Master the style!
Tristan Seume shows you how to play one of the most popular, enduring and challenging acoustic blues styles on guitar.
Ragtime music oRiginated in urban african-american cities such as new orleans and st. Louis around the turn of the 20th century. essentially, it was a dance style performed on the piano, characterised by jaunty melodies set against leaping bass to create strongly syncopated rhythms with an upbeat feel. it is arguably a fusion of traditional african rhythms and classical or march idioms, and although it gave way in popularity to jazz in the early 20th century it was also a notable influence on it.
the music of scott Joplin remains the most famous and recognisable of the ragtime musicians, with the entertainer and maple Leaf Rag being the hits of their day. indeed, this humble scribe fondly remembers wrestling with an arrangement of the former as concocted by the great eric Roche in these very pages many years ago!
although primarily written for piano, many early blues guitarists attempted to capture the stride piano feel on the guitar by using an alternating bass technique on the beats and offsetting it with a ‘ragged’ (syncopated) melody. this approach informed a playing style known as Piedmont blues which was generally lighter-hearted in feel and a more technically challenging than the primitive delta Blues of, say, Robert Johnson or charley Patton. notable Piedmont blues figures included Rev Gary Davis, elizabeth cotton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the king of ragtime guitar, Blind Blake. although more complex in technique, many of these players fingerpicked with only the thumb and forefinger; an approach later adopted country and western star, merle travis, whose pieces such as cannonball Rag remain staples of fingerpickers today.
although ragtime fell out of mainstream favour as jazz took a hold, a younger generation of folk, blues and ragtime revivalists such as stefan grossman, tommy emmanuel, Woody mann and John James kept the torch alight with the mastery of modern virtuosity.
Blind Blake’s playing in particular stands out to this day as some of the most challenging to emulate, due to his speed, dexterity and quirky techniques. unlike other ragtime players he would subvert the structure of playing bass notes on the beats by instead anticipating chord changes with a bass note on the four-and (last 8th note of the bar). this created a bounce and movement that other players lacked (see ex. 6 for how to do this).
I hope you find the following exercises informative and helpful to your fingerpicking technique. Once you are confident with each one, have a go at the piece i’ve written at the end of the feature, which pulls together all the elements you will have worked on. Ragtime guitar is a fantastic style to try, as it can really hone your technique - plus everyone loves it. Have fun, persevere and i’ll see you soon!
Blind Blake’s playing stands out as some of the most challenging to emulate due to his speed, dexterity and quirky techniques.