Browsing a local North Carolina record shop a few years ago, I came across an intriguing used LP. It had a worn cover, hand-drawn artwork, and text in a top corner that read DUDLEY HILL—GUITAR. I brought it home and immediately became hooked. The playing was warm, melodic, and thoughtful. It did not show off flashy guitar licks or fingerboard acrobatics, just joyful and effortless musicianship. This was an extraordinary player I had never heard of and an out-of-print record released by a small Seattle label, so I started to do a bit of digging.
Largely unknown outside of his home region, Dudley Hill was a beloved guitarist in the Pacific Northwest. Scott Nygaard, a former editor of AG who knew Hill through the Seattle music scene, told me that “he was one of the best guitarists I’ve known” and that “his rhythm and time were perfect.” In an obituary, Hill’s bandmate Rick Leppanen offered high praise: “There were many nights when he would play something that I’d heard so many times before, but he’d just play it so perfectly that it made you smile.” I was able to reach Ellen Marx, who played banjo with Hill, and she said that when she played with him “they never struggled to make something work, it just always naturally fit.”
Hill was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1948, and mastered guitar at a young age. He joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, and upon returning home he got into traditional music and competed in flatpicking contests. In 1976, Hill released the aforementioned album, From a Northern Family. He worked full-time at a sawmill during the day and performed with rock and blues groups at night. He also accompanied the respected Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and in the ’90s formed the internationally known Gypsy-jazz group Pearl Django. All accounts I found describe Hill as quiet, humble, and kind. After a difficult battle with cancer, he died in 2005, at the age of 56.
From a Northern Family is a fantastic record, filled with excellent guitar work. It was recorded live in a living room, with each track captured in just one or two takes. The album is on YouTube, and I urge all readers to give it a listen. Hill recorded “Sally Ann” (which starts at 19:13 on the YouTube video) as a duet with Marx on clawhammer banjo, and the unison lines between the two instruments form an unconventionally perfect pairing.
Hill plays this arrangement in the key of G major using open-G tuning (D G D G B D), with a capo at the third fret. My guess is that he used the capo—which transposes the key to Bb—to add some crispness in an otherwise somewhat jangly-sounding tuning. While open tunings are typically reserved for slide and fingerstyle players, they can work really well for fiddle tunes, and this version of the traditional number “Sally Ann” serves as a great example. Key to mastering it is to focus on open-string drones and first-position chord voicings, letting notes ring and bleed as much as possible, and to never lose sight of the melody. See the accompanying video lesson for tips on the arrangement and specific ideas on getting comfortable in this tuning.
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I have no idea how this album released on a small Washington label reached me in North Carolina, but I’m glad it did. Dudley Hill is a treasure, and while I am sad to learn his life was cut tragically short, I am grateful that his humble musical mastery lives on through this rare find.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.