Video Lesson: Practice Ragtime Fingerpicking in the Style of Reverend Gary Davis [Pt. 2]

Part 1 of this lesson focused on my ragtime piece “Pete’s Barrelhouse Rag”—inspired by the piano-based jazz-blues form that’s heavily syncopated and that was popular in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Now, as promised, here’s a look at three additional variations on the piece.

Variation 5 returns to the standard eight-bar format, but gives the bass line a rest and allows you to navigate up and down the neck with a series of single-string runs. You’ll start out with some ascending sixth intervals (which suggest a C chord), then some descending thirds (suggesting E). For the A7 chord, you’ll use a shortened version of a C shape. In the second bar of this passage, remove your third finger from string 3 and place it on string 5, fret 12 and then on string 6, fret 12. Then use your thumb on the ninth-fret C# on string 6. The D chord once again uses thirds to descend the neck; for the G chord, some minor seconds close out this verse with a quirky flavor.


Variation 6 is essentially a repetition of the opening verse from the previous lesson, but with a single-string run at the end. This segues into a half-time section, which is built on four-bar phrases that are divided between G and C chords. The first four bars have you playing open G and G7 chords; the second two bars contain a turnaround in C that I borrowed from Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late,” moving between the chords C, C7, F, and Fm. The second four-bar pass uses a series of CAGED-voiced G7 chords, followed by another Johnson-style turnaround. The third pass through these adds another higher voicing to the G7 and returns to the “From Four Until Late” changes. You exit the half-time section by bouncing back and forth between G#7 and G7 chords, then hitting a chromatic octave run that lands on a C chord.

Play Variation 7 a tempo at 180 bpm. The last seven bars use the C–C7–F–Fm turnaround, which switches back to half time at the end. The last phrase is a nod to the Third Man theme by Anton Karas, the Viennese zither player and composer who scored the 1948 soundtrack to the British film noir.



A lot is going on in these variations, and they’re a bit of a workout. To make them more approachable, try one eight-bar section at a time. And don’t be afraid to compose or, better yet, improvise your own variations—a practice that’s in keeping with the ragtime tradition.

Pete Madsen
Pete Madsen

Pete Madsen is an acoustic blues, ragtime and slide guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He's the author of Play the Blues Like..., an essential guide for playing fingerstyle blues in open tunings.

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