From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY STEVE JAMES
In 1975, when you dialed directory assistance for Beckley, West Virginia, an operator there would actually answer the phone:
“May I help you?”
“Yes, thanks. Do you have a listing for Leonard Copeland?”
(Pause) “No, but I have two L. Copelands.”
“May I have both, please?”
I chose one of the numbers and made the call. And Leonard Copeland answered the phone. It’s hard to say who was more surprised—I, to be talking to the man whose 1929 recordings with Roy Harvey represent the definitive country fingerstyle guitar duet; or he, because somebody still cared. We spoke about me coming up from Tennessee for a visit, but his health wasn’t good, and neither was my car, so it never happened.
The sound of Copeland’s guitar, however, has remained iconic in the years since, and my piece “Copeland’s Fancy” reflects that. I play this D-major instrumental in what’s known in the American guitar vernacular as Vastopol tuning (aka open D), lowest string to highest, D–A–D–F#–A–D. It’s based around Harvey and Copeland’s “Lonesome Weary Blues” and the one-big-guitar sound that characterized their seamless duets. The structure is A–B–C–B, played twice, with an extra A section at the end. Notated here are all the main sections; visit AG’s website for a transcription of the entire track.
The most important point of technique is the steady, four-beat thumbpicked bass line. The open D chord offers a solid tonic-and-fifth pattern, played on strings 6, 5, and 4. I throw in an occasional thumb roll, like the one that anticipates the first beat of measure 5. Like my early guitar inspirations, Mississippi John Hurt and Sam McGee, I pick with my thumb on the lower strings and my index and middle fingers on the upper notes. Whether or not you choose to wear thumb- and fingerpicks as I do, your thumb should be hyperextended (hitchhiker style) and your fingers flexed at each joint. It’s common for players to brace their little finger on the face of the guitar in front of the bridge. That’s OK, but a free hand is better.
Some things to note in terms of the fretting hand: In bars 12, 20, and elsewhere, I use a D chord shape that on paper appears to be in the eighth position, but which I actually play in the seventh. I play the eighth- and ninth-fret notes on strings 3 and 2 with my second and third fingers, respectively, and, even though I don’t pick it, I stop the A on string 4, fret 7, with my first finger. This prevents the open D string’s sympathetic vibrations from littering the sound with unwanted overtones. I use a similar approach on the A7 passage first seen in bar 13, where I stop the 11th-fret C# without picking that note.
The version of “Copeland’s Fancy” on my latest album, Blues and Folk Songs, Vol. 1 (see review on page 91), includes improvised variations on all three sections, with bent double-stops on the upper strings, as well as alternate chord voicings and phrasing. Since I’m playing solo, I can also take liberties with the form—for instance, adding four bars to the B section on the repeat. Like my antecedent role models, I seldom play anything exactly the same way twice. That’s just the way I learned, and I encourage any players who apply themselves to this piece to do the same once they’ve learned the basic form and melody.
Get stories like this in your inbox
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.