Accordion music of the early 20th century might seem an odd source of inspiration for a fingerstyle guitarist, but not for the San Francisco Bay Area musician Craig Ventresco, with his vast musical knowledge of that bygone era. I have long admired Ventresco’s arrangement of “An Operatic Rag,” a 1910 recording by Pietro Frosini, one of the accordion’s first stars.
In this lesson, I’ve borrowed from Ventresco’s interpretation of “An Operatic Rag” (as heard on his 2000 album The Past Is Yet to Come), adding a few of my own ideas to produce a ragtime arrangement that’s all but guaranteed fun for the intermediate to advanced fingerpicker.
This arrangement has three different sections—A, B, and C—with the overall form of AABBCCAB. There’s also an eight-bar intro, which sets the mood with a series of A-minor chords and a diminished run. I would recommend approaching the composition just like any other ragtime or ragtime blues piece, picking strings 6–4 with your thumb, and using some combination of your index, middle, and ring fingers on strings 3–1. I’d also suggest tackling each section individually—and methodically—before stringing everything together as a whole.
This section combines fingerpicked chords, strums, and a diminished run. Play it freely—not so much that it feels arrhythmic, but such that some of the strummed chords are sustained longer than their written durations. For instance, you might hold the Am#5 chord in measure 2 for three beats instead of two.
In bar 7, try fretting the fifth-string C with your fourth finger. This might be a hard reach, but you can make it easier by planting your thumb squarely on the back of the guitar’s neck, allowing your fingers to arch comfortably around the fretboard.
For the diminished run in the following measure, try pinching your thumb and index finger together, as if you’re holding a plectrum, and use alternate (down/up) picking. Or, pick with a combination of your thumb and index finger.
The A Section
Bars 10–23 involve a constant alternating bass pattern. Open chords are predominant until measures 14–15, where barred grips farther up the neck make their appearances. For the Bb chord in measure 15, I wrap my thumb over the neck to fret the sixth-string Bb. Fret the D7 chord in measure 16 just like a first-position C7—with your third, second, fourth, and first fingers on strings 5, 4, 3, and 2, respectively—but moved up two frets.
Even though you’re fretting common chords, finger adjustments are needed within many of the voicings. For example, in measure 11, fret a normal open E chord, remove your first finger on the and of beat 1, and place your fourth finger on the third-fret D, lifting it for the open B string on the and of beat 3.
In measure 12, fret the second-string D with your fourth finger and play an alternating bass that extends to the sixth string. Another noteworthy phrase is bar 24’s diminished run, descending rather than ascending, as in the intro. Use your fourth and first fingers to fret this phrase.
The B Section
Bar 27 kicks off the B section with repeated high Es. I use my ring finger to play all of these open first-string notes; others might choose two fingers to play this quick flourish. Ventresco has a unique approach, in which he uses a flatpick and his ring finger to play all of the strings. This might seem a little limiting, but it leads to a natural ebb and flow, and it facilitates interesting tempo shifts.
In measure 38, the music is punctuated by yet another diminished-chord run, which can be picked a few different ways. First, you could simply brush the notes from low to high with your thumb. A second option would be a banjo-type roll with your thumb and three fingers. The option I prefer—and what Ventresco apparently does—is to alternate flatpick and fingers. For example, pick strings 4 and 2 with your thumb, string 3 with your index finger, and string 1 with your ring finger. This approach can help create dramatic-sounding staccato flourishes.
The C section
For the segue into C (bar 42) and the first ending of this section (58), you could play the notes in first position on strings 4–6. As a sometimes surf-rock guitarist, I fret all of the notes on the sixth string as written, sliding down and double picking for a Dick Dale–approved crescendo.
That lick leads you to an F chord at the start of the C section (bar 43), best fretted with your thumb over the neck, and your first finger lifting on and off to alternate between the notes E and F on string 1 and, in bar 48, between the notes B and C on string 2.
In measure 49 the implied chord is G, with A and Ab notes descending on the third string to a G. Fret the low G with your third finger and use your second and first fingers for the notes A and Ab, respectively.
You’ll notice two different Bb chords in measures 54–55: one played in first position, with an alternating bass on strings 5 and 4, and the other moved up to the sixth position, the root note (Bb) played on the sixth and fourth strings. It may seem odd to play the same chord in two different parts of the neck, but it helps the overall feel and flow of the section, while preventing the bass notes from interfering with the melody.
For the blues-oriented fingerpicker, a ragtime piece like “An Operatic Rag” can be a nice challenge; it’s an opportunity to take the techniques you have developed and apply them to a longer and more sophisticated arrangement.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.