Dill Pickle Rag: A Ragtime Arrangement by Eric Schoenberg
During the late 1800s, a new style of music—ragtime, some say named for its ragged rhythms—emerged in saloons in St. Louis. Composer-pianists like Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime” with his “Maple Leaf Rag,” wrote compositions that combined extensive syncopations with marching band–inspired themes.
Ragtime faded in popularity in the early 1900s, but blues musicians like Blind Blake and the Reverend Gary Davis would make their versions of piano rags on guitar. In 1971, the steel-string guitarist Eric Schoenberg and his cousin David Laibman recorded The New Ragtime Guitar, an album of arrangements that are remarkable in that they are essentially note-for-note transcriptions of original piano rags transferred to the guitar, rather than modified to suit the six-string.
Among the duets on The New Ragtime Guitar is the classic “Dill Pickle Rag,” originally composed by Charles L. Johnson. On that recording, Schoenberg flatpicks the melody, while Laibman fingerpicks it in harmony, adding a bass line and inner voices. For the 1973 compilation Contemporary Ragtime Guitar, Schoenberg recorded the tune as a solo arrangement, transcribed here in its entirety. Be warned that it’s not an easy piece. Schoenberg, who for many years has owned his namesake guitar shop in Tiburon, California, and who is known for the prewar-inspired guitars also bearing his name, said via email, “I can’t believe I played it that fast. Ah, youth.”
Pick Your Approach
This transcription captures the way Schoenberg played “Dill Pickle Rag” on the original recording, also taking into account how his interpretation has evolved over the last 40-something years. The picking hand’s role is pretty straightforward. You can play the arrangement fingerstyle, with a thumbpick and fingers, or with a thumbpick and fingerpicks. Pick the up-stemmed notes with your index, middle, and ring fingers, and the down-stemmed notes with your thumb.
If you’d like, palm mute the bass notes—remember, rest your picking hand lightly on the strings, so that the sound is slightly muffled but the pitch is still clear. This will provide a nice textural contrast with the melody and will help highlight the arrangement’s contrapuntal nature (having independent lines, in this case a bass part and melody).
Mind the Fingerings
The fretting hand’s role in “Dill Pickle Rag” is less straightforward. On the original recording, Schoenberg plays the piece with apparent ease and joyfulness, at the knuckle-busting tempo of around 190 quarter notes per minute. This is quite a mean feat when you consider the unorthodox fingerings he was using to imitate the piano.
To even begin to approach Schoenberg’s tempo, it’s critical to use considered fingerings. Bars 1–4 are straightforward enough: Stop the low G (string 6, fret 3) with your second finger and the F (string 4, fret 3) with your third finger. Keep this shape held throughout these four measures, hammer-on the second-fret A with your first finger, etc.
Things get tricky in bars 5 and 6, where Schoenberg plays the melody on consecutive adjacent strings for a pianistic effect. It’s best to learn this phrase at a microscopically slow pace, paying close attention to the discrete moves that make an effective whole. Here are some picking-hand suggestions: throughout the measures, keep your second finger anchored on the 10th-fret C, your fourth-finger on the 12th-fret G, and your third finger on the 10th-fret A.
On beats 1–2 of measure 5, barre the eighth fret across all six strings with your first finger. Then, on beat 3, quickly grab the seventh-fret B with your first finger, before sliding that finger back into the eighth-fret barre. On beat 1 of measure 6, angle your first finger upward, such that it’s still stopping the eighth-fret C but not blocking the open A string. End the phrase with your first finger on fret 7, then 8 and 9 of string 6.
It’s just as important to consider fingering nuances during transitions between phrases. On beat 4 of measure 6, for instance, end a phrase in ninth position, with your fourth finger on string 3 and your first on 6. Keep finger 4 on that string as you quickly slide down into a D7 shape—your third finger on string 5, second on 4, fourth on 3, and first on 2—on the downbeat of measure 7. Make sure not to lag behind the beat as you change positions between bars 6 and 7; use a metronome for assurance if needed.
Work out the other fingerings in “Dill Pickle Rag” in the same way—look for ways to move between notes and chord grips with as little movement as possible. Tackle the piece phrase by phrase, then section by section, spending the most time with the parts that require unfamiliar fretting-hand moves, like those wild bars 5–6.
Once you’ve got it all together, play along with the original recording and try to copy Schoenberg’s smooth rhythmic bounce and lively phrasing. I’d recommend playing the original recording through software that allows you to slow the audio down without affecting its pitch. Keep the tempo comfortable and increase it gradually until you can match Schoenberg’s speed—and good luck with that!
In any case, a key lesson to take away from Schoenberg’s arrangement of “Dill Pickle Rag”—one that applies to any type of music—is that it pays to push your fretting fingers into new formations, shapes that might feel awkward at first but which will broaden your range of expression and your repertoire.
What Is He Playing?
For his performance, Eric Schoenberg plays an Epiphone Recording Model B. The Recording guitars were the first guitars made by Epiphone and were built between 1928 and 1931 in Models A, B, C, D, and E (in increasing fanciness). Schoenberg has owned this Model B since the mid-’60s and it features a flat, natural finished top with laminated maple sides and an arched maple back.