The playing of Mother Maybelle Carter beautifully punctuates the fabled recordings of the Carter Family with a richness that is only further revealed through close study, transcription, and analysis. Though her playing is decidedly melodic, both in her bass runs and guitar solos on vocal songs, she is not often heard playing strictly melodic numbers.
In this Weekly Workout, I’ll present a pair of lesser-known Carter cuts as the source materials for some melodic flatpicking exercises—the instrumental “Cumberland Gap” from her 1963 abum Pickin’ and Singin’, and her take on the Delmore Brothers song “I’m Leaving You” from Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection 1952–1967.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
I’ve organized the lesson along two axes: by difficulty and by section. In the first week, you’ll learn the first of the two sections of “Cumberland Gap,” as well as a more difficult version with extended techniques and flourishes. Week 2 will use this same treatment for the second section. In Weeks 3 and 4, we’ll use the same approach to tackle “I’m Leaving You.” By the end of this Weekly Workout, you will have two playable arrangements that are meant to develop your technique and understanding of the flatpicking idiom.
Week One: Introducing Crosspicking with ‘Cumberland Gap’
“Cumberland Gap” has a simple 16-bar structure, with each of its sections containing a four-measure phrase played twice. Let’s start with the first section on the Carter Family recording, which places the melody in a higher register. (Note that most versions of “Cumberland Gap” start oppositely, with a lower melody.)
Example 1 is rather straightforward, as the melody falls largely on open strings located in the upper portion of the open C chord we all know and love. (On the original recording, Carter used a capo at the fourth fret, causing the chord to sound as E.) With this said, though, it is important to pay close attention to dynamics when rendering this section. Because the higher strings have less inherent sounding potential than the lower strings, greater emphasis will need to be put on balancing dynamicsacross the guitar’s string sets.
A logic that will apply to all of these examples is a strict adherence to picking direction: downbeats get downstrokes and upbeats get upstrokes. The same goes for the syncopations—for example, if there is a lone eighth note that falls on the “and” of a beat, it will be played with an upstroke to prepare use for the proceeding downbeat.
Example 2 presents distinct challenges, as it incorporates cross-picking, strums, and chordal ornaments to deliver the melody in an all-in-one package. Some players use a down-down-up picking pattern, though I suggest sticking to an alternating picking pattern for the sake of cohesion. As with any tricky passage, this will be best tackled at slower tempos to begin with, measure by measure.
Beginners’ Tip #1
To get the hang of alternate picking, try playing consistent quarter notes on a single string, with downstrokes only. Following this, play eighth notes at an even dynamic level, with alternating down- and upstrokes. Note that upstrokes are naturally weaker, necessitating special emphasis when first practiced.
Week Two: Refining the Details
You’ll notice that the majority of the single notes found in Example 3 fall within the open C shape. The trick with getting this passage to come across convincingly is a surplus of strength in your fretting hand. It is important to remember that in Carter’s playing, open strings often ring into one another, creating overtones that are integral to rendering a melody in a flowing manner. Another important feature is her use of lighter strums on the chords in measures 1 and 4.
In Example 4, you’ll notice that the core melody is left intact to a large extent. Around this core framework, cross-picking has been added to flesh out the arrangement in a banjo-like manner. Just like the cross-picked example in week 1, take your time to give equal attention to dynamics, rhythmic accuracy, and tone. Specifically in bar 4, pay close attention to the precision required by the grace note at the top of the measure, the eighth-note strumming pattern, as well as the chromatic run that leads us to the top of the tune.
Beginners’ Tip #2
For better control of dynamics, practice with a metronome, preferably with headphones. Using the volume level of the metronome as a reference point, try to match all of your notes to the same dynamic level for increased balance, and to render the melody in a manner distinct from the lower notes.
Week Three: Tricky Dynamics of ‘I’m Leaving You’
This week you’ll work with “I’m Leaving You,” which incorporates fewer open strings than the previous tune, making it more difficult to play in a flowing manner. It also contains more single-note runs and ideas that provide ample opportunity to practice the use of dynamics. Looking at Example 5, it is important to render the first four measures with accuracy and robust tone, before moving on to bars 5–8, which require a lighter attack to render the strums concisely.
The intention of Example 6 is to showcase how one might go about working out in a higher register. Set an octave above, this example is a note-for-note transposition of the first four bars of Ex. 5.For an extra workout, try playing the low and high versions back-to-back with consistent timing, feel, and accuracy alongside a metronome.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Try switching between rhythmic and melodic playing, measure by measure. To do this, play the first two measures of Example 5, followed by two bars of a strummed G chord. Once you’ve mastered this, apply the same philosophy to measures 3 and 4.
Week Four: Unique Note Choices in Melodic Bass Runs
Example 7 presents a master class in unique note choice within the context of melodic bass runs. For example, the pull-off from the fretted third string in measure 6 and the dense chromaticism of the concluding idea in measure 7 are challenging yet very rewarding when played accurately. When tackling passages such as these, which combine a number of different fretting-hand positions, do your best to envision them before physically learning the ideas. This will not only help you to play them confidently but will help you to retain them for creative use in other contexts.
For some added twists, try Example 8, which makes use of a higher shape for the G chord, extended chromaticism in measure 3, and an eighth-note triplet in the last bar. This treatment gives the solo a more modern, bluegrass edge. In addition, cross-picking is used in the context of rhythm playing; this is a tricky concept as you have fewer quarter-note strums to fall back on. Instead, you must trust in your ability to play rapid eighth notes with high rhythmic accuracy, and with robust tone to pick up the slack.
After you’ve worked through these examples, I’d encourage you to check out the original recordings of Mother Maybelle Carter. Though lessons like this might contain detailed transcriptions and insights, they simply cannot convey the knowledge that comes from deep listening.
Beginners’ Tip #4
As an exercise in style and technique, try incorporating the bass run found in measures 7 and 8 of Example 7 into your rhythm playing. As with the other ideas in this lesson, do your best to balance dynamics between your strums and single notes in a seamless way.
Take it to the Next Level with ‘East Virginia Blues’
For an extra challenge, try learning this excerpt from Mother Maybelle’s playing on “East Virginia Blues.” I’ve included a healthy amount of cross-picking to reflect and build upon the framework in the original recording. As with the other examples in this lesson, start slowly, measure by measure, paying close attention to dynamics and accuracy.
Cameron Knowler, author of the method book Guitars Have Feelings Too, is a Los Angeles–based multi-instrumentalist and educator specializing in jazz, bluegrass, and old-time music.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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