Pickin’: The Delmore Brothers’ ‘Wabash Blues’

Known for their deft guitar duos and close harmony singing, the Delmore Brothers (Alton and Rabon) were popular performers on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s. In the introduction to Alton’s intriguingly titled autobiography, The Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity, music historian Charles Wolfe recognizes the duo’s historical significance “as a vital transitional act in country music, one linking the blues, ragtime, parlor songs, and shape-note gospel singing of the rural 19th-century South with the polished, complex, media-oriented styles of more modern times.”

“Wabash Blues,” written by Dave Ringle and Fred Meinken, first became a hit song with a 1921 recording by bandleader Isham Jones, and has since been covered by artists ranging from jazz musicians like Duke Ellington to pop acts like Les Paul and Mary Ford. This arrangement is inspired by the version of “Wabash Blues” that the Delmore Brothers recorded in 1939 for the Bluebird label, available on the four-disc set Classic Cuts 1933–1941 (JSP Records). 


The music uses divisi notation, which is a method of consolidating multiple parts on one staff. Here, the up-stemmed notes are played by Guitar 1 and the down-stemmed ones by Guitar 2. Though the song is notated in cut time, it might be easiest to count as if it were in 4/4, playing the downbeats (or the numbers) with downstrokes, and the upbeats (or the “ands”) with upstrokes. 

Melodically speaking, the tune basically outlines chord tones, with a chromatic run offsetting each phrase. For example, the song begins with a harmonized chromatic approach to the A chord, and then Guitar 1 plays the root (A), while Guitar 2 covers the third (C#). This idea continues throughout the verse, albeit with some voicing variations. Rhythmically speaking, both guitar parts are fairly straightforward, with a few syncopated phrases sprinkled here and there. I’d recommend playing with a loose picking hand and keeping a fairly steady alternating pick direction. The one tricky chord to finger might be the Bb, but it is worth the effort, for it gives this song a little harmonic kick!

While this arrangement is for two guitars, you could also play it as a solo piece, although you might find a few passages in which the harmonized parts would be challenging, due to the string spacing. Also, note that in the accompanying video, my duet partner, Eric Skye, plays his part in dropped-D tuning, adding strummed chords to his lines. In the verse, the lyrics are provided for reference and to highlight the vocal harmonies. Though the harmonized melody sounds great on two guitars as written, I play it on one guitar, in double-stops, while Eric strums the chords.

As evidenced by the video, this tune’s inherent nature as a fun and approachable jam is quickly revealed. Whether or not you learn the solos note for note—which I highly recommend—“Wabash Blues” would be a great song to have in your quiver of tunes for your next musical gathering.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jamie Stillway
Jamie Stillway

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Jamie Stillway is an in-demand instructor, and her unique, minimalist compositions and elegant guitar style have inspired players all over the globe.

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