Transatlantic - workshop notes

A couple of basic points before we start:

· We’re either accompanying a song or playing a tune here, not showing off how clever we are. Sing the song or the tune and play the guitar with it – that way you’ll find it much easier to get to a guitar part that makes sense and that you can play.

· The rhythm is really important so try to keep it going to support the song. Maybe best to start by just strumming along the basic chords or even just the bass strings as you sing the song. Once you’ve got the rhythm and the tune down right the twiddly bits will follow. If you start by trying to get the twiddly bits you may well loose the tune.

· Blues based songs generally follow pretty standard foundations like:

12 bar blues, 8 or 16 bar blues, Rag progresions 

The best way to get your head around these is to listen to lots of songs that use them – you’ll soon find when you try to work out how to play a song that you can predict how the changes will go

· ……..but beware! It doesn’t always apply and you can really mess up a song by imposing a pattern on it which it really doesn’t have. A common mistake is to impose the common turn around used in post war rhythm and blues (where the 12 bar ends on the 5 chord) on the simpler ‘country’ blues (where the twelve bar usually ends on the 1 chord).

Another mistake is sticking rigidly to 12 bars per verse – it’s the rhythm that counts. When someone told Lightnin Hopkins that he should have changed chords at a certain point in a song he reputedly pulled agun from his boot and said ‘Lightnin change chord when Lightnin want to. - Sounds better that way…..’

Bad Karma Blues

(GB) Is in open D tuning (DADF#AD)

Diddy Wa Diddy

(Blinf Blake) This is a simplified approach to one of Blind Blake’s most well known songs. Blake recorded between 1926 and 1932 and I think his ragtime style guitar playing has never been bettered. He rolled the bass notes in a way which I’ve never heard anyone else do properly. If you want to check it out his complete recordings are available in a JSP 4 CD set at a very reasonable price. The sound quality is pretty ropey, but persevere through the crackles and scratches to hear true genius at work!

Back in the land of try-to-do you’ll find me using pretty much standard C, G and F shapes

Sitting On Top Of The World

(Trad) This is in open G tuning which is D G D G B D low to high – you tune the bottom two strings and the highest string down 2 semitones and leave the other three in standard tuning. When you play across all the top five strings open you’ll get a G chord.

This comes from several sources by a sort of process of osmosis in my memory – The Mississippi Sheiks who recorded it in 1930. Bob Dylan recorded it on ‘Good As I’ve Been To You’, Cream played an extremely loud version on ‘Wheels of Fire’. You’ll also hear a lot of bluegrass bands play it.

Red Rag Blues

(GB) In the style of Doc Watson. Capo 2 In E .

Second chord of first section is C#7 –just a C7 shape slid up one fret.

The second section uses a B7 shape at the 7th and 5th frets.


(Chuck Berry) Open G again. The acoustic guitar just keeps the rhythm going with G, C and D7 chords. The slide electric guitar is also tuned to open G and basically plays the top 5 strings fretted at the 12th, 5th and 7th frets

Chuck Berry songs are just great for acoustic players to mess about with – they are endlessly adaptable to rearrangement, the lyrics are always fun and everybody knows them! I just hope he doesn’t come after me for his royalties…..

Police Dog Blues

Blind Blake again, but an unusual piece for him – played in Open D tuning and the only tune he recorded using it I believe. His recording flows beatifully and yet the playing of every verse uses a different variation – it sounds like he was just casually trying out something in a new tuning to see what could be done with it and yet instantly coming up with a classic – a bit like listening to Martin Simpson just tuning up!

It starts with harmonics at the 12th fret

I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life

This is I think a barber shop song from the 1910s when ragtime was a huge craze I found it in a book by Anne Charters called ‘They All Played Ragtime’ and sort of arranged it myself, so it may sound nothing like it was meant to!

New Poor Man’s Blues

(GB) The guitars are tuned to Open G again. The rhythm guitar follows a common Delta blues pattern of walking up the low D string in the G section. In the C section I sometimes play a normal C chord shape (despite being in a non normal tuning) which gives a tremendous tension to the verse – you’ll hear it easily on the recording. The bottleneck guitar is playing the riff from Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Can’t Be Satisfied’ – work around the 12th and 3rd frets for the G section and the 5th and 7th frets for the C and D sections.

She Gets There In The End

(GB) Standard 8 bar blues in E where the changes are: E, B7, E, A, B7, E.

Somebody Else Not Me

(Bert Williams) Capo 3, the first chord of the verse is a G.

Learnt from bassist and dear chum Tony Cave who learnt it from Tommy Burton.

No Money Down

(Chuck Berry) Open G

There’s a great version of this by John Hammond.

Turn Your Money Green

(Furry Lewis) Open D Capo 2.

Get hold of his 1920s recordings!

The Panic Is On

(Hezekiah Jenkins) Capo 3 , in G.

I know nothing about Jenkins, But a great song that’s still topical 80 years after it was recorded.

 That’ll Never Happen No More

(Blind Blake) Capo 5, then play key of G shapes

 Pickin The Blues 2010

(GB) Open D Capo 2

 St Louis Blues

(W C Handy) Capo 2, C shapes.

The all time blues standard. There’s meant to be a minor key section, but I don’t

really like that bit so I stay in the major.

 Key To The Highway

(Big Bill Broonzy) Another 8 bar blues. Capo 2 , play E shapes

Good Shepherd

(Trad) Drop the bottom E string to D.

From a prisoner at Virginia State Prison Farm recorded by Alan Lomax in 1936, but I learnt it from Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Volunteers’ – great record.


I recorded most of this stuff at home using a minidisc or an old Fostex digital recorder with a single condenser mic and then edited it to stereo on a PC using CoolEdit .

I played a variety of guitars. Being a bit of an trainspotter about these things – they were:

Tony Revell ‘Catfish Keith’ Ragtime Parlour

Lowden O35

Lowden S32

Martin M36

Dobro resonator

Vintage Tricone resonator (upgraded with National cones)

Gibson B45 12 string guitar

Fender JD Telecaster electric guitar

Gibson A4 mandolin

Hering harmonica

If you’d like to see photos of most of these (if you’re sad like me) visit my MySpace site:

I think a good guitar inspires you and so helps you to play better, but the real old guys mostly played on the cheapest catalogue guitars imaginable and I really did learn on a £6 Russian acoustic guitar. What most helps you to play is really wanting to do it, listening and singing the song. Oh, and playing with and in front of other people, not just to yourself.


Simon Fayle of SL Duplication did the CD copying – he’s a good chap. (


G B April 2010