From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
For a brief moment, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “Tiger Rag,” as performed by the pioneering Western swing act the Light Crust Doughboys, is known for its raging tempo, but it didn’t seem all that forbidding. That’s when I realized that I was playing along with audio software that was unintentionally set at half speed. Needless to say, it’s a challenge to keep up when played back at full speed.
The Doughboys can be seen playing their adaptation of the old jazz tune “Tiger Rag” in Oh, Susanna!, the 1936 film by director Joseph Kane, starring Gene Autry. Not only does the clip offer a glimpse into how exciting this spirited new music must have seemed to audiences in the mid-1930s, it features guitarists Muryel “Zeke” Campbell and Dick Reinhart on their recently made Martin D-28s, giving steel-string aficionados a sense of how these coveted instruments, now aged to perfection, sounded when new.
Grab a flatpick and a metronome and set aside a generous amount of time in the woodshed, as in this lesson you’ll work on the blazing guitar leads and swinging rhythmic accompaniment from “Tiger Rag”—and, if you’re up for it, a sampling of the fiddle soloing, arranged in a guitar-friendly way.
The Fiddle Solo and Vocal Theme
The notation here accounts for the Oh, Susanna! performance of “Tiger Rag” from beginning to end. First up is the fiddle part played by Kenneth “Abner” Pitts. This part is technically doable on the guitar (at least one with a 14th-fret neck junction) at the same pitch level as the violin—the highest note would be the 17th-fret A on string 1—but it’s much more practical and idiomatic an octave lower, where the availability of open strings makes it easier on the fretting hand. Transposing it down also makes it more seamless to transition to and from the two brief guitar fills in bars 32–33 and 40–41.
I often remind students that the best way to learn to play something fast is by practicing it slowly, and that advice is especially relevant for tackling this piece. No matter your proficiency level, I’d recommend using a metronome and starting at a low bpm setting—try 160 (80 half notes), or whatever tempo is needed in order for you to read through the music and play it cleanly and in rhythm.
Tackle the solo phrase by phrase or measure by measure. Use whatever sequence of pick strokes feels most natural to you, but make sure to use the exact same ones every time. Pencil them in the notation if you’d like. If a particular area is vexing—I find bars 20–21 to be especially challenging compared to the rest of the arrangement—then isolate it and practice it in a loop. Work out the kinks and gradually bring each separate portion up to tempo before playing the fiddle solo from beginning to end. For an added challenge, try transposing it up an octave.
In measures 50–60 you’ll find a welcome reprieve from the demanding fiddle solo—an arrangement of the comping, as played by guitarists Campbell and Reinhart. This is the chordal structure that forms the backbone of the proceeding instrumental solos (guitar, bass, and banjo). (For a full lesson on Western swing rhythm guitar, see Whit Smith’s excellent lesson on page 40.) In the film scene, the guitarists mix things up here—sometimes playing boom-chuck or just four-to-the-bar chord strums, and other times laying out. The most important thing to do when playing this part is to maintain a sense of energy and forward motion.
Another notable detail is the slide up to the sixth-string Bb at the end of bars 49 and 52. That slide is a part of the traditional versions of “Tiger Rag,” and is usually played by the trombone and piano. The ragtime and early jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton described that part as “sounding like a tiger howling” and is what gave the tune its name, according to Morton, whose tales were known to be semi-true.
The Guitar Solo
And now what you’ve been waiting for: Campbell’s barn-burning guitar solo is transcribed note for note. This part will probably feel easier than the fiddle solo. That’s obviously partly because it was originally played on the guitar, but also because it makes more frequent use of repeated notes—like the pair of Dbs at the beginning—as well as rests.
If you have a reasonable amount of technical proficiency on the guitar and take things slowly, as with the other sections, the guitar solo should fall into place. A quick scan of the notation reveals that the solo skips around a bit in terms of position. So you might work on the phrase or phrases in each position before stringing everything together. For instance, begin by practicing the solo’s first four bars in sixth position, with your first, second, third, and fourth fingers covering the notes on frets 6, 7, 8, and 9, respectively. Make sure you can play those measures with confidence before shifting up to tenth position for measures 99–108.
Once you’ve tackled the wealth of hot Western swing moves found in “Tiger Rag,” remember that your work doesn’t end there. Your ultimate goal is to commit to memory the ideas you find most compelling and practice them in other keys, so that you’ll have them in your arsenal for that next jam session.
Get stories like this in your inbox
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.