Learn to Play Scott Joplin’s Ragtime Classic “The Entertainer” on Guitar

“The Entertainer,” Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime piano masterpiece, is known the world over and is a great challenge for the blues fingerpicker.

“The Entertainer,” Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime piano masterpiece, is known the world over and is a great challenge for the blues fingerpicker. With April 1, 2017 marking the centennial of Joplin’s death, what better way to celebrate his legacy than by tackling this classic American composition.

Like many ragtime pieces, “The Entertainer” is composed of four distinct, repeating sections: A, B, C, and D. To make the piece more guitar-friendly—and to reflect my own interpretation—I’ve taken a few liberties in this arrangement of Joplin’s original piano roll (the early 20th-century version of a MIDI file: a continuous paper roll with perforations, fed into a player piano that would reproduce a song without the aid of a human player).

On the piano roll, the 16-bar A and B sections are each played twice, followed by an abbreviated version of the A section. I play just the first four bars, before moving on to section C. I put my own spin on the C section by dropping the established alternating bass pattern, which breaks things up a bit. In section D, I default to the alternating bass and wrap things up by revisiting the opening phrase from the A section before ending on a C chord.


Throughout the arrangement, the melodic accents falling between the beats are what put the “rag” in ragtime—take measure 7, for instance, where the note expected on beat 3 is delayed to the “and” of that beat. Ragtime was originally played in saloons and brothels, and these syncopated rhythms kept the customers dancing.

It should be fairly straightforward to fingerpick “The Entertainer.” Pick the bottom three strings with your thumb and strings 3, 2, and 1 with your index, middle, and ring fingers, respectively. The piece requires a lot of your fretting hand, as it moves frequently between chord grips and dyads. One particularly tricky spot is the F/A–Fm/AH transition in measure 18. Grab the third-fret F with your first finger, fifth-fret C with your fourth finger, and third-fret D with your second finger; catch the fourth-fret AH with your third finger.

As you learn “The Entertainer,” practice each section on its own, slowly. Gradually work up to connecting all four sections. And don’t rush things—it took me six months before I finally felt adept at playing this ragtime classic. 





This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Pete Madsen
Pete Madsen

Pete Madsen is an acoustic blues, ragtime and slide guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He's the author of Play the Blues Like..., an essential guide for playing fingerstyle blues in open tunings.

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