On “Cold Black Hammer,” from his 2015 album, Panhandle Rambler, the singer-songwriter Joe Ely evokes the tension between pumps and environment in the oil fields of his native Texas.
The song is in the key of E minor. Its four chords—the i (Em), the iv (Am), the vi (C) and the V (B7)—are arranged in an eight-bar blues structure for each verse, and reordered for the chorus, which starts on the iv chord.
On the original studio recording, acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel, and upright bass team up to create a haunting atmosphere. The acoustic guitar tends to negotiate the chords with single-note lines, especially on the tonic (Em).
But “Cold Black Hammer” also works well in a solo setting. For the four-bar intro you can create a satisfying part for one guitar by combining the acoustic guitar melody (seen in the up-stemmed notes) with the part originally played on bass (down-stemmed notes).
A basic fingerstyle pattern like the Travis-picking approach notated here will work well for the verse and chorus sections. Remember to pick the bottom strings with your thumb (p) and the upper strings with your index (i) and middle (m) fingers, while holding each chord shape for as long as possible and letting the notes ring.
Alternatively, playing the song with any eighth-note-based strumming pattern that feels natural to you. And if you’d like to take a solo after the first chorus and in the outro, try restricting yourself to pitches from the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D) or the E Dorian mode (E F# G A B C# D. As with any solo, try to make it reference the song’s melody.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The music for “Cold Black Hammer” is only available in the print edition.