Reverend Gary Davis

Reverend Gary Davis

The Rev Gary Davis – Fingerpicking Blues Guitar Master

Reverend Gary Davis - Master Blues Guitar Fingerstylist
Reverend Gary Davis – Blues Guitar Master

Davis wasn’t always a man of God, of course, (who is?). In his younger days he was a hard drinking carousing blues man playing on the street and at parties with the likes of Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red in Durham, South Carolina. Without falling into the standard and boring official-style bio, let’s follow his journey from young man to one of the greatest ragtime and blues finger picker that ever picked up the guitar.

We’ll talk about his fingerstyle techniques and also throw in a lesson or two to put you in the mood for playing pieces by this great blues guitarist. Suffice to say that Gary Davis had a huge impact on many guitarists growing up in the sixties, and without his legacy much of modern music and musicians would have been very different.


Click To Play MP3 – Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way) by Gary Davis

Rev Gary Davis Samson and Delilah Lyrics

If I had my way, I would tear this old building down.

Well Delilah was a woman, she was fine and fair,
She had good looks, God knows, and coal black hair,
Delilah she gained old Samson’s mind.

When first he saw this woman, you know he couldn’t believe his mind.
Delilah she climbed up on Samson’s knee,
Said tell me where your strength lies if you please.

She spoke so kind and she talked so fair,
Well Samson said, Delilah cut off my hair.

You can shave my head, clean as my hand
And my strength will become as natural as any old man.

If I had my way, if I had my way, if I had my way,
I would tear this old building down.

You read about Samson, all from his works,
He was the strongest man that ever had lived on earth.

One day when Samson was walking along,
Looked down on the ground, he saw an old jawbone.

He stretched out his arm, God knows, chains broke like thread,
When he got to moving, ten thousand was dead.

If I had my way, if I had my way, if I had my way,
I would tear this old building down.

Now Samson and the lion, they got in a tack,
Samson he crawled up on the lion’s back.

You read about this lion, he killed a man with his paws,
But Samson got his hands around that lion’s jaws.

He ripped the beast till he killed him dead.
The bees made honey in the lion’s head.

If I had my way, if I had my way, if I had my way,
I would tear this old building down.

Download Samson and Delilah Tab – Chords and Lyrics PDF

The Early Years – Who Influenced The Blues Fingerpicking Guitar Style Of Gary Davis?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of repeating the tried and trusted (and often boring!) format when describing someone like Rev Gary Davis, but facts and figures can only give a small part of the story. OK, it’s nice to know when  he was born, died and all that good stuff, but what we as blues guitarists are interested are these questions:

  • what was life like in those days? Was it a ‘hoot’, or pretty grim?
  • where did his material come from?
  • how did the Gary Davis guitar technique develop?
  • and most of all – exactly how did he do it? (Because we want to do it as well!)

Davis hailed from South Carolina which was a hot-bed of superbly gifted guitar players in the Piedmont style, which is to say, that syncopated way of picking that lends itself to singing and dancing with a special rhythm reminiscent of a complex piano style. Ragtime blues guitar by necessity requires the guitarist to be adept at the alternating bass way of hitting the bass strings, but this group of Carolina musicians went far beyond this simplistic idea of ‘ragtime’.

From his own recollection, he states that Blind Willie Walker was the very best when Davis was a young man, and his style must have rubbed onto the impressionable guitar player. He also said that by the time he was thirty, no other guitarist could touch him, so he wasn’t a shy man at all. Walker only recorded two tracks to remember him by, and there are no photographs at all.

Dupree Blues in G is a variation on the very old theme that evolved into the many Frankie and Johnnie type clones. Although both tracks are played with two guitarists, Walker’s prowess is unmistakable. South Carolina Rag is an amazing display of fast and accurate ragtime guitar picking that, to my knowledge, has never been equaled. He suddenly breaks out of the standard alternating bass pattern to deliver and incredible fast and accurate single string run.

