Learn to flatpick the melodies to ten traditional fiddle tunes and songs, with simple melodic variations and performance tips. Perfect the old-time and bluegrass boom-chuck rhythm, with bass runs. Contents Eighth of JanuaryLittle Liza JaneDown in the Valley to PrayGolden SlippersNew River TrainOver the WaterfallMan of Constant SorrowJohn Brown’s DreamRichmond BluesQueen of Earth, Child of Stars CHAPTER 1 Eighth of January https://vimeo.com/694196587 "Eighth of January” is a very common tune in the old-time and bluegrass repertoire. Jimmy Driftwood wrote some words to the melody and Johnny Horton had a big hit with the result, “Battle of New Orleans,” in 1959. And flatpicker extraordinaire Tony Rice recorded a scintillating instrumental version on his debut Rounder album Tony Rice in 1977. Most fiddle tunes are constructed of two contrasting parts, the A and B parts, which are usually eight bars long and are repeated to create an AABB form. The A and B parts of “Eighth of January” are only four bars long, but they still have an AABB form. As with many fiddle tunes, however, you can play the parts slightly differently when you repeat them. This is truer to the way a fiddle player would actually play the tune. Most fiddle players are constantly varying the basic melody. The variations don’t necessarily get more elaborate or complicated, they’re just a slightly different, yet equally valid, way to play the melody. If you want to concentrate on the basic version of “Eighth of January,” however, you can just ignore the second time through each of the parts. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART Most fiddle tunes are accompanied by a basic boom-chuck rhythm using open-position chords, letting the chords ring and concentrating on getting nice meaty bass notes on the first and third beats of the measure and ringing “changs” on the second and fourth beats. In the accompaniment part for “Eighth of January,” you may notice that instead of just repeating the bass notes of each chord, you play an alternating bass. Start each chord change with the root of the chord and then alternate that with either the fifth or the root. For the D chord, alternate the D note with the open A note, the fifth of D. For the G chord, alternate the low G bass note with the third of the chord, the B note on the fifth string. And for the A chord, alternate the open A fifth string with the E note on the second fret of the fourth string. There are a couple other things about the rhythm guitar part in this tune that are worth paying attention to. One is the voicing of the G chord. Notice that you play the third fret on the top two strings with your ring finger and pinky. And even though your index finger is on the fifth string at the second fret, that note doesn’t usually sound. Unless you’re playing a B bass note, damp that note by letting your index finger rest against the string with no pressure. This voicing, also called a G5 chord, because there’s no third in the chord, creates a nice open sound that sounds great with bluegrass and old-time fiddle music. You may also notice that there is a short bass run that connects the two four-measure parts, providing a little punctuation to the tune. Bass runs are often used to connect two different chords, as in the final bar of the B part, but in the A part it connects two measures of D. CHAPTER 2 Little Liza Jane https://vimeo.com/694196258 There are a number of fiddle tunes that pay tribute to one Liza Jane or another. This version comes from eastern Kentucky fiddler J.P. Fraley, who played it in the key of A.We’re going to play it out of G position on the guitar, capoed up two frets to sound in the key of A, so you can play it along with fiddlers. In the Acoustic Guitar Guide video on playing “Eighth of January” we talked about varying the melody when it repeats. “Little Liza Jane” has the same AABB form as most fiddle tunes. In this version, we’re going to look at how you can vary the melody subtly to add nuances and solve some picking problems. For example, in the fourth bar of the A part, slide up to the E note at the fifth fret of the B string and repeat it along with the open E. This is a nice way to reinforce that note. It’s a technique borrowed from fiddlers, who, when the melody is a long note played on an open string, will slide into the same note on the string below it, doubling the note to give it a fuller sound. You can also play that note with a hammer-on, as in measure 12, the repeat of the A part. The reason that section is played with a hammer-on instead of a slide is because your hand is in a different position to make the picking a little easier. Notice the fingering in the notation. In the second bar of the repeat of the A part, move your fretting hand up so your first finger is at the third fret. In measure 2 the picking is a little awkward because you have to keep jumping back to a lower string with an upstroke. So at the end of measure 9, if you move up so your first finger is at the third fret, it will allow you to avoid the awkward backpick. This won’t really be a problem at slower tempos, but can be tricky at a faster speed. