“Big Sciota,” originally named “Big Scioty,” is a popular fiddle tune played by pretty much all bluegrass pickers—go to any picking session and you’re bound to hear it come up. While the tune is traditional, it wasn’t until guitarist Russ Barenberg recorded it with dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolinist Sam Bush, and bassist Edgar Meyer, for the 1993 album Skip, Hop, and Wobble, that “Big Sciota” was brought into the spotlight.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Barenberg was an active guitarist across the northeast, collaborating with some of the area’s finest musicians and performing regularly for contradances. He learned tons of fiddle tunes while playing in these dance bands, and one of them was “Big Scioty,” which he first heard from harmonica player Mark Graham. In the mid-’80s, Barenberg moved to Nashville, where he teamed up with Douglas and Meyer to accompany Irish singer Maura O’Connell. After several years of collaborating, this trio recorded Skip, Hop, and Wobble, a collection of original instrumentals, plus the now-ubiquitous “Big Sciota.”
I had the pleasure of meeting with Barenberg and talking about this tune. He noted that his playing on the original album version includes improvised variations that waver from the standard melody. Instead of a note-for-note transcription, the notation here depicts the arrangement that Barenberg uses to teach his students. This version is very similar to the recorded one, but its use of repeated sections and fewer stretches in the fretting hand make it easier to follow and learn.
The notation shows Barenberg’s suggested pick directions and fretting-hand fingerings, and the guitarist stresses the importance of both. He prefers alternate picking, where downstrokes are coordinated with the beats and upstrokes happen on the “ands.” Picking this way helps give a rhythmic pulse that mimics that of a fiddler’s bowing. The fretting-hand fingerings illustrate how Barenberg navigates the fingerboard, including slides to move up and down the neck and a liberal use of his fourth finger to reach higher frets. He also sometimes opts to play fretted notes even when open strings are available, like the B on string 3, fret 4.
This arrangement is a pull-off and hammer-on workout. The tune kicks off with a triplet hammer-on that reappears in the A section; there are pull-offs throughout from the third to the first finger. Barenberg likes to coordinate pulls to happen with upstrokes, as it helps to mimic the bouncing rhythm of a contradance band.
“Big Sciota” is not necessarily easy to play—especially at the very brisk tempo used by Barenberg, Douglas, and Meyer—so you might consider starting out with a learning application or other utility that allows you to alter the speed of a song without changing its pitch. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn a fun and well-known tune while also developing some powerful chops in both hands.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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