Ragtime music played on the guitar is musically complex and is a hefty challenge for fingerpickers. Since the late 19th century, guitarists have been imitating this African American art form made famous by pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. Enthusiasts today are still mesmerized by the jaw-dropping technique of guitarist Blind Blake, who in the 1920s was one of the most accomplished and inimitable practitioners of ragtime guitar. It would take a lifetime of study to accurately replicate his music, so let’s take some baby steps!
Ragtime tends to have lots of syncopation—that is, an emphasis on beats that aren’t normally accented. The syncopation usually doesn’t fall in the same place in each measure. For a gentle introduction to ragtime, I composed a simple G-major instrumental, “Davis Street Rag,” in which the syncopation always occurs in a predictable place, the “and” of beat three. After mastering this tune, you might be ready to begin to study the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, whose “Spike Driver Blues,” a one-chord wonder also in the key of G, uses similar phrases.
Let’s start by taking in the tune’s roadmap and chord structure. This 16-bar piece includes the basic I (G), IV (C), V (D/F#), and vi (Em) chords, as well as a somewhat less common choice, the III (B7), and some diminished action (Edim7 and Gdim7). Play through the chords with any 4/4 fingerpicking or strumming pattern to get a feel for how things move.
Next, take a look at the alternating-bass pattern, shown in the down-stemmed notes on strings 4–6, that occurs in most measures. Get familiar with the correct bass notes for each chord. As in many other guitar styles, the role of the thumb in ragtime is to be rock-solid and reliable as it holds down the four beats of each measure. When you’re comfortable with the feel, try slightly muting the bass notes with the heel of your picking hand. This not only adds a percussive sound but makes the melody jump out. Players ranging from Merle Travis to Lightnin’ Hopkins muted the bass strings for this desirable effect.
The piece requires minimal effort from the fretting hand. For instance, you can form each G or Em chord using only one finger. For the D/F# chord, I like to wrap my thumb around the neck to fret the low F#, but you could use your second finger instead. The only chords that require four fingers are the diminished voicings in bar 12, but the good news is that Edim7 and Gdim7 are played with the same shape.
Those Ragged Notes
Now look through the notation for the syncopations as described above. The notes in these measures will be counted “one, two, three-and, four.” This is the characteristic part of the ragtime sound. Don’t let the syncopations disrupt the consistency of your thumb. I suggest tapping your foot along with each bass note, and also using a metronome.
Notice how the syncopations always land on the sixth-string G and the third-string Bb—two notes whose dissonance gives this music its punch. Pinch them together and you will hear an undeniable train wreck. If you fret the G bass note with your third finger, then the only finger available for the Bb is your fourth finger. You might find this finger unreliable, but remember—the more you use it, the stronger it will become.
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Aside from the melody, there are two descending turnarounds, or harmonized bass runs. For the first turnaround, in measure 8, hold the C chord while pinching the open strings 1 and 3. On beat three, come out of position to play the dyad on strings 4 and 2 with your third and fourth fingers, respectively, then return to the C shape (fingers 1 and 2 on strings 2 and 4), omitting the root note (C) on string 5.
The second turnaround, which occurs in measure 15, requires a wee bit more effort. After you play the G chord on beat one, switch to strings 2 and 5; fret them at the second and third frets, respectively, and move that shape down by half steps. Try this a few times until your fingers get the hang of it.
As when learning any new tune, play “Davis Street Rag” slowly and carefully before bringing it up to tempo. After you’ve gained confidence, feel free to write some lyrics. Teach it to your song circle and have them play in different shapes with a capo. Create your own bridge or chorus. But most important, remember to have fun with this accessible ragtime piece.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.