Lefty” as performed by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This song was originally written by Townes Van Zandt and released in 1972. Van Zandt’s version is a bit different: he plays in a different key, uses a distinct fingerpicking style instead of strumming, and doesn’t play the recognizable intro heard in the Willie & Merle version. Here, I’ll show you how to the chords needed, explain the strumming pattern, break down the chord progressions for the verse & chorus, and walk you through the intro riff – with tabs included.

Video timestamps:

Lyrics w/ chords


E ––10––––9–––7–––9–––7–––5–5–––––––5–––––3–––2–––3–––2–––0–2––––––––
B ––10––––10––8–––10––8–––5–7–––––––7–––––3–––3–––3–––3–––3–3––––––––
G ––11––––9–––7–––9–––7–––7–7–––––––7–––––4–––2–––4–––2–––2–2––––––––
D ––0–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––0––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

D                D               A                    A
...Living on the road my friend... was gonna keep you free and clean
G                        G                          D                 A
...And now you wear your skin like iron... and your breath as hard as kerosene

    G                          G                 D                      G
    ...You weren't your mama's only boy, but her favorite one it seemed
    Bm                          (G)   (D)     A     A       G                    Bm  Bm  (A)
    ...She began to cry when you said---- goodbye...... and sank into your dreams

D               D            A                        A
...Pancho was a bandit boys.... his horse was fast as polished steel
G                     G               D                     A
...He wore his gun outside his pants.... for all the honest world to feel

    G                 G                      D               G
    ...Pancho met his match you know, on the deserts down in Mexico
    Bm                 (G) (D) A       A           G                       Bm   Bm
    ...Nobody heard his dying  words...... oh, but that's the way it goes

    G               G         D                         G
    ...All the Federales say... they could have had him any day
    Bm                  (G)  (D)  A    A          G             Bm     Bm
    ...They only let him slip a--way...... out of kindness I suppose

D                  D              A                        A
...Lefty, he can't sing the blues... all night long like he used to
G                       G              D              A
...The dust that Pancho bit down south... ended up in Lefty's mouth

    G                         G          D                  G
    ...The day they laid poor Pancho low... Lefty split for Ohio
    Bm                 (G)   (D) A    A          G            Bm     Bm
    ...Where he got the bread to go....... there ain't nobody knows

    G               G         D                         G
    ...All the Federales say... they could have had him any day
    Bm                  (G)  (D)  A    A          G             Bm     Bm
    ...They only let him slip a--way...... out of kindness I suppose

    (solo over chorus chords...)

D                     D           A                        A
...The poets tell how Pancho fell... and Lefty's living in cheap hotels
G                      G                 D                  A
...The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold... and so the story ends we're told

    G                    G                  D                     G
    ...Pancho needs your prayers, it's true... but save a few for Lefty too
    Bm                    (G) (D) A    A       G                Bm    Bm
    ...He only did what he had to do...... and now he's growing old

    G               G         D                         G
    ...All the Federales say... they could have had him any day
    Bm                  (G)  (D)  A    A          G             Bm     Bm
    ...They only let him slip a--way...... out of kindness I suppose

    G                  G         D                         G
    ...A few gray Federales say... they could have had him any day
    Bm                  (G)  (D)  A    A          G             Bm    
    ...They only let him slip a--way...... out of kindness I suppose

Editor’s notes

Another song I very recently fell deeply in love with for the first time. I first came across the Willie & Merle version (which I enjoyed), and then discovered Townes Van Zandt (who wrote this song) – who I embarrassingly didn’t even know existed. I began devouring his music, and this song in particular. Aside from his finger style work, I wouldn’t describe his guitar arrangements as flashy or readily distinct as Willie’s – which really allows for his lyrics to shine through in an unreal way. It was hearing his version of the song that really let the raw emotion and sentiment creep in. I couldn’t get enough, and of course being in love with Willie’s guitar style right now – went to him and Merle’s version so I could finally learn that very cool intro riff. One day I’ll learn the solo, and do a lesson for it! But it will probably be a bit down the road. In the meantime, enjoy.

Intro riff

How Merle actually plays it

Not only is this the way Merle plays it, but it’s also how I recommend learning it. This isn’t trivially easy to play, but it’s easier than the version further below AND it provides a consistent sound when played, which is a good thing. The great part about this approach is you’re 100% on the highest 3 strings. True, you can let the D string ring on some / any / all of these chords (and it sounds great!) – but because that D string is always left open (not fretted), it doesn’t require any add’l left hand work to do this.

E ––10––––9–––7–––9–––7–––5–5–––––––5–––––3–––2–––3–––2–––0–2––––––––
B ––10––––10––8–––10––8–––5–7–––––––7–––––3–––3–––3–––3–––3–3––––––––
G ––11––––9–––7–––9–––7–––7–7–––––––7–––––4–––2–––4–––2–––2–2––––––––
D ––0–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––0––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

First way I learned it

At first, I was convinced this was it – and for sure, if you wanted to you could play it this way and be 100% fine. The downside of this version is about practicality – in that, you’re on the highest 3 strings for the first half, and then the 4th / 3rd / 2nd strings for the second half. One reason this is bad has to do with picking accuracy –– it’s quite a bit harder to cleanly strum the 2nd/3rd/4th strings (only) in a way that matches the sound of the 1st half, where you’re on the highest 3 strings. If you’re curious, feel free to practice it this way! I enjoyed getting this under my belt. But again, after doing some digging and watching a video of Merle Haggard playing it –– I’m won over by the practicality of his version.

E ––10––––9–––7–––9–––7––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
B ––10––––10––8–––10––8–––8–10––––––10––––8–––7–––8–––7–––5–7––––––––
G ––11––––9–––7–––9–––7–––7–11––––––11––––7–––7–––7–––7–––6–7––––––––
D ––––––––––––––––––––––––9–12––––––12––––9–––7–––9–––7–––7–7––––––––
A –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Chords needed

E ––––2–––3–––0–––2––––
B ––––3–––0–––2–––3––––
G ––––2–––0–––2–––4––––
D ––––0–––0–––2–––4––––
A ––––––––2–––0–––2––––
E ––––––––3––––––––––––
      D   G   A   Bm

Chord progression cheat sheet


| D . . . | D . . . | A . . . | A . . . |
| G . . . | G . . . | D . . . | A . . . |


| G  . . . | G  . . . | D . . . | G . . . |
| Bm . . . | G  D  A . . . | A  . . . |
| G  . . . | Bm . . . | Bm . . . |


See the PDF for diagrams showing two ways to strum it.


Coming, one day, eventually :)

Good luck!

Let me know if you have questions. I hope this was helpful.

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