‘The Pearls’: Dave Van Ronk’s Clever Arrangement of a Jelly Roll Morton Rag

This delightful arrangement serves as an excellent introduction to ragtime in general.

New Orleans-born pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, was an early ragtime pianist who was present at the birth of jazz and even boasted of having invented it. Whatever the merits of that claim, Morton certainly played a significant role in the evolution of ragtime into jazz. Like other ragtime composers, he sometimes used the word rag in his titles (“Frog-I-More Rag,” “Pacific Rag,” “Perfect Rag/Sporting House Rag,” etc.), but other times did not, as in “The Pearls.” Still, “The Pearls” checks all the boxes for consideration as a ragtime composition: a rhythmically steady bass with a highly syncopated melody, structured in contrasting sections of 16 or 32 bars. 

Ragtime might have originated on the piano, but its jagged melodies would prove irresistible to acoustic guitarists. Dave Van Ronk, who was nicknamed the Mayor of MacDougal Street because of his presence on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1960s New York, was the first guitar player to record note-for-note arrangements of piano rags. Van Ronk’s 1963 album, In the Tradition, featuring his reading of “St. Louis Tickle,” marked the debut of his foray into ragtime, and learning the piece became a rite of passage for aspiring fingerstyle players. Other guitarists, such as David Laibman and Eric Schoenberg (see a transcription of “Dill Pickle Rag” in the September 2018 issue), would follow suit with their own ragtime arrangements. 

Van Ronk’s rendition of “The Pearls” is apparently based on a version that Morton recorded in 1927 with his ensemble, the Red Hot Peppers. The transcription here is of the version that appears on Van Ronk’s 1976 album, Sunday Street. This delightful arrangement serves as an excellent introduction to ragtime in general. An important thing to keep in mind when learning it is that guitarists, unlike pianists, cannot use all ten fingers to play notes and must do more with less. That is both the fun and the challenge of ragtime guitar.

A Bird’s-Eye View

Ragtime pieces often had short introductory sections, and while “The Pearls” is no exception, in his arrangement, Van Ronk omitted Morton’s four-bar intro. In addition, he transposed it from the original key of G major to E major. He also slowed the tempo from 148 to 116 bpm, causing his version to run a minute longer than Morton’s.


“The Pearls” follows a typical ragtime structure of three parts. Sections A and B are each 16 measures, while section C is twice as long. The overall flight pattern is A–B–A–B–Transition (four bars)–C–C. As with learning any new piece, I recommend that you tackle “The Pearls” measure by measure—and section by section—before putting it all together. 

The bluesman Reverend Gary Davis, who was known for his original rags, stated that playing these types of pieces on guitar requires three hands. How do we get there? In addition to the fretting hand, the picking hand is subdivided into two more “hands”: 1) the thumb, which emulates the bass line of a pianist’s left hand and 2) the fingers, which mimic the melody of a pianist’s right hand. Keep this concept in mind when you play “The Pearls,” whether fingerstyle or with a thumbpick and fingers. To further distinguish
the bass and melody, you could add light palm-muting on the bottom strings. 

The A Section

Key to playing “The Pearls” successfully is using efficient fretting-hand fingerings. Play the E chord in bar 1 with your second finger on the fourth-string E, then move that finger up for the C7 chord in the following measure. The shape of that C7 can be a challenge, but the difficulty can be managed by planning in advance. As your second finger slides to its destination at the eighth fret, focus on guiding your thumb and first finger to the eighth and sixth frets, respectively, on beat 1. Since your second finger is already in place, you should be in a good position to add your third and fourth fingers to strings 2 and 3. 

Another potentially tricky spot occurs in bar 5, as the C#7 chord also involves a fairly nonstandard shape. However, your thumb, second, and third fingers should already be in a convenient position to play the C#7—just shift them each up one fret from the previous bar (C7). Keep your thumb and second finger held down throughout bar 4, and try the fingerings suggested in the notation for the melody notes. 

In measure 8, notice the contrary motion established by the descending melody on the first and third strings and the ascending bass line on the fifth string. Try to bring these out clearly, with a good balance between the two separate voices. 


The B Section


Bar 11 starts with another interesting chord grip—an E9 in the open position. As with the E chord in bar 1, stop the second-fret E with your second finger, grab the first-fret G# with your first finger, the third-fret D with your fourth, and the second-fret F# with your third. Remove your fingers from this shape as needed to play the melody. For instance, on the “and” of beat 1, lift your third finger to access the open E.

At the end of measure 12, slide the E9 chord shape up to sixth position for the next bar’s A9 chord. On beats 2 and 4 of bar 13, shift your first finger to the fifth fret to grab the flatted third, C n, which adds a little bluesy flavor to the proceedings. Another flatted third—Gn—makes an appearance in bars 15–16. Play the second-fret E and first-fret G# with your second and first fingers, respectively, and use your third finger for the second-fret C#. Make sure those hammer-ons on strings 2 and 3 sound smoothly connected. 

The C Section

Following a four-measure transition (bars 24–27), the C section modulates to a new key (A major), as is typical in a ragtime composition. There are a number of different fingerings you could use for the moves in bars 30–31, but I would recommend the ones indicated in the notation, which should allow you to execute this passage smoothly. Your mileage may vary, though, so feel free to experiment with your own fingerings, and whatever you choose, be sure to use them consistently. 

As you approach measures 34–35, you will have been alternating the bass notes from the fifth to the sixth string on the first two beats, so be prepared here to reverse pattern in these measures. And in bar 39, though the melody is played with double stops, I would recommend using a barre at the fourth fret across strings 1–3. That way, if you accidentally pick the third string, you’ll be playing a member of the E chord (B) and it won’t sound like a mistake. For the B chord in measure 40, you could use a first-finger barre at fret 7, but it might be easier to fret the sixth-string B with your thumb. 


In bars 41–42, the chords zip by, so this spot might require special attention. To move quickly between shapes, try using a first-finger barre across strings 1–3 for all but the E chord. You might practice these two measures extremely slowly at first, so that switching between the chords becomes ingrained in your muscle memory. That will help you negotiate everything smoothly at tempo, which is what playing a classic rag like this is all about. 


AG 320 JAN/FEB 2020 - Molly Tuttle

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Patrick Grant
Patrick Grant

Patrick Grant is a writer and guitarist based in Houston, Texas.

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