The speed of Walker’s riffs are so fast, I think he didn’t use his thumb, but set up the bass pattern using a plectrum held between thumb and forefinger, using the rest of his fingers for the treble strings. When needed, he could pick the strings up and down, just like a country guitar flat pickers, or modern day rock guitarist. Several modern day fingerstyle guitar players that have been seen to use this method, like Richard Thompson.

Rev Gary Davis Bull CityDavis in his turn had a big impact on the playing of younger men like Blind Boy Fuller, whom he taught for some time when they played together on the streets of Durham, Carolina with the likes of Sonny Terry and Bull City Red. Fuller’s style is full of The Reverend’s ideas and licks, but often in a simplified form. He was hugely popular, more so than Davis, but he was nowhere near the same guitarist.

Normally, when I hear an old acoustic blues guitar player, I simply listen again and again, perhaps slowing the music down until I work out in my mind what’s going on with the chords and picking pattern. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work too well with a lot of Gary Davis songs and pieces, and it’s still probably true that the students who searched him out and took lesson with him when he was an old man are still the best interpreters of his work. Men such as Stefan Grossman took it upon themselves to try and faithfully reproduce the Reverend’s style

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’ll take a look in detail at some of his best fingerpicking work later. For me, it always helps my playing when I try to understand a little about the man. A good start would be to check out Rev Gary Davis Youtube original videos, which are surprisingly numerous. Luckily he survived many of the old blues guys and passed on when he was in his 60s, so he had contact with many students and was able to pass on some of his amazing skills.


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It’s obvious right away that the Reverend’s sound was unlike the vast majority of other blues men of that era. There’s a variety and richness about the music that lifts it above the basic blues type chord structures, with a complexity that really needs total mastery of the instrument. It seems that in the early days, Davis must have come into contact with a huge variety of material, and also many different musicians.

His repertoire must have been full of old style blues, playful ragtime style dance tunes, popular songs of the day (Tin Pan Alley) and also the religious material so evident on the black communities in the years after the abolition of slavery. However, even his ‘simple’ blues in the key of E, for example, are masterpieces in guitar fingerpicking. His powers of invention and interpretation knew no bounds and he played in all keys, some which were unusual like E minor and A minor. The big thing here was that it’s almost impossible to learn this style by trying to absorb Rev Gary Davis tabs.

Gary Davis Most Popular Songs

  1. Candyman
  2. Samson And Delilah
  3. Let Us Get Together Right Down Here
  4. I Belong To The Band
  5. Pure Religion
  6. Twelve Gates To The City
  7. Goin’ To Sit Down On The Banks Of The River
  8. Tryin’ To Get Home
  9. Lo, I Be With You Always
  10. I Am The Light Of This World
  11. Lord, I Feel Just Like Goin’ On

Online Blues Guitar Lessons In The Old Style

When I learned to play blues guitar in the 60s, vinyl records and tabs were the norm, but now online blues guitar lessons make the learning process much easier. The first tabs I ever saw for acoustic guitar came with a book and a record produced by Stefan Grossman. At that time there was a huge interest in the old country blues guitar styles, but the old way of learning, which was basically with a real live teacher, was too long, too expensive and the real player who created the styles back in the 30s were dying out fast. A lucky few, like Grossman, took regular guitar lessons with Reverend Gary Davis and had contact with Skip James, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, to name a few great blues guitarists.

Fingerpicking tabs Rev Gary Davis
Davis Had Many Students in The 60s

If you didn’t have access to accurate blues guitar tabs (and they weren’t always that accurate) then the only way to learn a guitar piece that appealed was to transfer the vinyl music to tape and play a phrase again and again until you decided where the fingers of both hands should go. After writing this down in guitar tab form, it remained to start to play it very slowly and gradually building up speed until it was fluent. This is the way I learned to play West coast Blues on guitar (Blind Blake), because I saw that the existing tabs didn’t reflect what was actually happening when I listened to the original Biograph recording. Online blues guitar lessons accelerated this process enormously, but care should be taken in choosing the right ones.

