Through the years, I’ve played all kinds of music, but in the 1980s, I focused heavily on blues and ragtime guitar. I was fortunate enough not just to meet some of my heroes, such as John Cephas and John Jackson, but to teach alongside them at many guitar camps. Working with these bluesmen helped cement my love for this feel-good music.
Ragtime originated in the late-19th century in Southern saloons and brothels, and peaked in popularity around 1917. The piano-based style ranged from the more elegant strains of Scott Joplin to the raunchier sounds of Jelly Roll Morton. In the 1920s and ’30s, such acoustic-blues guitarists as Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Reverend Gary Davis emulated the catchy syncopation and alternating bass patterns characteristic of ragtime piano, not to mention the style’s improvisational feel.
Often called Piedmont guitar—after the East Coast regions, running from Virginia to North Carolina, where many of the players lived—this challenging style makes use of an upbeat fingerpicking technique, which I’ll break down for you in this lesson.
One Progression, Three Different Keys
Start with a few simple options based on a familiar chord progression—I–VI–II–V—heard in classic tunes like the Band’s “Rag Mama Rag,” the traditional “Keep on Truckin’ Mama,” and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers’ “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” In Ex. 1, following a typical descending bass run, the progression is shown in the key of C major, but starting on the VI chord (A7) and ending on the I (C). Play the example fingerstyle. Pick the bass notes with your thumb and strum the chords with your index finger, or pick them with your index, middle, and ring fingers. Try this and all of the other examples slowly at first, gradually increasing the tempo as you gain confidence.
The same progression is transposed to G major in Ex. 2, which includes a chromatic bass run in every other measure. In the last two measures there’s a turnaround—a series of chords or notes that usually signal the end of a section while serving as a smooth transition to the next section. Just as they do in blues and jazz, turnarounds appear commonly in ragtime.
In the key of F, Ex. 3 kicks things up a notch with a more complex melody and syncopated rhythms. Work diligently at learning the syncopations, as they’re absolutely essential to ragtime. To play them accurately, count “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and,” and so on, and pay close attention to where the notes fall. For instance, in bar 4, the second F is on the “and” of beat 1. Learning syncopations slowly will allow you to later play them effortlessly at full speed.
Ragtime is a style that suits me well and continues to challenge me. I’ve included at least two original guitar rags on every album of mine. I first recorded “Jitters” with my friend Mark Vehrencamp on the sousaphone (on my 2011 CD, Misery Loves Company), but it works just as well as a standalone guitar piece. The tune has become a great source of inspiration for me, and I play it differently each time.
“Jitters” has a strong, funky feel and variations galore. Here I’ve notated the intro and the first two A sections, which fully demonstrate the use of syncopation and improvisation. Most of the chord grips should be familiar. However, there are some spots where you might use alternate fingerings: For the G/G7 chords in bars 5–8, for instance, play the low G, AG, and high G with, respectively, your second, third, and fourth fingers, freeing up your first finger to grab the F on string 1.
Note the use of a diminished seventh chord—Edim7 (bars 10 and 22)—a harmony that appears commonly in ragtime. There are a couple of different ways to fret that chord, but try 1, 3, 2, 4, lowest note to highest, keeping your fourth finger held in place from the C chord in the preceding measure.
Both the intro and the second A section end with a turnaround on the I chord. Against the static third-fret G and open B string, a descending chromatic line of F–E–EH adds harmonic interest. Fret the first-string G with your fourth finger, and play the descending line on string 4 starting with your third finger on the F, second on the E, and first on the EH.
After you’ve completed this lesson, be sure to check out recordings of Piedmont guitar masters, including Etta Baker. Try coming up with some of your own ragtime exercises and pieces based on this lesson. And just remember: It’s all about the syncopation.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.