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The rhythm guitar part for “Little Liza Jane” uses the same basic boom-chuck rhythm as in the video for “Eighth of January,” but a quick strum on the and of the third beat of measures 2, 4, 6, and 8 has been added. These strums should be played as an upstroke with a quick snap of the wrist to emphasize the fourth beat. This pattern works well when you want to add some forward motion to a tune. There are also a couple of short bass runs leading from the G chord to the C chord and from the D chord back to the G. Notice also that in the B part the progression changes from C to D in the middle of the fifth bar, not at the beginning. This sounds a little odd by itself, but makes sense with the melody. CHAPTER 3 Down in the Valley to Pray https://vimeo.com/694196027 "Down in the Valley to Pray” is an old spiritual that has been recorded by numerous folk and bluegrass musicians. Alison Krauss’s version of this song, which she recorded on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, changed the lyric to “Down in the river to pray” to match the baptismal scene in the movie. In this arrangement, the entire melody—verse and chorus—is played as an instrumental. It’s standard practice in bluegrass to just play either the verse or chorus as an instrumental break, but “Down in the Valley to Pray” fits so well on the guitar that it’s nice to play the whole thing. The instrumental section follows the sung melody pretty closely. It’s just filled out here and there with a few additional eighth notes, as in bars 14–15. Notice that when there is a B melody note, especially one that lasts longer than an eighth note, it’s fretted at the fourth fret of the G string and usually approached with a hammer-on from the A note below it. This adds a little color to that note. It would be pretty plain if you just played it as an open B string. You can play this entire melody without moving your fretting hand out of one position—with your index finger at the second fret and your ring finger at the fourth fret. Staying in one position as long as possible, in this case, the whole tune, makes it easier to fret the notes cleanly and solidly. Speaking of which, you should always fret the notes just behind fret, to get the cleanest sound with the least amount of finger pressure. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The strum pattern for “Down in the Valley to Pray” has more of a country feel than the fiddle tune accompaniment used in the Guides for “Eighth of January” and “Little Liza Jane.” Add an upstroke on the and of the fourth beat to the boom-chuck feel, making it boom-chuck, boom-chuck-a. Notice, however, that when you change to a new chord, you don’t play the upstroke. This gives your fingers a little time to get to the next chord. CHAPTER 4 Golden Slippers https://vimeo.com/694195739 This old minstrel song has become a favorite instrumental among fiddlers, guitarists, mandolinists, dobro players, and banjo players. In this arrangement, “Golden Slippers” is played in two different octaves, which is a common way to play variations on a melody without deviating from it too much. There’s no real traditional key for “Golden Slippers,” but the melody is easily reached in two octaves on the guitar in the key of C. Try playing the melody in each octave. You may like one better than the other. The form of “Golden Slippers” is the usual AABB fiddle-tune format, although the B parts end slightly differently, but, except for the jump in octave the second full time through, there aren’t any variations to the melody on the repeats. The melody is pretty straightforward until the middle of the B section, where there are a couple of quick chord strums (a C chord in measure 18 and F chord in measure 20) that fill out the melody nicely. They might be a little tricky to play, because your fingers haven’t been playing full chords for a while. When you’re playing single-note melodies like this, your fingers don’t need to hold the underlying chords (in this case C, F, and G) while you’re playing the melody. Holding a chord down while you’re playing a melody just creates more tension than you need and makes it difficult to add vibrato to held notes when you want to. But it can be helpful to keep your fingers poised above the notes of the chord, if you want to throw in a quick chord while playing the single-note melody. