I wrote “Rabbit Foot Rag,” as heard on my 2023 album, Traveling Wildfire, to be a piece that showcases my fingerpicking skills. The title of this composition is a reference to the old-time tent shows like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Silas Green from New Orleans—traveling performances that entertained audiences all over the Deep South. Many blues singers started their careers performing in the old-time tent shows, and the recordings that survive of these influential musicians provide a small window back in time to an era where the guitar began to rise in popularity.
As the name suggests, “Rabbit Foot Rag” is a ragtime-inspired composition. I find subtlety and excitement when fingerpicking on a beautiful steel-string, like my Fraulini Angelina made by luthier Todd Cambio. The midrange notes of the guitar sound so sweet I find myself picking the piece often just to warm up my fingers.
While I play “Rabbit Foot Rag” using mostly open chord shapes in the key of C major, I use a capo at the fourth fret, causing the music to sound a major third higher than fingered, in the key of E. The first section (bars 1–16) starts kind of simply, with a series of chord shapes—an open C with the fourth finger on string 1, shifted up two frets for D, then moved down for C, and so on—fingerpicked as double-stops or single notes. [Note that this transcription splits the difference between what Flemons played on the original studio recording and in the accompanying video lesson.—ed.]
The section repeats, but with slight variations, starting at bar 17. Then, in bars 29–31, it comes to a close with the sort of picking variation I often like to use in a setting like this to break up the steady quarter-note bass pattern. Here I use three-finger rolls (thumb/index/middle) in steady eighth notes, grouped in threes such that the music feels like it is temporarily in a tuple meter. At the end of this section, I further disrupt the proceedings by adding a couple of brisk strums.
The second section begins in bar 33 with the somewhat surprising introduction of the III chord (E7). Note the quarter-step bend on the chord’s flatted seventh (D)—I use my fourth finger to fret that note, gently nudging it toward the floor—leading into the IV chord (F). This four-bar phrase introduced in bars 33–36 is repeated two times before the piece settles into the II chord (D9) in measure 45.
In bar 49, I have incorporated a jazzy “break” section. The break is a moment when the accompaniment drops out, leaving a space for an improvised melody to push the tune into the next section. Breaks like this can be found in any number of jazz compositions and instrumental records. I would recommend coming up with your own variations—one thing to keep in mind is to not play too many notes, as the break is much more exciting with subtle runs.
When I think back on learning pieces like this in the traditional setting, each performance of “Rabbit Foot Rag” is a showstopper. It can also be a vehicle for jamming. After you become familiar with the form itself, the composition leaves a lot of room for improvisation and variations on the main themes. Two guitarists picking together can even riff off of each other, making yet another way to enjoy this tune. It is my sincerest hope that guitar players will use “Rabbit Foot Rag” to reinvigorate jams all over the world.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 52.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.