a guitarist's occasional blog
Here is an example of a song I will teach for the second lesson of a beginning group guitar class. This lesson is aimed at people who lean in a folk or bluegrass direction.
"Boil em' Cabbage Down" is an old folk song. I think a lot of fiddle and mandolin players learn this when they are just starting out. For a guitarist, it makes sense to learn the same tunes in the same keys as those players learn them. The fiddlers and mandolin pickers usually play this in the Key of A. Guitarists often learn this tune in G, and then they will use a capo on the second fret in jam sessions.
I prefer to teach "Boil em Cabbage Down" in the Key of A instead of the popular "G". The chords A, D, and E tend to be a little bit easier to learn compared to the G, C, and D needed in the Key of G. Also, not all of my students arrive with a capo. So it just makes sense to teach things in first position at the start. (This is an easy tune. Students can learn to play it in G at a later time if they want.)
The song's rhythm is best learned as a basic "Boom-Chick" pattern. Play the root of the chord on beats one and three. Strum the chord on beats two and four. All picking and strumming is downward at this point. No upstrokes. Work on steady tempo and do not worry about speed. The root for each chord is on an open string. This is another major advantage of teaching beginners to play this in the Key of A :
I like to get students flatpicking right away. Some people have an easier time picking than they have learning to strum. Plus, we can begin to play the song in two parts, and that makes it more fun.
I include four variations in my lesson. The first is a simple outline of the melody with quarter notes. Students should "push each note towards the floor." That's how I explain it, and it helps to keep them from snapping the string outward away from the guitar.
Variations 2 and 3 introduce "down-up" flatpicking. The downstrokes are always on the beat. The upstrokes are on the "and" of each beat. Have the students tap their feet on the beat. For some students, it will help to visualize a string attached from the pick to the foot. They go up and down together.
Often, I'll have students arrive at a beginning class who have already made a little progress playing. Variation 4 is a simple example of a solo that I include to keep those students happy and challenged.
This is an old, old song. You can find endless variations by digging through Youtube or old recordings. The chorus is basically saying, "Man, I'm tired and hungry!" The verses could be complaints, nonsense, or tall tales — probably told around the fire at the end of long day of working in the fields. This is a nice little jumping off point for a songwriting lesson. Especially with the middle schoolers I work with, I like to try to get them to write a verse or two that fits the form.
Boil ‘em Cabbage Down (Traditional song)
(A “hoecake” is cornmeal cake baked over a fire on the blade of a hoe.)
Boil them cabbage down, down.
Turn them hoecakes 'round, 'round.
The only song that I can sing is
Boil them cabbage down.
Butterfly has wings of gold.
Firefly, wings of flame.
Bedbugs got no wings at all,
But they get there just the same.
Once I had an old grey mule,
his name was Simon Slick.
He'd roll his eyes, and back his ears,
and how that mule would kick.
Went up on a mountain
(To) give my horn a blow, blow.
Thought I heard my true love say,
"Yonder comes my beau."
* The Norman B20 Folk in the picture above is a wonderful guitar for beginning students.
And dig the video of Mark O'Connor and Wynton Marsalis!
"South Branch" is an original fingerstyle composition of mine that uses a unique altered tuning. I've recorded "South Branch" on my latest CD, A Whisper in this Town. This isn't nearly as difficult as people sometimes think it might be. I'm not a virtuoso fingerstyle guitar player; I'm more a singer/songwriter who is being opportunistic by exploiting an open tuning.
The key to this piece is to tune your strings (lowest to highest) D - G - D - F# - A - D. This is similar to open D tuning, but in this case you lower your 5th string from "A" to "G".
The transcription is an approximation. I tend to perform this piece a little differently each time I play it. For example, the harmonics I use as an intro were added after I had transcribed the tune. I have included a video performance of this piece that might be of some use to you as you try to learn it.
In the video, I perform this on a very nice Bourgeois Vintage OM that I no longer own. On the recording, I use my favorite little guitar. It's an unheralded Martin 00C-16DBRE that has had the electronics torn out of it. Compared to the Bourgeois and some other instruments I have had my hands on, the Martin isn't a fancy guitar. But if I could keep only one instrument, this little guitar would be it!
I would love to hear from anyone who tries to learn to play this piece! There are plenty of you who could perform this better than I am able to manage it.
