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!
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.
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo