Folk and Country

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Chapter “Elements of Travis Picking,” you learned one basic folk/country strum that is used in many playing styles. This chapter expands on that style to include some other common accompaniment techniques that will enable you to play thou-sands of folk and country songs.

Country music inherits an important quality, through its origin in the story songs with which Southern mountain people and their forebears in England, Scotland, and Ireland entertained them-selves in the days before television. The most important element is the song. The role of musical instruments is to accompany, not to show off. You can be as fancy a guitar player in country as in any other kind of music, but what you really need to sell a country song is a good voice, good lyrics, and guitar accompaniment that doesn’t get in the way.

We’ll begin with some simple accompaniment patterns, then progress to accompanying country songs, playing in 3/4 time, and finally crafting a traditional country solo.

A great deal of folk and country guitar playing is based on a simple accompaniment pattern. It combines picking and strumming by plucking a single bass (low) note first, followed by a downward brush stroke across the three (or so) highest strings. Usually you add variety by alternating between at least two different low notes. This is a start-ing point from which many more complicated variations can grow. But no matter how much fancy stuff you learn, you’ll still keep coming back to this pattern. Because of the alternating high-low sound of this pattern, people often call it the boom-chick strum.

Keeping It Steady
Let’s try this beat on a C chord. Keep your fingers down in the entire shape for a C chord. For low notes, we’ll be alternating between the fifth and fourth strings.

• If you play with bare fingers, pluck the bass note with your thumb and make the brush stroke with your index finger. (Some people like adding one or two other fingers as well.) The idea behind using your fingers is to get a strong, bright tone from your fingernail as it sweeps across the string.
• If you use a flatpick, play both the individual bass note and the three note of the brush with downward strokes of a pick.
• If you use fingerpicks, you’ll probably find them uncomfortable for making downward strokes. Use your thumbpick to play downward strokes on both the bass note and the brush.


Every chord has its own alternating bass notes. On some, more than one set of alternating notes is possible. Here are diagrams of the basic chord shapes along with the alternating bass string combinations most commonly used.

Not all guitarists choose the same bass notes as their standard pattern. Almost everyone picks as the first bass note the root note of the chord. The root is the note the chord is named after—an A note for an A (or A-minor or A7) chord, for example. The root note is the first of the two bass notes in all the examples above. It’s good to develop the habit of using the root note first. Once you get the habit down, you can start to experiment with other choices that might sound better to you at any given place in a song.

Basic Chord Shapes
The numbers indicate possible bass notes to alternate.


Let’s practice some alternating bass notes on several chords.


Picking a Country Song
Now we can move on to a favorite folk, country, and bluegrass song to accompany with this pattern. Although all the notes in the accompaniment part are written out to guide you, the most important thing is to keep the beat going. Don’t worry if sometimes you don’t exactly brush exactly the three strings that are indicated, just as long it sounds like a good, ringing strum. Aim at getting more accurate with more experience.

Playing a Solo: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
The words and vocal melody to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” are given below, in addition to the guitar accompaniment. If you want, you and a friend can learn to play both parts on the guitar, and switch off playing lead and accompaniment.





When you encounter a song in 3/4 time, you’ll need to adapt the pattern to work in units of three. Bass brush has two components. To get the feeling of three beats, just add one more brush.


Make it your business to learn to accompany about a zillion songs with these patterns. Ideally, you should become perfectly comfort- able with it before moving on to anything else. But just to give you a little taste of how this pattern can be developed, let’s use it to play the melody of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” We’ll do this by playing the melody notes instead of the ordinary bass notes.

As you follow the music you’ll see that sometimes you need to move or add a finger to play a melody note that is not one of the notes of the chord, but keep the chord shape in place as much as you can and always get back to it. You’ll notice that you really have to move some fingers around on the F chord. From the chord chart earlier in the chapter, choose one of the F chord shapes that doesn’t use the complete bar, so you can get to the open strings when you need them.

Also notice how every now and then a bass note is used in the spot where there would normally be a brush. This is something you sometimes have to do in order to get the melody out clearly. Some melodies are so busy that, in order to get them out, you’d hardly find time to brush at all. Songs like this are not well suited to this style of playing.



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