From the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Alan Barnosky
“Leather Britches” is about as classic as a fiddle tune can get. It’s a popular piece in the U.S. among old-time fiddlers and contest players but has actually been around for hundreds of years, dating as far back as 18th-century Scotland under the name “Lord MacDonald’s Reel.” The tune has a rich recorded history. My favorite fiddle version is Paul Warren’s on Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall!, and the most popular is likely John Hartford’s on Aereo-Plain. There are also some stellar guitar recordings as well, including those by Charles Sawtelle with Hot Rize, Norman Blake with Sam Bush, a solo rendition by Wayne Henderson, and a ripping dobro version by Andy Hall.
Despite its popularity among fiddlers, “Leather Britches” is less known with flatpickers—surprisingly so, as it is fun to play and lands especially well on the guitar. The tune is in the bright key of G major, and the rendition here is my preferred way to play it. It uses a combination of open strings, cross-picking passages, and position shifts to allow for a droning rhythmic bounce that mimics a fiddler’s rocking bow. Even at slower speeds this arrangement can create some nice energy if there is a focus on keeping steady time and accenting notes that land on offbeats.
A technique that really makes this arrangement shine is letting notes—especially open strings—ring out as much as possible. Consider how certain instruments have features that allow notes to blend into one another: a banjo’s droning high G string, a piano’s sustain pedal, or an electric guitar’s time-based effects. Sustained notes give a feeling of spaciousness, openness, and ease to the music.
As acoustic guitarists, we can achieve this sense of fluidity by letting picked strings ring out. In the A section, relax your left hand so your fretted fingers don’t mute the ringing open strings. For the position shifts In the B section, allow the open high E string to ring out while moving along the neck to avoid an audible gap when your hand makes the jump.
Certain fretted notes can be sustained as well, like the up-the-neck passage in bars 10 and 14–15 where the fourth finger on the B string can ring while the other fingers play notes on the top string (see the fingerings for this passage in the notation). Alternatively, some fretted notes can be intentionally cut short: I like to play the D7 arpeggio in bar 8 shorter to give that lick a more linear feel, so that the fourth-fret F# doesn’t clash when it resolves to the open G.
If you enjoy playing “Leather Britches,” don’t let the transcription here be your last stop. Check out the guitar versions noted above for more ideas on how to approach the tune, and listen to some fiddle recordings to hear it in its natural context. The beauty of these classic fiddle tunes is how enduring and adaptive they are. No two people play them the exact same way, resulting in a rich and varied history that spans centuries and continents.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.