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Learn the essential techniques of bluegrass flatpicking guitar through classic and lesser-known songs and tunes, from bluegrass blues to old-time fiddle tunes to country swing sounds.
For the last 30 years, Grammy-winning guitarist Scott Nygaard has been one of the most inventive and influential flatpicking guitarists in the bluegrass/acoustic music scene. His solos, a seamless amalgam of bluegrass, folk, and jazz influences, shift easily from breathtaking virtuosity to soulful melodic musings and his accompaniment is always intriguing, supportive, and propulsive. In addition to two Rounder recordings and four self-produced collaborations, Scott was the guitarist on a number of recordings that have been extremely influential on the contemporary acoustic music scene: Chris Thile’s Leading Off, Tim O’Brien’s Red on Blonde, Jerry Douglas’s Slide Rule, and the Republic of Strings’s Generation Nation. Downbeat magazine called him “a phenomenally talented stylist.”
Crosspicking is an essential part of a bluegrass guitarist's technique for playing song melodies. Learn the first part of Scott's arrangement of “Home Sweet Home” in this sample lesson. With Notation/Tab
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FLATPICKING BASICS In these introductory lessons you’ll learn the basics of good flatpicking technique, including how to hold the pick, alternating picking, bluegrass rhythm guitar basics, the rest stroke, and the importance of upstrokes.
FIDDLE TUNE STANDARDS Fiddle tunes are the raw material of flatpicking. Learn some classic fiddle tunes all flatpickers play, along with variations and ideas on creating your own arrangements.
BLUEGRASS SONGS Bluegrass is primarily a vocal music. As the guitarist in a bluegrass band, you’ll spend most of your time playing rhythm, and when you do play a solo, it’ll usually be to a song. So you need to learn the essential techniques of playing guitar solos to bluegrass songs as pioneered by the bluegrass guitar greats, as well as how to construct your own solos based on the melody of the song.
LEARNING THE FINGERBOARD There’s lots of music to be played below the fifth fret, but most guitarists soon want to find their way up the fingerboard. You’ll learn some handy positions and how to move between them.
Diatonic Triad Shapes Learning triad shapes on the top three strings in three different positions will help you connect scale patterns on the entire fingerboard. In this lesson, you’ll learn the major and minor triad shapes, root position, first inversion, and second inversion, on the top three strings. Scott shows you that, for each of the major inversions used as a I chord, you can find shapes for the IV chord just above it and shapes for the V chord just below it. You’ll not only learn these shapes moving up the fingerboard, but how to connect them with scales and use them to move from one position to the next. You’ll also learn how to change the major triad shapes into minor triads by raising the fifth of the chord up to a sixth, creating the relative minor of that chord.
Diatonic Scale “Anchor” Positions In this lesson on learning the fingerboard, you’ll learn some diatonic scale “anchor” positions that will help you fluidly navigate the entire fingerboard and easily move up and down the neck from position to position. The seven “anchor” positions are based on the seven steps of the diatonic scale, with your index finger on the top string on the scale tone and your ring finger an octave below on the fourth string. Scott walks you through the positions, showing you how you can move in and out of each position but stay “anchored” in that position with your index and middle fingers. You’ll learn a three- or four-bar melodic line in each position to get you used to that position.
Diatonic Triad Shapes: Top Middle Strings This lesson follows the lesson on Diatonic Triad Shapes that focused on triad shapes on the top three strings. This lesson covers the shapes on the “top middle” three strings using the key of D. As in the first lesson you’ll learn the three shapes, which correspond to root position, first inversion, and second inversion triads, as well as the three relative minors of each major chord shape. Scott also shows you some ways to use the shapes you’ve learned and talks about the importance of looking at this information creatively.
Fretting-Hand Technique When working on playing cleaner and faster, flatpickers tend to focus on picking-hand technique rather than fretting-hand technique, but they are equally important. In this lesson, Scott gives you advice and some exercises for developing efficient fretting-hand technique, beginning with “finger planting” and keeping your hand in position above the frets. You'll also learn two techniques for moving around the neck, one that is primarily used when moving out of position temporarily by one or two frets and the other when moving between positions.
