Thursday, April 15, 2010

Guitar Workshop: Gettin’ Rhythm

You remember in last week's installment of Guitar Workshop, where we explored ths music of North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, and we said: “Many a guitar player can work his way into a jam session ... [b]ut first, they need to know how to follow along.” This week's session will introduce you to a classic country tune, one that is not only simple to play, but has potential for an intermediate or advanced player to jazz things up.

We introduce you in this lesson, to what is known as the “Carter lick”, named after “Mother Maybelle” Carter (1909-1978), who with “The Carter Family Singers” was a pioneer of country music in the early days of radio. The technique is also known as the “thumb brush” or the “Church lick” or even the “Carter scratch”. It involves picking the meloldy or bass lines on the guitar at the bass strings (E, A, and D), alternating with the strum on the treble strings (G, B, and high E). The example above can be heard by clicking here.

The best example of this method is in the classic tune, “Wildwood Flower”, based on “I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets”, written in 1860 by Maud Irving and Joseph Philbrick Webster. The first video clip is from a television segment in the late 1960s on The Johnny Cash Show, wherein is heard the story of its early recording. You'll notice Maybelle doesn't use a flatpick, but "scratches" the treble strings with her fingers. Others prefer using a flatpick in an up and down motion. This comes in handy when throwing in more complex melody runs. You get an indication of that in the second video clip by instructor Ken Middleton, who breaks down the tune for the viewer. For the first part of the clip, he shows only the left hand technique, before moving on to the right hand.

This technique may not seem like much, but Maybelle was among the first to use the guitar as a lead instrument. It was the major step in taking the guitar out of the parlor and onto the big stage. All those city slicker pickers with a lotta slicker licks than me, owe a debt to Mother Maybelle. Suppose, then, that they want to take it to the next level.

Meet the guy who can show how it's done. "Banjo Ben" Clark provides an excellent introduction to bass runs and country licks that sound terrific, without having to go beyond the third fret. With slight variations on the major scale, and an occasional blues feel, you can hold your own when it's your turn at the spotlight during a jam session. The evolution from simple accompanist to blazing soloist is demonstrated here.

Summer is coming, of course, and with the fair weather, a fair number of weekends with the highway callin'. For my money, the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, West Virginia, is one of the best. It's both a long-running annual event, and intimate in scale, in a little college town where it's the only thing that happens all year.

Better start packin' for some on-the-road pickin'!

(Source material courtesy of Wikipedia.)


Banshee said...

So... that's why guitar was a "lady instrument" back in the day... and when a lady made it a lead instrument, the guys started playing guitar.

Heh. I knew there had to be a reason.

(I don't know much about old-time music and I have no idea where I read about the "lady instrument" thing, but I do have a good memory for weird bits of info.)

David L Alexander said...

I never heard the term "lady instrument" until now, but it makes sense. The guitar was also rather small, not like the Grand Concert or "Dreadnaught" style that you see today, the latter only being developed in the 1930s by Martin. And to tell the truth, many of the artists listed in the combox with Father Z are not really "country" artists in the authentic sense, although they do appeal to the target audience. Many of them are little more than fashion models who can sing adequately, can barely play an instrument, and certainly don't write their own songs, but are the product of lawyers and promoters. This is especially true of female artists.

If you don't believe the last point, consider that Allison Krauss was a national champion fiddler in her teens, but in most music videos, she doesn't play at all, but resorts to her sex appeal, and a voice that while sweet-sounding, lacks any strength. Indeed, without a microphone, no one would hear her.

Guess I'm just "old school."