a guitarist's occasional blog
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