Upon first hearing ragtime guitar, I was certain that such a complex sound must have been the result of two instruments.
Surprisingly, that was not the case.
Instead ragtime, like many fingerpicking guitar styles, uses an alternating bass line played with the thumb, creating a far more complex and rhythmic sounding effect than what we might hear in other styles.
Thus, ragtime guitar became my first musical love over 45 years ago, producing a fascination that eventually led me to a deep exploration of the techniques used by some of the earliest blues guitar players.
And these guys didn’t just play the blues.
It was part and parcel of their existence.
This is important for a couple of reasons. These guitarists left us a huge legacy of root blues music that should never be forgotten. Even when we create our own music, we should at least try to keep some of that original authenticity in mind.
For my own part, it helps to get try to get inside the mind of someone that played (and created) the blues, sometimes for nickels and dimes on the streets, or for a meal and a bed.
That music was an expression of their lives, whether a desperately plaintive bottleneck tune from the Mississippi Delta, or the happy dance music that became known as Ragtime.
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Ragtime Blues Guitar Fingerpicking Technique and Development
Ragtime was born from a curious mix of classical and boogie piano styles, where Scott Joplin, a Texan composer from the early 1900s who wrote “The Entertainer,” was it’s leading light.
One striking characteristic of this music, exemplified by the piano, was a strong bouncing bass pattern, which jumped between notes in a kind of a ‘bum-chick, bum-chick’ sound.
You can hear the movement fairly easily in “The Entertainer” track.
The first blues guitar sounds probably used a very simple, yet similar, bass line where one string was struck with the thumb before being dampened, or muted, with the palm of the picking hand.
This is sometimes called the ‘monotonic bass’ method of fingerpicking.
Monotonic Bass Fingerpicking
Your thumb produces that deep ‘thunk’ sound rather than a clean note, providing a solid drum-like rhythm and cadence beneath your guitar playing. Throughout the early years of blues guitar before players started developing the ragtime guitar method, the bass string was muted so much that expert players didn’t fret them for most standard chords.
Masters of this style included Mance Lipscombe, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Bill Broonzy.
That’s not to say that all of the arrangements were simple.
These men could swing along in any key, and the simplified bass line freed them to be more inventive with their melodies on the higher “treble” strings.
Tommy Emmanuel is a modern master of alternating bass fingerpicking. | Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Zanastardust
One day, some young guitarists must have suddenly realized that the ‘bum-chick’ piano sound could be produced on a six string guitar by striking two or more bass strings with the thumb and alternating between the strings.
Alternating Bass Fingerpicking
Since then, the alternating bass style of fingerpicking has become dominant in many styles. Modern pickers such as Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel have honed the technique and expanded it considerably.
But how did those first ragtime guitar players actually employ the alternating bass style of fingerpicking?
To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at the blues finger style techniques of two such masters, Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller.
Blind Blake Ragtime Blues Guitar Technique
Blake was the master of the ‘dancing bass’ and used a variety of techniques to get that appealing ragtime piano sound out of his guitar, which is generally known as “syncopation.”
Strictly speaking, syncopation describes a way of playing that accents the off-beats in the music.
An easier way to describe it is that the listener is pleasantly surprised by changes in the rhythm and melody that aren’t expected. Blake could introduce these changes in rhythm with remarkable speed and accuracy.
He even sang at the same time.
His masterpiece, that many acoustic blues pickers try to copy, is called “West Coast Blues,” which was the first track he ever recorded that incorporates his famous ‘thumb roll’ or ‘thumb stumble’ technique.
It’s played in the key of C (although I use a capo in the video below) and the chords are a standard progression C, E7, A7, D7 and G7.
There are no fancy inversions, although the actual chord changes are fast and often incorporate extra notes in the higher range to add complexity. The real magic is the way Blake plays the alternating bass pattern with his thumb.
His thumb rolls from one bass string to the next, thereby producing a double note per beat instead of one. At the same time, he avoided doing this in every measure, which would make it a bit boring and easily anticipated.
The result is a complex sounding syncopation that is difficult to copy faithfully.
The tab below shows how it works for a C chord with a straight alternating bass pattern.
Alternating bass line based on the C chord. (View Larger Image)
And this is how Blind Blake might play it:
The following video demonstrates how it’s done while incorporating the guitar tab on the screen to illustrate the technique.
The ‘thumb roll’ is tricky to master and can be done with or without finger picks.
Also be aware that the bass strings need to be damped, or choked off, with the palm of the picking hand.
If you let the notes ring out, it tends to be a bit of a mess and can be discordant.
In practice, string dampening can be done with either hand, unless the string in question is being played open, in which case the fretting hand must be used, simply by releasing the string a touch and applying pressure before it buzzes.
Blake’s Thumb Method and Mechanics
It’s almost certain that Blake used two fingers to pick the treble strings, although he could use his thumb as well. This was particularly useful for playing fast runs on single strings, a technique common to many blues pickers.
In Southern Rag, Blake’s fingers play arpeggio style, that is, striking three treble strings in quick succession while playing a relatively normal alternating bass line.
In the video below I demonstrate a few bars of this style, breaking it down slowly with on-screen tab so you can see what’s going on. This piece also demonstrates another one of Blake’s tricks. While playing the C chord his thumb alternates between three bass strings, starting with the the A string.
Note that when he moves to the E7 chord, he changes the order and starts with the E string.
This takes a fair amount of control in each picking finger.
