Fiddle tunes are one of the best ways to learn flatpicking. They are a big part of the repertoire and also help build technique, illustrate theory, and offer opportunities to create your own arrangements. Long a favorite at jam sessions, “Bill Cheatham” (Example 1) is the perfect illustration. The A section (bars 1–9) is full of scalar runs that show how to utilize the open position G major scale, while the B section (bars 10–18) has quick chord changes that demonstrate closed shape triads up the neck.
The G major scale (Example 2) alone may sound sterile, but “Bill Cheatham” shows how in context this standard scale can form an intricate melody. Like many fiddle tunes, the melody is diatonic, meaning all of the notes come directly from the major scale (with the exception of the quick Eb slide in the pickup bar). Notice how the A section is an almost linear rising and falling of the open G major scale. As the harmonies change, the notes that land on downbeats are chord tones (like the C, E, and D notes at the beginnings of measures 3, 4, and 8, respectively). This helps the melody stay consistent with the chords of the tune, even though the notes are still in the G scale.
The B section transitions to closed-position triad shapes in measures 10–11 and 14–15, with these shapes shown above the staff. The melody is comprised of arpeggiated triads: In measure 10 it is the separate notes of a G chord (G B D), followed by the notes of the C chord (C E G), and then the D chord (D F# A). Notice that even though these are chord shapes, it all remains diatonic; there are no notes outside of the G scale.
I like learning the traditional melody of a fiddle tune because it allows a deep understanding of how the song works. Once I know the melody well, I then experiment with ways to alter it so I can have several versions to play through and make the tune my own. One possibility is to play the melody in a different octave. Example 3 moves the closed-position shapes from bars 10–11 and 14–15 to the lower octave in the open position. While it uses all the same notes, the lower octave and open strings give it an entirely different quality.
Another way to alter the melody is to keep the same general theme but with different notes. Examples 4 and 5 provide two alternatives for bars 10–11 and 14–15. The former figure uses standard open-position chord shapes for G, C, and D, while the latter uses standard G and C shapes followed by a lovely Dsus4 that climbs back to the G tonic.
With this variety of options you now have a number of ways to make “Bill Cheatham” your own by mixing and matching. You can also try modifying the A section, perhaps by moving it up or down an octave (Ex. 3), or playing chord shapes in a different register (Exs. 4 and 5). Just remember that all the options here are diatonic—even within a single major scale, the possibilities for experimentation and improvisation are as infinite as your imagination allows.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.