As a singer/songwriter solo act, I haven't spent enough time playing jazz standards like the ones found in The Real Book published by Hal Leonard. This is some of the greatest music in the world! I would be very happy to someday be the old dude comping chords and taking the occasional solo in a small jazz combo. There is no time like the present to get to work. Old dogs should always be willing to learn new tricks.
If you take any interest in jazz theory, one of the very first things you are going to run into is the ii-V7-I chord sequence. This is the basis for a huge volume of songwriting, and it's maybe the biggest thing to address to get started in jazz improvisation.
I'm not going to go into basic music theory here. For this lesson, I'm going to assume you have a basic knowledge of key, scales, chords, and arpeggios. If you want to dive in for some review, see if you can find the out-of-print Mel Bay Presents collection of Arnie Berle's "Fretboard Basics" columns from Guitar Player Magazine. That is a useful book!
If you take a look at the free ii-V7-I jazz guitar lesson, you'll see what amounts to a basic jazz warm-up for playing over a four-measure pattern in the Key Of C.
Measures 1-16 show you four ways to strum the Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7 chords. Notice that there are no open strings used. The point isn't that open strings can't be used in jazz. Open strings can sound cool! But these are all shapes that can be moved up and down the fingerboard. Once you have mastered them in C, you'll need to get comfortable with these same chord shapes in all the other keys. For now, just hold each chord for four beats. Try to play cleanly and in good time using a metronome.
Measures 17-24 will give you practice playing the notes of a C Major scale around each chord. Playing scales is sometimes described as a horizontal approach. Note that there are no big vertical jumps. Measures 25-32 take a vertical approach. Each four-measure line shows you how to play chord tones in thirds. Basically you leapfrog over every other note in the scale. A vertical approach allows the improviser to go from low to high (or vice versa) much faster than a horizontal or scalar approach. Both approaches can be valid and musical. The notes you play here are the raw materials for improvising.
Measures 33-36 and 37-40 are two examples of bebop-style phrases. Both vertical and horizontal approaches are combined to make them interesting and musical. The key to getting these is to play in the seventh position. Assign your first finger to seventh fret, second to eighth fret, third to ninth, and pinky to tenth. You shouldn't need to move your hand to reach any notes this way, but you can experiment with slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) to make the phrase sound good.
You'll notice that there are some sharp and flat notes in these phrases. These are called accidentals, and they are one of the things that make jazz sound like jazz. Again, I won't get into music theory (bebop scales!) part of choosing these notes, but I wanted to include them for the sake of playing and hearing real jazz-style lines as a part of this practice session.
I have two suggestions for practicing these exercises. The first thing you could do is play the chord progression into a looping pedal and practice along with your own accompaniment. Just make sure you keep a solid, steady tempo. The second thing I recommend — the thing I'm doing myself — is to get volume 3 of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz series and use the recordings provided. The entire book is about the ii-V7-I progression, and it comes with two CDs to play along with. It is an excellent resource, and my exercises will work over some of those recordings.
Once you have these exercises down in the key of C, you'll need to transpose them to every other key. Good luck! I'm practicing these same exercises myself.
I'll keep this one short. I had a student who was having a little bit of trouble crossing strings with his pick. I think a lot of people get comfortable playing on one string and then have a clumsy time trying to get their pick over to play a note on a different string.
As a singer/songwriter, precision isn't always my top priority. At times, I'm guilty of using my guitar almost more like a drum (think like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen) when I'm pounding out a song accompaniment. But over the past few years I have begun flatpicking more fiddle tunes, and I found my own picking skills lacking.
I created this short flatpicking guitar exercise for my student and for myself. The key is to go slowly and steadily, and to play without making any mistakes. Use a metronome. The goal is pick control and accuracy. Playing sloppily at a fast tempo is - quite frankly - a waste of time.
Practice this with downstrokes, upstrokes, and alternate (down/up) pick strokes. All three ways will benefit your technique. After you've got it at a decent tempo, go find some music to Led Zeppelin's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" to work on. This exercise will have served you well.
In the first guitar lesson I shared, we looked at how to begin creating fingerstyle patterns using an alternating bass played by the thumb. With this lesson we take it a bit further by adding a melody on top of the bass. If you are a singer, you might just sing the melody. But not everybody wants to sing.