The tab below is also included in the video demonstration, showing how Blake plays those fast triplets:
Many modern acoustic guitarists (without regard to style) use this two-finger approach. However in Blake’s day there were probably more blues men who used their thumb and forefinger to intentionally create syncopation.
Single or Dual Finger Picking Patterns
Mississippi John Hurt, for example, had very flexible fingers and always picked with his first and second finger to maintain a more moderate pace.
John Hurt was a bit unusual, in that he hailed from the Delta, where the predominant guitar picking technique was the monotonic bass line in the style of Son House, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines.
Mississippi John Hurt and his acoustic guitar.
Either one or two fingers could be used with both the monotonic and the alternating bass patterns. ‘One finger’ players learned to be inventive on the treble strings to make up for the limiting effect of striking with just one finger, both by employing a faster picking finger and using the thumb to play the treble strings when needed.
Some of the greatest fingerstyle guitarists of all time used this one finger technique – Doc Watson, Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Floyd Council, and Blind Boy Fuller, for example.
While a mobile thumb underlines the ragtime blues method, players like Blind Boy Fuller used more specialized techniques for adding syncopation to their music.
Blind Boy Fuller Ragtime Blues Guitar Technique
Often playing a standard alternating bass pattern, Fuller could stop, change the order of the strings in the pattern, move to a monotonic bass technique or pause altogether while his thumb and forefinger used alternate strokes to create runs on one, two or three strings.
In this regard, his playing was remarkably dynamic.
While Blake recorded songs in which he applied his familiar techniques, such as the thumb roll, in dropped D and open tunings, Fuller always played his National Steel guitar in standard tuning, often with a capo on the first or second fret to suit his voice.
Fuller’s mentor, Reverend Gary Davis, could sing entire verses while his thumb and forefinger continuously picked a completely different melody.
Fuller mimicked this technique to accentuate his vocal phrasing and add variations to keep the audience interested. While his overall technique was nowhere near as complex as that of Reverend Davis, Fuller enjoyed much more commercial success and was a kind of rock star in his day.
The techniques can be summarized as follows:
- Thumb roll – similar to Blake’s but used sparingly
- Upward strum across two or more strings
- Pausing the bass pattern while playing single string runs
- Single string runs using alternating thumb/finger strikes or one finger (depends on speed)
- Monotonic thumb strikes
- Use of the thumb to play treble notes
We saw how Blake used two fingers to play two or more treble strings in quick succession.
Pausing the Pattern and Using the Thumb for Melody
Guitarists who pick with the thumb and forefinger obviously can’t pick strings rapidly in quick succession, so they developed a technique where the thumb jumps over to play a treble string. In this way the feeling of ‘triplets’ is approximated.
Pausing the bass pattern while playing runs on one or more strings does two things:
- It frees up the thumb to help out on the treble notes
- Allows the guitar player to focus on his fingers
In the video below I play the intro to “Screamin’ and Cryin’ Blues,” demonstrating much of Fuller’s technique in one swoop.
After that I’ll repeat it and pause while I explain the technique he uses for a particular phrase.
The technique of bringing the thumb over to the treble strings to create a more complex melody can also be used to cross-pick, where the thumb strikes a string on the other side of the forefinger strike.
Fuller doesn’t use a cross-over strike in this song, but the effect is nice and sounds more complicated than it is.
It can be particularly useful in the keys of C and G.
When playing in C, it can be used as a turnaround with the chord progression of C, C7, F and E♭7.
We can also pick it with other chord progressions but, of course, we don’t play the same strings.
The chord progression shown below is G, G7, C and E♭7 – and both progressions are demonstrated in the video underneath the tab:
The exact picking for either of these progressions isn’t set in stone, but demonstrates how we can adapt techniques to other chords and songs. You will soon find out which strings it works with and which combinations to avoid.
Blind Blake’s Famous Thumb Control
The last technique is yet another trick from Blake’s formidable collection in which he changes the timing without any warning, then seamlessly reverts back to the original timing to carry on with the song.
The song that best exemplifies this is called “Wilson Dam.”
It starts off at a medium pace and incorporates similar techniques to Fuller, except that Blake’s finger plays the melody while his thumb carries on with the alternating bass pattern.
This in itself is not too hard, except that Blake sometimes talks at the same time as he plays the runs, which is tough to do.
Blake seemed to be always searching for that next trick that would surprise and please his audience, particularly if it was difficult for others to copy. In this way he kept ahead of most of the competition.
The video below demonstrates the technique:
The interesting thing here is that Blake not only plays around with the tempo, but also the order in which the strings are played in the bass pattern.
This takes a lot of control as the thumb acts independently of the finger strokes, which is a testimony to the amount of work these guys put in to perfect their skills. I don’t go for that ‘natural genius’ thing.
Blake recorded some 120 tracks during his career before fading mysteriously into obscurity, but none surpassed the power of that first ‘A’ side West Coast Blues, a technique and chord progression he came back to again and again.
Be sure you listen to the original.
Whatever style of guitar you’re into, it’s a great idea to delve into these old acoustic blues methods.
After all, most modern rock and jazz have their roots in these early genres.
You can approach the playing of both these ragtime blues masters, and others, in one of two ways: Either copy the original songs as faithfully as you can, or perfect the techniques and incorporate them into your own original music.
Either way, it serves to keep the music alive, which is really important.
Many modern guitar players don’t take the time to learn the basic blues picking techniques properly, which dilutes the music and makes it less authentic than it could be.
The key is to explore the possibilities more and more.
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