Bob Minner was supposed to have been on tour with singer Tim McGraw, playing for thousands of adoring country fans. But instead, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, he found himself on his front porch, in Nashville, alone with his Collings steel-string. It was early July, and with Independence Day approaching, Minner felt inspired to create a spontaneous arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” just as he had done late last December to bid farewell to 2019 with “Auld Lang Syne.”
Though it clocks in at just a minute, Minner’s dropped-D take on “America the Beautiful” is packed with diverse techniques and ideas—straight flatpicking and hybrid picking, chords fully stated or suggested with single notes, and lines borrowed from the jazz tradition. I talked to Minner about the thinking behind his arrangement; scroll past our conversation to find a transcription in standard notation and tablature.
What a lovely interpretation of “America the Beautiful.” Why did you choose the key of G major and dropped-D tuning?
Honestly, it was all off the top of my head after about 20 takes on the front porch, adding a few things as I went. The choice for G was partly due to using a 12-fret guitar. My Collings 01 Mh Traditional 12-Fret is an extremely responsive instrument, yet with 12 frets, I knew I was limited in comparison to playing a 14-fretter. So G gave me enough register up the neck that I wouldn’t run into any cramped space. Plus I think that particular guitar shines in that key. The drop D of the sixth string opened up a bottom end for the V chord (D) to really ring and be sympathetic, since the arrangement was geared to be sparse.
Did you have any specific goals in mind for the arrangement?
Well, like I said, it was an on-the-fly thing, as are all of the front-porch videos on my YouTube page. I usually have to do numerous takes, either because I’m flubbing something or there’s a car going by or other extraneous noises.
But I wanted it to be somber and simple—the melody is so paramount that it needed to be easily heard. And I think this song deserves that treatment. Now I’m primarily a flatpicker, but I often use fingers in conjunction with the pick (as many do) to achieve something I want in a song. In this case, it was a matter of combining both single notes and double stops, and adding an occasional sympathetic string on the low end. But in general, my goal was simplicity and tone and a recognizable melody. By the way, I had to cram it in to a one-minute take for Instagram, so that was part of the challenge. Otherwise, I would have opted for a slightly slower and meter-consistent version.
You use what is known in jazz as the line cliché in bars 8 [D–Dmaj7–D7] and 16 [Em–Em(maj7)–Em7], as well as other jazz chords here and there. Talk about how you use jazz in a classic American song like this.
Well, I’m a hillbilly guitar picker—I don’t read music and have an uber limited theory vocabulary. But I’m proficient in the Nashville number system and can figure things out. I guess those examples you cited come from just listening to a lot of guitar and jazz. I’m a big fan of Hank Garland, Herb Ellis, and Joe Pass, and I listen to a ton of other stuff. Those ideas and movements creep in to my playing, whether I can articulate them or not.
The first example—D–Dmaj7–D7—seemed to fit as a resolve to set up the back half of the song. I probably just heard it as a way to get to the next part without being bland or just pausing on the V chord. The second example, that E-minor move, is just something that got me to the A minor chord [at the top of bar 18]. We’ve all heard that movement in some way, and as clichéd as it is, it just worked. Again, it created a pause with some open string sustain to get into position for the remainder of the song.
I’m 54 and if I could talk to my younger self, I would tell him to invest more time in theory to be able to articulate things better. So when I get questions like this, it’s a learning opportunity for me musically, to go back and understand better what exactly I’m trying to do.
Sometimes you imply chords with one or two notes—like how the C# in bar 8 suggests Dmaj7.
Coming from the flatpicking/bluegrass world, where so much guitar is based on fast solos and notes du jour en masse, there comes a point where slowing down is an inevitable thing, whether by choice or by natural hindrance. At 54 my speed is diminishing some, and honestly, I find so many other aspects of the guitar interesting, like how two notes can lay against each other and create an emotion or texture. So in this arrangement, the expression of that harmony just made sense in order to flesh out a little more meat on the bone without adding more unnecessary things. Deliberate intention towards working on those ideas of harmony to express a line of melody are good skills to explore.
The arrangement involves a bit of hybrid picking—pick and fingers. Can you offer any tips for that technique?
That just comes from trying to get to a certain idea or phrase out of necessity—trying to express something that a single pick can’t. Flatpicking simply means using a pick, as opposed to fingerstyle. Yet those two worlds have always overlapped in country/bluegrass guitar. Doc Watson did both to great effect. Clarence White was notorious for using a flatpick in conjunction with his fingers. Tony Rice and Norman Blake as well. Lester Flatt was all thumb pick and index finger. So I’ve never seen it as sacrilege to use both techniques in any given situation, whether playing a song like “Wheel Hoss” at a brisk tempo, or in a situation like this example of “America the Beautiful.” It’s just another tool in guitar vocabulary.
As far as tips, I think the important thing is to develop the skills from an ergonomic/technical point and then incorporate that musically. Then experiment. If you are a flatpicker, try adding a few pick/finger ideas with playing either a harmony line with your left hand or grabbing a cluster of notes with both. There’s a YouTube video of Tony Rice playing “Shenandoah” live at a festival, in Bluegrass Journey, and he’s grabbing beautiful clusters of notes with his right hand and saying so much to support the melody.
But the most important tips are to listen to as much as you can, don’t be afraid to experiment, and use those things to find your own voice. And for what it’s worth, that is something I am still trying to find in a broader sense myself. The guitar is simply inexhaustible, and we should be thankful to have something so limitless, timeless, and beautiful in our life to pursue at any level.
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