Piedmont and Ragtime Blues

In the next style we’ll examine, the thumb typically plays an alternating bass line, usually composed of quarter-notes, with the remaining picking-hand fingers providing syncopated melodic material. (A syncopated rhythmic figure emphasizes the weak part of the beat—the “and” of the beat.) These sounds are heard in the ragtime and Piedmont styles of players like Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, and Reverend Gary Davis. The bass lines played in this style differ from the Delta style in that they alternate between chord tones instead of having a monotone bass note driving a single chord tone. Take a moment to watch the following videos of a few greats in this style.

Mississippi John Hurt – “You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley”

Elizabeth Cotton – “Freight Train”

Now it’s your turn. If you are new to this style try starting with Fig. 4, which is an example of an alternating thumb pattern played over a C chord. In fact, hold the entire C chord down while playing the line and use only your thumb to pick the notes.

Fig. 5 is a piece I’ve written in this style and is based off of the chord changes found in Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues.” When learning this piece, a great place to start is with the chords. Follow the chord changes listed above the notation. While holding the chord shape, play the bass notes listed. In the standard notation the bass notes are the notes with stems pointing down. The bass line must be solid, so work with a metronome to keep a steady beat. Once you are comfortable changing chords and keeping the bass line going, start adding the melody. There’s a fair amount of syncopation in this example, yet with the exception of the A7 chord, all of the chords are basic open-position forms. Play the A7 chord by barring at the 2nd fret with your first finger, so you can play the melody with your remaining fingers. Note that D7 is the same voicing we used in Fig. 2.