All in all, free is good! But it brings it’s own problems. With so many free online blues guitar lessons, the not-so-good sneaks in with the excellent, and when you’re learning how do you know the difference?This is difficult for me to say, as I don’t want to criticize anyone, but it’s a fact that some guitarists don’t have enough the blues roots in their veins to really teach it. There’s a certain something missing. It’s not enough to teach the theory, or fancy blues riffs, if the feeling isn’t there. Many guitar teachers profess to teach many different styles – look for the guy who plays only acoustic blues, and who has held learning the blues guitar as a lifelong passion and you won’t go far wrong.

Probably the most interesting songs by Davis are the Gospel variety that he created and were a huge achievement in blues fingerpicking guitar. Many blues men weave intricate treble runs into their songs to great effect, but mostly in between the verses and lines in the verses, to fit in with the lyrics. Listen to songs like ’12 Gates To The City’ and ‘When The Train Comes Along’ to hear Davis sing along while playing intricate single strings runs all the way through the verse – it’s really amazing to hear and realize what he is doing. Try it for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean!


Candyman Rev Gary Davis Style

Perhaps one of his best known songs, Candyman is very old and he probably heard it from musicians traveling around with the medicine shows that were popular at that time. Other musicians, like Mississippi John Hurt, had a version, but often they were very different from the traditional style and IMO Davis’ is the best. This is why Davis raised his voice to a falsetto, to keep the flavor and intent of the original song. The basic form is a simple chord structure of C, F, D7 and G using a standard alternating bass fingerpicking pattern between two strings.

As usual, Davis takes this simple tune and creates a little magic with the way he plays the melody while accentuating the alternating bass pattern on the off-beat, which gives it a medium paced syncopated feel that’s a joy to play. Very often, modern guitarists play a simplified form, which tends to degrade exactly what the Master was doing. Listen carefully and and you’ll here much more than you first thought in Candyman.

There’s an old saying – a great guitarist makes something simple seem complex, and something that’s complex seem simple. Gary Davis does all of this and more. In the audio file underneath the video you can hear Davis play the original and Stefan Grossman, who’s recording him asks him to add variations as he’s playing! Of course, he does this effortlessly by using his thumb to jump over the strings, changing the timing and the result is a highly syncopated sound using very simple chords, one thumb and his forefinger – it’s stunning!

He could also play Candyman in different tempos, depending on the situation and his audience – do they want to listen or dance? The song is for listeners, there’s a two-step version for dancers and even a waltz time version for dancers that like it a little slower! The song is clearly the basis for all versions, but the subtleties in each show hid complete mastery of the guitar – whether he’s playing blues, dance tunes, ragtime or Gospel, he’s the Master.

Here’s my Candyman guitar lesson:


How To Play Candyman by Reverend Gary Davis

 Click the arrow to play Candyman Rev Gary Davis

Fingerpicking Gary Davis Style – Hesitation Blues

Hesitation is probably my all-time favorite Davis song for a couple of reasons. Here again, many blues men old and new have a version but nothing like his rendition. Players like Grossman catch most of the riffs but miss out on the delivery and feeling. Others deliver the feeling and don’t catch all the movements, so it’s always a compromise. A few get really close and actually nail it, like Ernie Hawkins, but it’s rare.

A big failing of modern guitar players to my mind is that we tend to ‘pretty it up’ thinking that we’re improving it, or making it better somehow – well, we’re not! The originals can’t be beat IMO. That’s not to say that somebody like Jorma Kaukonen isn’t a fine player, but adding extra fancy stuff in the place of Davis’ solid picking often doesn’t do it justice. Here again, just my two cents worth.

To play the Reverend properly (and I’m not saying that I do!) you need to use just one finger, the forefinger. If you use two the accent just changes and there’s no way round it. Many of the truly great players used this one finger approach – Broonzy, Doc Watson, Blind Boy Fuller and many more. It sets up a particular sound and rhythm that sets it apart. The trick is to make it sound as though two fingers are being used due to it’s syncopated nature.

Hesitation Blues is in the key of C, but starts off with the familiar riff as we change chords from A minor to E major, before dropping into C7 and onto F major. It’s a beautiful arrangement rich in chords and plenty of the trademark single string runs played alternating strokes of the picking thumb and forefinger.


Video – How To Play Hesitation Blues by Rev. Gary Davis

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