“Bluegrass Pentatonic” Licks While the pentatonic scale, in both its major and minor configurations, can be used for playing certain kinds of bluegrass melodies and solos, a version of the scale with a flatted third substituted for the second in a major pentatonic scale creates a more common “bluegrass” tonality. The “Lester Flatt G-run” is a perfect demonstration of this. In this lesson, Scott takes three standard bluegrass licks that use this tonality, including the G run, and shows you how, by learning to play them over different chords, you can create long lines and variations that will give your soloing and improvising a truer “bluegrass” sound than the pentatonic scale.
Melodic Patterns Melodic patterns not only make great exercises for learning the fingerboard, but they are often the basis for the melodies of fiddle tunes. “Blackberry Blossom,” for example, starts with a simple four-note melodic pattern that is repeated twice in a descending sequence. In this lesson, Scott shows you some simple melodic patterns, gives you ideas on practicing them (in open position as well as closed positions, and moving up and down the neck as well as across the neck), and shows you how you can find melodic patterns in tunes you already know.
FLATPICKING GUITAR CLASSICS Learn some great tunes and how they were played by flatpicking icons.
Listen to the Mockingbird “Listen to the Mockingbird” is a Civil War–era song that Clarence White turned into a guitar instrumental for the Kentucky Colonels album Appalachian Swing. It’s a crosspicking showcase but it rarely follows the standard 3–3–2 crosspicking. Clarence had his own favorite pattern (2–3–3), but he also adapted and varied the patterns according to how he wanted to phrase the melody, and “Listen to the Mockingbird” is a great example of that. In this lesson, you’ll learn Clarence’s first solo (with a few modifications) from Appalachian Swing.
SWING AND IMPROVISING Swing guitarists like Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and others have influenced many flatpickers and the way they improvise on the guitar.
Charlie Christian–Style Swing Lines Charlie Christian is known as the first electric guitar star and a pioneer of electric jazz guitar, but the blues-based lead lines he played with Benny Goodman and others in the late 1930s and early 1940s have influenced rockabilly, blues, and country guitarists. The tonality of a lot of Charlie’s lines are similar to that of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass blues sound, with flatted sevenths and minor third/major third motifs, making them useful for bluegrass guitarists as well as jazz and rockabilly players. In this lesson you’ll learn some typical lines played by Charlie on major chords out of an F shape and dominant seventh chords using a familiar minor chord shape. Some of the lines are long eighth-note based lines, while others feature some of Charlie’s favorite syncopations.
Benny’s Bugle Learn a swing blues tune from Benny Goodman, along with a Charlie Christian solo from the original Benny Goodman Sextet recording. “Benny’s Bugle” is a fairly straightforward uptempo blues riff tune in Bb. The first melody outlines basic Bb, Eb, and F chords (the I, IV, and V) in Bb, and the band plays a couple of other cool riffs later in the tune. Charlie Christian takes the first solo on the recording of “Benny’s Bugle” and it’s a classic, one of those solos learned by most jazz and swing guitarists.
Dominant 9/Minor 6 Arpeggio Shapes This is as much a theory lesson as a “learning the fingerboard” lesson. Dominant nine chords and arpeggios are a common extension for playing V7 chords, you just add the nine to the root, third, fifth, and seventh of the dominant seven chord. If you remove the root from the dominant nine, you get a four-note arpeggio that is also a minor six (m6) and minor seven flat five arpeggio (m7b5), depending on which note is the root. Scott shows you three convenient shapes for this arpeggio on strings 4–2, 3–1, and 5–3, and how to combine the arpeggio with the corresponding scale for the shape. Then he shows you a few ways to use the dominant 9/minor 6 arpeggios, first as a dominant arpeggio on a circle-of-fifths progression and then as the ii7b5 chord in a ii7–V7 progression in a minor key and as the iv6 chord in a Gypsy jazz progression.