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The rhythm guitar part for “Golden Slippers” starts with the basic boom-chuck rhythm and adds a couple of bass runs between the C and G chords as well as a couple of boom-a-chuck strums when the chord is held for more than two bars. The bass runs in the A section include a couple of chromatic passing tones that provide a little variety and a break from the usual major-scale bass runs. The important thing to remember when coming up with bass runs is that you need to get to the next chord at the right time, usually on the downbeat of the next measure. Measure 3 begins with a C bass note and then immediately jumps down to a low E note on the second beat. If you go up the C major scale from that low E—E, F, G—you would get to the G note, the root of the G chord, a beat early. By adding the F♯ between the F and G you get to the G chord at the right time and get a little chromatic coloring in the bargain. The same is true for the bass run in measure 7, leading from a G chord to a C chord. Play the G note on the first beat and then immediately follow it with an A note on the second beat. To make sure you don’t get to the C chord too early, play an A♯ (B♭) note between the A and B notes, leading up to C. CHAPTER 5 New River Train https://vimeo.com/694195419 This arrangement of “New River Train” is kind of a mountain version of the classic song made famous by the Monroe Brothers in the 1930s. Old-time banjo player Wade Ward recorded a version in the early ’60s that is probably the source for this melody. It sounds fairly archaic, but it has likely evolved and been twisted in the hands of numerous musicians, a form of musical tinkering often known as “the folk process.” The melody stays true to the standard version until the end of the first part, when it veers off into a modal resolution that is expanded upon in the second part. The melody is pretty straightforward in the first eight bars, played almost Carter Family style with a few chord strums when the melody pauses for a measure or more—on the D chord in bars 3 and 4 and the A chord in bars 7 and 8. Notice that the D chord has no third on the high E string. There’s usually an F♯ note there. This voicing enhances the modal nature of the tune. Without a third in the chord, it doesn’t sound specifically major or minor. In the second eight bars of the first part there are some slides into the open D- and G-string notes played at the fifth fret. This is an old-time fiddlers’ technique. Sliding into doubled open strings gives a little color and nuance to the open-string notes. If you think the B part sounds a little odd, you’re right. It’s 13 measures long, and you’ll notice that against the A chord the melody goes to both a C♮ and C♯. The trickiest thing may be the timing of the long A note in bar 25. You might want to count to yourself when you play this. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The rhythm guitar part for “New River Train” uses the simple old-time boom-chuck rhythm and the D chord without the third on top. There is also a bass run at the end of the tune that uses a C♮ note, echoing the C♮ notes in the melody. CHAPTER 6 Over the Waterfall https://vimeo.com/694195159 "Over the Waterfall" entered the old-time repertoire through a 1970s recording by the Hollow Rock String Band, whose fiddler, Alan Jabbour, collected the tune from West Virginia fiddler Henry Reed. The melody bears some resemblance to two other songs, an old music-hall ditty called “The Fellow That Looked Like Me” and the British folk song “Eggs and Marrowbones.” It is one of those tunes that became so popular in the old-time scene that people stopped playing it, or, as has been said of some overplayed tunes, “nobody plays it anymore because it’s too popular.” “Over the Waterfall” has the standard AABB fiddle-tune form, and in this arrangement, there are a couple of minor variations to the melody when it repeats. The first variation is in the first bar, where the quarter-note melody is filled in with a couple of additional eighth notes. The next variation happens in the fourth bar of the tune. The first time through, the melody goes to a long D note, but on the repeat, it goes up to an F♯, with a hammer-on from the E to the F♯. There’s also a slight variation to the melody in the B part. The melody starts with long A and B notes, but in the second time through the B part, there is a drone D note below those two notes to fill out the sound a bit (bars 25 and 29). It’s not a huge variation, but just enough to provide some variety and make the sound bigger. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The accompaniment part for “Over the Waterfall” follows the basic old-time boom-chuck rhythm, with a couple of added bass runs. Notice that the D chord is a D5 voicing: a normal first-position D without the third (F♯) on top. You’ll notice that the first part stays on the D chord for quite awhile, so, to break this up, there is one short bass run in the second bar, even though there is no chord change. The same run is in the sixth bar, but this time it leads into the C chord, and that run is followed by a quick run down to the G chord. These runs also mirror the melody at this point. Notice also that the bass note in the second half of the G-chord measure is a B. This leads back to the D chord at the start of the next bar nicely. If there were a D bass note, the fifth of the G chord, in the second half of the G measure, it would sound pretty static when you change to a D