Ballads and trail songs from early U.S. history are not only telling of their time and place, they are also great vehicles for instrumental music. Because their melodies are often simple and mostly comprised of longer note values, a number of techniques may be added to flesh them out, allowing for greater creative latitude than more prescribed pieces like fiddle tunes.
In this lesson, I’ll demonstrate a handful of techniques you can use for making solo guitar arrangements of ballads and trail songs: active bass runs, cross-picking, and hybrid picking. I will then show how you can put all the approaches together in a concise arrangement of “Cindy, Cindy,” a sundry tune whose melody is woven into the landscape of American traditional music.
To start, let’s investigate how common chord progressions may be linked in interesting ways with the use of quarter-note bass runs. Though I’ll be discussing this technique with the use of a flatpick in mind, you can use the following ideas as fingerstyle exercises as well.
In Example 1, quarter notes are used in both chromatic and scalar patterns, leading into bass notes contained within the proceeding chord. The bass run starting on beat 3 of bar 2 leads by way of chromatic motion to C#, the third of the A major chord. In measure 6, however, the bass leads diatonically to the root as a way of starting back at the top of the tune. Since these runs are comprised of quarter notes, you will execute them with downstrokes if flatpicking, or with your thumb if done fingerstyle.
In terms of technique, it is best to approach the use of bass runs with a clean, even dynamic at first. Because bass notes have more sounding potential than the upper strings of the guitar, attention will need to be placed on balancing the striking force of your picking hand. After you’re comfortable with playing this exercise in an even manner, try playing the bass notes with a louder dynamic than the strums; that will give your performance a half-time feel, as the pulse will now be centered on the first and third beats of the measure. This technique is often used by bass players in jazz, Western swing, and old-time music, giving more sonic room for the other accompanying instruments.
Cross-picking and Hybrid Picking
Next, we’ll look at how to fill out a common chord progression with the use of flowing eighth notes. Mimicking three-finger banjo technique, cross-picking utilizes clusters of alternately picked notes to fill out chord shapes without the use of strums. To get the hang of Example 2, it is best to take it measure by measure, playing each figure slowly. As with the first example, start with an emphasis on clean dynamics. From there, experiment by shifting your points of emphasis.
You may be familiar with the term chicken picking, which refers to the idiosyncratic style of electric guitar playing in which a player’s middle and index fingers are used in conjunction with a flatpick to render phrases. I find this technique particularly useful for vocal tunes such as this one, because the melody lays out in the upper portion of common chord grips.
To get the hang of engaging your fingers with a pick in hand, try Example 3. Notice that this exercise harmonizes an E major scale (E F# G# A B C# D#) on strings 1–3, utilizing the open B string as the second note of each harmonic change. The addition of this B gives the excerpt a ringing, pedal steel-like quality that is particularly useful as a means of adding interest to a melodic or rhythmic performance. In terms of right-hand logistics, your pick will play the first and third beats of each measure, with your middle finger assigned to the second string and your ring finger to the first.
Syncopation refers to the act of playing weak beats in contrast with stronger ones. Typically, a weak beat refers to the eighth notes that exist in between down beats. This technique, in the context of American tradition- al music, is best used sparingly so as to achieve maximum effect without disturbing an otherwise sound melody. In the case of Example 4, you’ll notice that syncopations are used in between chord changes as a means of anticipation, allowing greater emphasis to be placed on the first beat of the proceeding measure without the need for a louder pick dynamic.
When playing a syncopated phrase as in measures 2, 4, and 6, the dotted quarter note will be played with a downstroke, and the lone eighth note will be played with an upstroke. This is because we are accounting for the missing downbeat, which is occupied by a rest.
The tune of “Cindy, Cindy,” a contrafact of “The Gospel Train,” originated in North Carolina, yet you’ve likely heard seminal versions by Frank Proffitt, Bob Wills, and Johnny Cash. The source I’ll be referencing comes from a well-known western movie, Rio Bravo (1959). Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson gather in a cramped jail cell to deliver this song with an altered chord progression that first caught my attention as a young child.
Now you are ready to tackle the full song, as shown in Example 5.(For a recorded example of this version, consider listening to my freshman solo record, Places of Consequence.) You’ll notice that all of the techniques we discussed individually are present in this arrangement, displayed in a sparing manner to accentuate the song’s beautiful melody. All of the same technical considerations come to bear; however, make sure to pay close attention to the dynamics of the melody, which largely exist in the upper portions of cowboy chords.
Whereas the other techniques are clear in their placement within this arrangement, it’s up to you where to add hybrid picking. In my own playing, I’m inclined to include this technique where there are harmonic clusters on string sets 1–3 as well as 2–4. A few examples of these moments can be found in measures 1, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. Another opportune area for hybrid picking is in measure 13, on beat 3, where the eighth-note figure includes a G# on the fourth string and an open B; this phrase is rather economical to articulate with a pick stroke on the fourth string, followed by the middle finger on the second.
With all of these techniques in your back pocket, try applying them to new keys, chord shapes, and songs, tailoring their use to fit the curvature of the melody.
Cameron Knowler, author of the method book Guitars Have Feelings Too, is a Los Angeles–based multi-instrumentalist and educator specializing in jazz, bluegrass, and old-time music.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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