Soloing on Circle of Fifths Progressions This lesson is based to some degree on Django Reinhardt’s intro to “Undecided” and the two positions he used to play dominant arpeggios. Scott shows you the positions, which can be thought of as dominant thirteenth chords or arpeggios, and how you can use these two positions to navigate the circle of fifths progressions that are so common in swing and jazz (and some bluegrass) songs.
The Importance of Muscle Memory In this lesson, Scott talks about the importance of building muscle memory and its use not only in learning tunes, but in developing speed, volume, and the ability to improvise. He starts by giving you advice on memorization, and the importance of understanding the phrases in a melody, being able to play them individually, and knowing how they relate to the chords. Scott also gives you suggestions for creating variations on the phrases of a melody, as well as the importance not only of being able to create variations on the fly, but getting them in your muscle memory.
Jazz Chord Shapes on the Top Four Strings In this lesson, you’ll learn how to create chord shapes on the top four strings for seventh, ninth, six, thirteenth, and other chords that are typically used in jazz. Using the “F” shape, and the notes adjacent to it, Scott shows you how to create a wide variety of chords that can be used as substitutions and extensions of major, dominant, and minor chords. This lesson builds on the Diatonic Triad Shapes and Diatonic Scale “Anchor” Positions lessons, so you will want to go through those lessons before this one.
Tin Roof Blues “Tin Roof Blues” is a simple 12-bar swing blues in Bb that was a favorite of early jazz and western swing bands. Scott uses it to talk about a handy closed position you can use to play in Bb or any closed position up the neck. Flatpickers can think of this as open G position, but with the index finger fretting notes that would be open strings in open G. Scott walks you through the melody, which ends with some handy swing licks, and then talks about other ways to use this position.
MORE FLATPICKING TUNES
St. Anne’s Reel The old-time fiddle tune “St. Anne’s Reel” has become a jam session standard, a favorite of guitarists, mandolin players, and fiddlers. Scott’s version is inspired by the playing of Russ Barenberg, who plays with a great syncopated bounce and, rather than improvising on the chord changes to create variations, as many contemporary players do, plays variations on the melody that keep the original drive and melodic shape of the tune. You’ll learn St. Anne’s Reel in D without a capo, and Scott’s version includes a pass through the tune in the lower octave, for which he tunes down to dropped-D tuning.
Goodbye Liza Jane The melody of “Goodbye Liza Jane,” also called by some “Little Liza Jane” and “Liza Jane” has been around for at least a hundred years, and has morphed into numerous versions in that time. The 1940s recording by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys is probably the source for most bluegrass versions these days. In this lesson, Scott shows you his version, both a “composed” version that he would use to kickoff the tune, and one that reflects how he improvises on the melody.
Red Apple Rag The old-time fiddle tune “Red Apple Rag” comes from fiddler Arthur Smith, but Scott learned it from Seattle fiddler Hank Bradley and recorded it on his first solo record No Hurry. Hank’s version reverses the A and B parts and includes a third part. In this lesson you’ll learn the way Scott played all three parts on his recording, including a variation on each part.
MORE BLUEGRASS SONG SOLOS
My Little Georgia Rose Vassar Clements’ fiddle solo on Bill Monroe’s classic song “My Little Georgia Rose” is one of the most distinctive parts of Monroe’s original 1950 recording and most bluegrass fiddlers use it as a model for their solos on the song. Scott does the same when he plays it on the guitar, and in this lesson he shows you how he used the fiddle solo to construct a guitar solo, filling it out with crosspicking and some more guitaristic licks.