chord, giving you two D bass notes in a row, even though the chord changes from G to D. The rhythm part for the B part has a few more chord changes. There’s a quick G chord that corresponds to the long B note in the melody, and a quick A chord in the third and seventh bars. The accompaniment is pretty simple in the B part, without any bass runs, primarily because the chord changes are so quick. But if you’re backing someone up on “Over the Waterfall,” see if you can find room for one. CHAPTER 7 Man of Constant Sorrow https://vimeo.com/694194877 This version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is different from both the bluegrass version made famous by the Stanley Brothers and the rollicking hit from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? This instrumental version comes from the great fiddler Ed Haley of Ashland, Kentucky. John Hartford’s fiddle recording of this tune on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack also comes from Haley, Hartford’s mentor. Haley never recorded professionally, but fortunately some home disc recordings made by his son in 1946 and 1947 were preserved to allow us the treat of hearing this influential musician. “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a sad, mournful song, and it’s good to keep that in mind when you’re playing the melody. The words to the first verse are “I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my days,” and that pretty much sets the mood of the song. You should also keep the words in mind when you’re playing the melody. The slide and pull-off in the first melodic phrase, which corresponds to the words “I am a man,” help give it more of a vocal quality. While you want to play the lead-in measure as lyrically as possible, you also want to make sure you play it in time. As the lead-in to the downbeat, it will set the tempo of the song. Also try to let the open E and B strings ring as long as you can, ideally all the way into the long A note. The phrase in bars 3–4 corresponds to the words “of constant sorrow.” Once again, try to let the open strings ring as much as possible. See if you can get the open G string in bar 4 to ring while you’re holding the D note that follows it. The next phrase (bars 5–6) is a little more rhythmic, which is the way Haley played it on the fiddle. For the final phrase of the verse, try to let the open B string at the end of measure 7 ring against the held A note in measure 8. It’s a little dissonant, but it gives it a pleasingly archaic sound. You may notice that even though the accompaniment uses Am chords, the melody rarely goes to the third of the chord (the C note). It primarily uses the second and fourth steps of the scale to move from the A note to the E note and back. This is an archaic sound, and one that is very distinctive. Theory buffs may be interested to know that this is the E-minor pentatonic scale, even though A is the root of the key. Haley added a bridge to “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which usually just repeats verses, but this makes it more interesting as an instrumental than just playing the verse over and over. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The accompaniment to “Man of Constant Sorrow” is pretty straightforward, just boom-chuck rhythm on each chord, with no bass runs. The reason there are no bass runs is that the melody leads into each chord change. Adding a bass run that leads to the next chord would just get in the way of and potentially clash with the melody. Many songs have phrasing like this, so it’s important when you’re playing rhythm guitar to keep the melody in mind and stay out of the way of the singer or instrumentalist. One way to make sure you’re not getting in the way of the melody is to sing the song to yourself, because you probably won’t want (or be able) to play bass runs while you’re singing. CHAPTER 8 John Brown's Dream https://vimeo.com/694194663 This driving, hypnotic fiddle tune is most often associated with the playing of Tommy Jarrell, who recorded it several times. One of the best versions of “John Brown’s Dream” features Jarrell accompanied only by his banjo-playing partner Fred Cockerham. Hobart Smith recorded a slightly different version on the influential compilation album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, and Smith’s and Jarrell’s renditions have had equal influence on the old-time community. Notice that “John Brown’s Dream” has four parts, each of which consist of two repeated four-bar phrases. This arrangement includes a number of slurs and anticipations that try to suggest the way the fiddle would play the melody. In the A part, the G notes just before the second and sixth bars are anticipated. You jump into them an eighth-note before the downbeat. This rhythmic device, common in southern old-time fiddling, helps keep the tune moving forward. In the B part, the first beat of measure 9 is anticipated by a full quarter note. And the first beat of measure 11 is anticipated by an eighth note. In the C part, there are a number of slurs—slides and pull-offs—designed to give the tune a slinkier, more fiddle-like feel. