Acoustic Classic: Play Bert Jansch’s Arrangement of the Trad Tune ‘Blackwaterside’

Los Angeles judge recently exonerated Jimmy Page on charges of “stealing” the intro to Spirit’s “Taurus” for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” but there’s no doubt the famed guitarist had a habit of “borrowing” from songs he liked. Take “Down by Blackwaterside,” an old folk song the influential British fingerstylist Bert Jansch recorded as “Blackwaterside” on his 1966 album Jack Orion. Jansch credited the song as a “traditional.” Page liked Jansch’s adaptation so much that he recorded a similar version, without vocals, for Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album of 1969. Page, of course, took full credit for the instrumental “Black Mountain Side.”

I have transcribed Jansch’s version of “Down by Blackwaterside,” whose lyrics tell the story of a woman who has been duped by a suitor. Jansch plays the piece in drop-D tuning in the key of D major, with a fourth-fret capo that causes it to sound in F# major. You can learn the song with a capo, or, for a darker tonality, without one.

One of the most difficult—and subtle—aspects of “Blackwaterside” is Jansch’s tendency to add or subtract a beat or portion of a beat—an effect you often see in solo country-blues. Sometimes it’s straightforward enough—for example, in bar 5 Jansch modulates from 4/4 to 2/4. Other times are less obvious: In bar 7, Jansch subtracts an eighth note, putting the measure in 7/8 time.


The best way to internalize the rhythms in this piece is to subdivide—feel the music in eighth notes instead of quarters. It would be beneficial to practice counting the piece before you even pick up your guitar. Use a metronome so you avoid speeding up or slowing down when moving among the different meters.

In terms of technique, “Blackwaterside” isn’t overly difficult. Just make sure that your hammer-on/pull-off moves—often in 16th-note triplets (three 16ths in the space normally occupied by two)—come off smoothly and at equal volume. As for the pick hand, remember to pick the notes on strings 6 to 4 with your thumb, and the notes on the higher strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers.


Once you’ve mastered Jansch’s evocative arrangement of “Down by Blackwaterside,” come up with one of your own. Although his loose, improvisatory vocal phrasing is a selling point, the song also works well as an instrumental.

Just ask Jimmy Page. 

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This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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