Tony Rice’s “Your Love Is Like a Flower” Solo Tony Rice’s solo on the Bluegrass Album Band’s recording of “Your Love Is Like a Flower” is a classic: one of the best examples of his flashy, driving improvisatory style and a great example of how to create an exciting sound by anticipating chord changes and varying stock phrases by starting them in different parts of the measure. Tony’s solo ignores the melody for the most part, and, because “Your Love Is Like a Flower” has a very standard chord progression (sometimes called “bluegrass chord progression #1), you can use a lot of his ideas in songs with the same progression.
“Señor” Solo Learn the solo Scott played on Tim O’Brien’s recording of the Bob Dylan song “Señor,” from Tim’s acclaimed Red on Blonde album. While it was a partially improvised solo, Scott followed a lot of the concepts he’s been talking about in other lessons on creating solos to songs: targeting melody notes, using lead-in runs to the melody, etc. The song is in a minor key with an unusual chord progression, and has a contemporary bluegrass feel. Scott walks you through the solo note for note, sharing some of the things he thought about while playing the solo and giving technical advice on certain aspects of the solo, like the slow vibrato he used on some of the long sustained notes.
John Henry The traditional song “John Henry” is often played as a fast bluegrass instrumental, and it can be tricky to create a guitar solo for it. The form is unusual—20 bars, with five four-bar melodic phrases—and there are almost no chord changes. Scott shows you how he comes up with a solo for a fast tune like this, starting by listening to what other guitarists have done (in this case, Clarence White) and then creating a basic melodic solo that he can embellish.
Been All Around This World Scott uses the old folk song “Been All Around This World,” which has been recorded by Jerry Garcia, Bryan Sutton, and many others, to illustrate how to take a simple Maybelle Carter–style arrangement of a song and make it your own. He starts by giving you ideas on expanding on a simple arrangement by adding lead-in lines, improvised cadence licks, and elaborate melodic variations. Then he walks you through a solo to “Been All Around This World” he created to kick off the song.
Old Home Place Tony Rice’s solo on the legendary 1975 JD Crowe and the New South recording of “Old Home Place” is a classic. But it’s only a half solo, so if you’re going to play a complete solo on the song, you’ll need to come up with your own second half. In this lesson, Scott shows you Tony’s solo as well as his own solo inspired by Tony’s. In addition to showing you Tony’s solo, Scott explains how Tony’s unique idiosyncratic approach to pick direction makes it more difficult for strict alternating pickers to play some of his phrases.
OLD-TIME TUNES Learn some tunes from the old-time repertoire on guitar. Old-time musicians don’t improvise on fiddle tunes the way bluegrass musicians do, but they often vary the melody in subtle ways that enhance the rhythm, and that’s the focus of Scott’s arrangements.
Half Past Four The old-time fiddle tune “Half Past Four” comes from the great Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley, who was recorded by his son in a series of home recordings in the 1940s. It has also been making the rounds of bluegrass jams lately, and Scott recorded it with John Reischman and Sharon Gilchrist on Harmonic Tone Revealers. Scott’s version is much like the way a fiddler would play it, but with fingering choices designed to make it flow on the guitar. You’ll learn “Half Past Four” in two octaves, played out of G position on the guitar.
Crockett’s Honeymoon “Crockett’s Honeymoon” is an old-time fiddle tune that Scott recorded on his album Dreamer’s Waltz. It’s in the key of G and is often played at a very fast tempo. It also sounds good on the guitar in two octaves, so it’s good for practicing playing on the bottom strings. Scott walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, explaining his phrasing and fingering choices as he goes. You’ll learn “Crockett’s Honeymoon” in two octaves in this lesson.
Abe’s Retreat The fiddle tune “Abe’s Retreat” comes from the old-time repertoire and likely dates back to the Civil War. It’s in the key of A Mixolydian and Scott plays it without a capo, often as a solo guitar tune, so his arrangement includes some bass notes and open strings that ring through the melody to fill out the guitar sound. One advantage of playing it without a capo is that the melody can be played in two octaves, which is a common way to vary things in old-time fiddling.
