By Pete Madsen

The musical art form of ragtime piano proved popular from the late 1890s up until the late 1910s. Its contagious syncopated dance rhythms were not only influential to pianists, but to blues guitarists of the late 1920s as well.

In their efforts to emulate the syncopated rhythms and melodies of Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, such fingerpicking blues players as Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and the Reverend Gary Davis, to name a few, were able to craft unique solo guitar pieces that still hold up today.

Although Joplin is quoted as saying that ragtime should be played at a slow tempo, more often than not it is taken at a fairly brisk pace. For guitarists, ragtime can be a joyful excursion filled with fun and quirky moves. I’ve taken inspiration from many of the aforementioned artists and pieced together a composition I call “Pete’s Barrelhouse Rag.”

It’s rooted in a fairly common eight-bar chord sequence of I–III–IV–II–V, or C–E–A–D7–G in the key of C major, with a verse and variations that round out the rest of the composition.


Variations on ‘Pete’s Barrelhouse Rag’

“Pete’s Barrelhouse Rag” is a study in fingerpicking. You can use your bare fingers—if you’d like, add a thumb pick.

The foundation, shown in the down-stemmed notes throughout, makes good use of a common alternating bass pattern.

If you are a competent fingerpicker and are familiar with ragtime, you should find this composition especially satisfying to play.
If you’re new, take it slow at first. The first eight-bar verse, depicted in Ex. 1, sets up the chord changes. You’ll start off with first-position C and E chords and then move into a “long” A chord and a C-shaped D7. Many of the variations from here on out rely on CAGED alternative voicings of the chords moved up and down the neck. (For more info on playing CAGED dominant-seventh chords, see the Weekly Workout in AG’s September 2015 issue.)

In the first variation (Ex. 2), the original C chord stays intact as you move on to a D7-shaped E7 chord that allows you to maintain the alternating bass pattern. The A chord in this variation uses a nice bend from D# up to E, which in performance tends to come up a little short of the intended target note in order to create tension. The D7 voicing in this variation is one I borrowed from Big Bill Broonzy’s “Saturday Night Rub” and is a variation on a C shape.

The final two bars of this verse are a set of finger rolls that travel between an E-shaped G7 chord, through an F# diminished-seventh and G diminished-seventh chords to land on a D-shaped G7 chord. To play the finger rolls, place your thumb and three fingers on the strings, then—after you have played the fourth string with your thumb—gently rotate your fingers away from the guitar.


Ex. 3 shows a second variation. For the D7 chord, wrap your fret-hand thumb over the top of the fretboard to hold down string 6, while your first finger bars the top four strings. On the G9, add the chord’s 13th (the 12th-fret E) with your fourth finger.

At the end of this verse you’ll return to the C chord for two bars and walk down from C to A to transition into a new theme in the third verse.

In the third and fourth variations, the form breaks down and becomes a little looser, 12 bars long instead of the established eight. Ex. 4 is a Reverend Gary Davis/“Hesitation Blues” type theme that travels quickly between Am and E chords. The second four bars of this verse are borrowed from Blind Blake’s “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown,” making its way through IV–bVI–I–VI–II–V–I  (F–Ab7–C–A–D7–G7–C) chord changes.


Ex. 5 starts out on a C-shaped G7 chord before moving chromatically down to an E7, decorated with some more finger rolls. The rolls continue with a different voicing of E7, best fretted by the second and third fingers so that the index and fourth fingers can execute the walking bass line. The finger-roll theme continues with the A–A7 move and descending bass line. Then, you’ll play four bars of D7 before finishing off this final variation with a series of finger-rolled natural harmonics at frets 5, 7, and 12, implying a G chord.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this composition, and it’s a bit of a workout. To make it more approachable, try one eight-bar section at a time.

You can also make up your own variations and experiment—which is much more in the spirit of ragtime—rather than try to play everything exactly as it is written.

Here are some additional variations in pt. 2 of this lesson.

Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based author, instructor, and performing guitarist. Learn more at