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The accompaniment for “John Brown’s Dream” uses the boom-chuck rhythm and is the same for each part, with a long G and a quick D chord near the end. There’s a bass run that leads up to the D chord and back to the G. When you play this bass run, you don’t actually have time to finger the D chord indicated. Play it only if you leave out the bass run, which may tend to get monotonous if played over and over. CHAPTER 9 Richmond Blues https://vimeo.com/694194414 This train song was recorded in the early days of country music by the old-time duo of Leonard Rutherford and John Foster, and there have been numerous versions of “Richmond Blues” recorded since, including one by Doc Watson on the Original Folkways Recordings: 1960–1962 of Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. It also goes by other names, such as “Baby All Night Long” and “All Night Long Blues.” The melody of “Richmond Blues” occurs as a lead-in to the chord changes, and the notes of the melody anticipate the chord that’s coming. This arrangement is good for practicing moving between single-note melodies and chords. Notice that in each of the bars that begins the chord change, there is a short boom-chuck rhythm on a chord fragment. It gets a little tricky because the first “boom” note is not the usual bass note you’d start playing an F, C, or G chord with. In the first bar of F, after the lead-in measure, you start with a C note up on the second string and play small F fragments for the “chuck.” The beginning of the C chord starts in the same place, up on the second-string C, and the G chord starts on the G string. You only really get a normal boom-chuck chord when you get to the C chord in bar 8. It’s worth practicing these chord fragments by themselves. In fact, you could easily practice this whole tune in short one-bar sections, then two bars at a time and four bars at a time, before you tackle the whole thing. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART The accompaniment to “Richmond Blues” is based on the old-time boom-chuck rhythm, with the addition of a few bass runs. The bass runs in the accompaniment will probably be too tricky to fit in while you’re singing. It’s best to just use them when you’re backing up the instrumental and stick to a straight boom-chuck pattern behind the vocals. CHAPTER 10 Queen of the Earth, Child of the Stars https://vimeo.com/694194127 Although slow airs are common in Irish traditional music, very few of them seem to have survived the journey across the pond. One exception is “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Stars,” a beautiful tune that comes from West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons. It can be played with a measured tempo, as a slow march, or, if you’re playing it by yourself, with a less-regular beat, drawing out the poignant phrases to give it a freer feeling. The melody of “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Stars” has a kind of modified AABB form. There are two eight-bar parts, A and B, and portions of them are repeated, but unlike most fiddle tunes, the melodies don’t repeat exactly. The A parts begin the same but the second A part veers off in the fourth bar, jumping up to a high F♯ and ending differently. This ending occurs again at the end of the tune, the last four bars of the second B part. When playing fiddle tunes, it’s usually important to use an alternating-picking style, but with a slow tune like this the alternating down-up style is not as critical. There’s another picking technique that can help you play clear melody notes and bass notes: the appropriately named “rest stroke.” To play a rest stroke, you play a downstroke and then “rest” your pick on the string below it momentarily. One of the advantages of the rest stroke is that it stops that string from ringing, allowing bass notes and melodies to sound cleanly and clearly. Rest strokes can be used on melody notes whenever the melody note is longer than a quarter note, as long as you don’t want the string or strings above the melody note to ring. THE ACCOMPANIMENT PART You can also use rest strokes on bass notes, and it can be easier to practice them on a slow tune like “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Stars.” The accompaniment part here alternates between boom-chuck and boom-a-chuck. You can play a rest stroke on the first bass note of the boom-chuck. However, the rest stroke doesn’t really work on the boom-a-chuck measures, because the next eighth note comes too quickly after the boom to give your pick time to rest. Any time you have a solid quarter-note bass note, however, you can use the rest stroke. In the B parts, the accompaniment starts with a few bars of straight boom-chuck. After a lot of boom-a-chuck patterns in the A parts it’s nice to simplify things as you start the B part, to differentiate the parts a bit.