CONTEMPORARY FLATPICKING TUNES
The High Road “The High Road” comes from Tim O’Brien who recorded it on his 1983 solo album Hard Year Blues as a song with a fiddle tune as the instrumental. Bryan Sutton recorded it as an instrumental on his album Bluegrass Guitar and it’s usually played that way in jam sessions.Scott used to play “The High Road” with Tim when he was a member of Tim’s band, the O’Boys, in the 1990s and this version is a combination of how Scott used to play it with Tim and how Bryan recorded it. In addition to the main melody, you’ll learn a variation of each part.
Cazadero The four-part contemporary fiddle tune “Cazadero” was written by fiddler Paul Shelasky and first recorded on mandolinist John Reischman’s album North of the Border (with Scott playing guitar). It’s also been recorded by Chris Thile (on How to Grow a Woman from the Ground) and has become a favorite of ambitious young string players. It’s in the key of E, and is usually played on the guitar out of D, with a capo at the second fret.
Rebecca The bluegrass instrumental standard “Rebecca” comes from the great bluegrass mandolinist Herschel Sizemore. It’s played on the mandolin in the key of B, but on the guitar you’ll learn it out of G position with the capo at the third fret. “Rebecca” is distinctive for its unusual but very melodic phrasing. The form of the tune is AABA, but the A parts are 9½ measures long, and the B part repeats the odd phrasing of the A part and is 11 bars long. Scott shows you his version of the tune, along with a couple of variations that Herschel Sizemore played.
Old Gray Coat Tony Rice’s jazzgrass waltz “Old Gray Coat” is one of his most memorable melodies. This could be a simple tune to learn, but Tony has arranged the tune with different length interludes and chord progressions. In addition to learning the melody of the entire arrangement, you’ll learn the chord voicings Tony uses to accompany the melody of “Old Gray Coat,” voicings that he uses a lot in his jazzgrass work with David Grisman and his own Tony Rice Unit.
Down in the Swamp Béla Fleck’s tune “Down in the Swamp” is one of the highlights of his iconic late 1980s album Drive. It’s a fiddle tune in the key of E, actually E Mixolydian, which makes it the same as an A major scale. You’ll learn the tune in E without a capo and also out of D, with the capo at the second fret. Scott uses “Down in the Swamp” to talk about some of the phrasing choices you can make to get a tune in an unfamiliar key, like “Down in the Swamp,” to sound the way you want it to.
Crow Molly Scott’s tune “Crow Molly’ (recorded on his Dreamer’s Waltz album) has become popular in contemporary string band circles and was recently played by Chris Thile and Brittany Haas on Live from Here. It’s influenced by clawhammer banjo playing and has some tricky anticipations and syncopation in the second part. Scott shows you how he started with a basic melody based on old-time banjo playing and then adding syncopation and arpeggios to fill it out.
Ten Thousand Miles Scott recorded the English folk ballad “Ten Thousand Miles” for his recording of the same name with Chris and Cassie Webster. The solo guitar version of the tune that starts the recording is played out of open A (capoed up to B for the recording), and it’s a good demonstration of playing solo guitar pieces in A. It’s also a good illustration of how you often have to modify the fingering of certain chord voicings. Scott walks you through his arrangement of “Ten Thousand Miles,” explaining his arranging process and why he chose certain fingerings.
Little Liza Jane Previous solo flatpicking lessons have dealt with playing slow and medium-tempo song melodies, but in this lesson Scott shows you how he arranges a fiddle tune like “Little Liza Jane” as a solo guitar piece by filling out the melody with bass notes, chord tones, and ringing open strings. Scott’s arrangement of “Little Liza Jane” is in dropped-D tuning, and he shows you how he arranges the melody on the top strings so that you can grab bass notes on the lower strings. He also shows you a few variations and talks about how he thinks about creating variations and improvising on the melody when playing a solo fiddle tune.
Check out these flatpicking classics from Doc Watson, Clarence White, Norman Blake, Tony Rice, David Grier, Russ Barenberg, and Dan Crary.