If you download the free pdf "Aunt Rhody for Solo Fingerstyle Guitar" lesson, you'll find two pages of music. This arrangement is based on a short recording I included on my Dancing With No Shoes On children's music album.
The first eight bars spell the simple melody of Aunt Rhody. There are a number of ways to use your fingers to pick this, but don't pick with your thumb since it will eventually be needed to play the alternating bass. Even using just your index finger to pluck the strings should get the job done. A lot of the great blues players relied on only a thumb-plus-one-finger technique. Classical guitarists will often alternate between two or even three fingers to play a melody. Don't be afraid to experiment.
The next eight bars on the first page show you the alternating bass pattern. This is similiar to what we did in the first lesson. Practice playing these notes with just the thumb. Strive for a steady rhythm. Use a metronome, and don't get caught up in trying to play too fast. Speed comes with practice. Steady tempo is more important right now. Take it slow.
Finally, page two shows you how to put it together. Notice that your fingers will be plucking the melody notes at the same time your thumb is playing bass notes. Some people refer to this as pinching the strings because your thumb plucks downward while your finger strikes the string upward. Try not to have your fingers bump into each other. To see an example of how to do that, check out some videos of Chris Smither - one of my absolute favorite players - on YOUTUBE. Chris uses a thumbpick, and his hand is in a good position to keep his thumb out of the way of his fingers. I don't play with a thumbpick and manage to accomplish the same thing.
Whether you use a thumbpick or not is up to you. You'll probably get more volume at first with a thumbpick, but you'll also need to keep track of it. My preference is to keep things simple. I don't want to feel like I can't play if I can't find my thumpick. There are advantages and disadvantages to either choice. I've never seen a classical guitarist use one. Guitarist Mark Hanson has a nice article on the subject: Whether or Not to Use a Thumbpick.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this lesson helps you move forward on playing some fingerstyle guitar.
When I was a teenager, one of my favorite musicians was Dan Fogelberg. In particular, I admired his song "The Leader of the Band" with its gentle, rolling acoustic guitar accompaniment. As a beginning guitarist, I aspired to play like that. I didn't have the internet resources available today, and I eventually managed to teach myself a reasonable approximation of the tune that allowed me to sing the song around campfires and with friends.
Years later, I discover that there was a method to Fogelberg's accompaniment that has been embraced in folk and country music for generations. The basic component is a steady beat played by the thumb on the bass strings of the guitar. Guitarists refer to this as an alternating bass, and the resulting style is also sometimes (and somewhat inaccurately) referred to as Travis-picking after the legendary guitarist Merle Travis.
The lesson I use begins with a simple open C chord. (See the first line of the attached pdf lesson.) The student will hold the C chord and then practice plucking an alternating bass pattern on the A (5th) and D (4th) strings. Back and forth. We take it slow. Building muscle memory is the goal, and rushing the tempo is counterproductive. Using a metronome is a good idea! Notice that the thumb plucks the fifth string on beats one and three, and on beats two and four the thumb always plays the fourth string. The goal is that the thumb will begin doing this on autopilot.
Once the thumb is feeling solid, it's time to add fingers. Again, there is no hurry. I start by having the student add a plucked note on the and of the second beat. (See the second line of the attached pdf.) We use the index finger to pluck the third string here. It comes after the thumb plucks the D string on beat two. Often students will try to play an extra beat here, so it sometimes takes time to work on the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes. I often play the second line while they just play the first line so they can hear how the note fits in between the beats.
After the student is comfortable with that, we'll add the middle finger on the second string on the and of beat three. Once they've got that, we return to the index finger plucking the third string on the and of beat four.
The back page of the free pdf lesson works through the same process with an open G chord. The goal for the student should be to begin applying these patterns to all of the chords they know. Am chords are a good follow-up to the C because you pluck all the same strings, and Em works just like G.
I try to emphasize with my students that all four lines demonstrate patterns that are useful. Experienced players will mix and match while they are accompanying themselves. Once the student has these patterns on autopilot they can begin applying them to songs. That's when it gets fun!
A good example of this style of accompaniment is Lindsey Buckingham's accompaniment on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide". The alternating bass approach is also at the foundation of Mississippi John Hurt's playing, and his playing influenced much of the folk music guitarists have played over the past five decades.
Enjoy the music!
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo