Learn ‘Spanish Rag,’ a Spirited Instrumental
The Spanish classical and American ragtime guitar traditions don’t often interact, at least not in obvious ways. But when they do—as in Diego Garcia’s “Spanish Rag”—the results can be transcendent. Of his solo guitar composition, Garcia says, “It’s simple Spanish cadences meet Merle Travis.”
Garcia, who is now in his early 40s, got an early start to music. At the age of six he began learning classical guitar in his native Valencia, Spain, under the tutelage of Jose Lázaro, who had studied with Andrés Segovia. In his teen years Garcia took a keen interest in American guitar sounds, particularly in rockabilly and Chet Atkins, and joined a rock band. Since then, Garcia has combined his Spanish roots with North and South American influences in his work on acoustic, both steel- and nylon-string, and electric guitar.
Garcia is known to play “Spanish Rag” on a hollowbody electric, namely a Gibson ES-295, but as he demonstrates in the accompanying video on AG’s website, the piece works out splendidly on a steel-string like the Collings OM1 JL Julian Lage signature model. Whatever the instrument, “Spanish Rag,” with its breakneck tempo, is not the easiest rag to tackle, but given its wealth of exciting guitar maneuvers, it’s worth the effort to woodshed on this one.
As in learning any complex piece of music, it’s best to break “Spanish Rag” into manageable pieces, rather than trying to plow through the whole thing at once.
Start with the first four bars—whose theme also appears in measures 24–27 and 70–73—since they’re the easiest. The piece kicks off in the key of A minor, with the vi and V chords (F and E, respectively) lending a Spanish flavor. Try fretting the F chord’s sixth-string root by wrapping your thumb around the neck at the first fret, as Garcia does in the video, which will make it easier to switch between the F and E chords. Note, too, that the signs in bars 2 and 3 call for a repeat of measure 1.
As for the picking hand, Garcia plays “Spanish Rag” with a thumbpick and fingers. He finds that the pick gives him a wider dynamic range, plus a “two-sounds-in-one ragtime feel,” as he puts it, but strict fingerstyle technique will also work well for the piece. For the arpeggios in the first several bars and elsewhere, Garcia uses a typical classical approach: rather than pick with the thumb and two fingers (like a typical folk or blues guitarist), he uses three fingers. On the F and E chords, he assigns his thumb to string 6, index to 4, middle to 3, and ring to 2. If you’re not in the habit of picking with your thumb and three fingers, this is a good place to try out a new picking approach.
Things get quite a bit trickier for the fretting hand starting in bar 7, but a little preplanning can make this section easier to handle. Measures 7–10 are based on an A minor chord in ninth position. Before you play the music, form this grip: stop the C on string 4, fret 10 with your second finger; barre strings 2–3 at fret 9 with your first finger; and stop the A on string 2, fret 10 with your third finger.
Now slide the entire grip down three frets, such that your third finger is on the F# on string 2, fret 7. Pick only that note and the open A string, and quickly slide back up three frets at the top of bar 7. On the “and” of beat 3 in the same measure, lift your second finger from the grip to play the ninth-fret G# on string 2. At the start of bar 8, return your third finger to the tenth-fret A, and use your fourth finger to grab the 12th-fret B and then the 13th-fret C. Knowing exactly where each finger should be on any given beat is important to playing the piece at tempo, so be sure to apply this type of thinking to the rest of the piece.
As you gain confidence in working through “Spanish Rag,” it might be tempting to speed things up. But only increase the tempo when you can play each section cleanly and seamlessly. And although this is certainly an up-tempo number, keep in mind that velocity is not necessarily its most important aspect. “Never focus on speed at the expense of confidence and expression,” Garcia says.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.