Country, Folk, Bluegrass and Old Time Rhythm Guitar Basics

Back in 2004 I wrote this guitar workshop out in Notepad to help a friend understand some basic guitar concepts.

Fifteen years later the text-based guitar tab looks archaic as hell, but there is still some good and useful stuff here.

Have fun!
-Patrick
1/17/2018

Country, Folk, Bluegrass and Old Time Rhythm Guitar Basics

It’s a long title because these basic skills apply to a LOT of musical styles. Country guitar in general has always been kind of confusing because people keep trying to pigeonhole musicians into categories. Rather than worry about meeting somebody’s definition of where this stuff fits in a CD collection we’re just going to look at some basic concepts that can be used any way your little old heart desires.

If you are totally new to the guitar you may want to head over to http://www.funkyseagull.com and check out the free “One Finger Guitar” workshop. Standard tuning can be kind of rough for beginners when it comes to making chords so that workshop starts you out playing barre chords in open G tuning. It just gives you a chance to start playing without tearing up your fretting hand.

This is by no means a complete overview of the art and craft of playing rhythm guitar. It’s just enough to get you started. Like any other art form making music on the guitar can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

What this workshop covers is picking up a guitar, tuning it, learning some basic strums and playing a few songs. If you want to go beyond that you can pick up a copy of “The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar Volume One” (just $19.95) at http://www.pik-ware.com or visit http//www.funkyseagull.com and check out our CD ROM video music workshops. If you want to know how I started out on the six-string check out an excerpt from the book at http://www.funkyseagull.com/finding.pdf

For this workshop we are going to look at some basic rhythm concepts along with the bass strum and the alternating bass strum.

That’s enough introductory stuff. Grab your guitar and lets get that puppy in tune!

Tuning
In standard tuning:

  • Your SIXTH string (the wound string closest to your chin) is tuned to E
  • Your FIFTH string is tuned to A
  • Your FOURTH string is tuned to D
  • Your THIRD string is tuned to G
  • Your SECOND string is tuned to B
  • Your FIRST string (the plain steel string closest to the floor) is tuned to E
6 5 4 3 2 1
E A D G B E

Note: Never just crank on your guitar tuners. Always play the open string THEN tune it up. It’ll save you from changing a lot of broken strings.

I strongly recommend that you pick up a chromatic tuner. A standard guitar tuner won’t help with alternate tunings but a decent chromatic tuner can help you with open G and some of the other tunings that I’m going to talk about at the tail end of this workshop. Chromatic tuners can be picked up for as little as fifteen bucks so shop around and find one you like. You can also search under “guitar tuners” at http://www.google.com for tuners you can either download or use online with a microphone attached to your computer.

If you don’t have a tuner you can tune the guitar to itself by following these steps:

  1. Assume (I know, makes an ASS out of U and ME) that the first string is in tune.
  2. Tune the second string so that when you fret the second string at the fifth fret you get the same note as the open first string.
  3. Tune the third string so that when you fret the third string at the fourth fret you get the same note as the open second string.
  4. Tune the fourth string so that when you fret the fourth string at the fifth fret you get the same note as the open third string.
  5. Tune the fifth string so that when you fret the fifth string at the fifth fret you get the same note as the open fourth string.
  6. Tune the sixth string so that when you fret the sixth string at the fifth fret you get the same note as the open fifth string.

Take this slow and easy. Tuning a guitar is a skill you have to develop over time.

In standard tuning strumming the open strings isn’t going to sound all that great, but we don’t want to get into making chords just yet.

Now let’s work on some a basic rhythm pattern.

Strumming
Hopefully you are holding your guitar so that it’s balanced and your left and right hands don’t need to support the neck or the body to keep it from falling out of your lap. In terms of posture I usually recommend that you sit with the “S” curve of the guitar resting on the same leg as your picking hand. Sit up straight in a chair with no arms and make sure your fretting hand, and arm, is nice and relaxed.

Place your right hand or, for you lefties, your “picking hand” so that your thumb is resting on the sixth string and your little finger is resting on the top of the guitar after the first string. I usually plant my ring and little finger when I am strumming. Some folks just plant the little finger. Either way works as we’re only anchoring these fingers to give us a little bit more stability. Don’t press down with your hand or your fingers and don’t get all tensed up. Get comfortable and set things up so that when you draw your thumb over the strings towards your little finger you wind up strumming across all six strings.

REMEMBER:Strumming the open strings in standard tuning will sound discordant. Just work with me here for a while.

Make sure the strings all ring out. If your little finger is hitting the first string readjust things so that your fist string is free to sound clearly.

When you draw your thumb across the strings don’t move your arm or your wrist around too much. The movement here is more from your thumb than anywhere else.

Try this lightly a few times and then give it a good hard strum once or twice. Now strum across the strings four times fairly slowly. When I say “slowly” I don’t mean to drag your thumb across the strings so that each string rings out individually. Make the brush fairly crisp and count out loud each time you strum.

Count:  "One . . . two . . . three . . . four."
        strum     strum      strum       strum

In order to make that a bit smoother start tapping your foot each time you count and strum.

Count:  "One . . . two . . . three . . . four."
        strum     strum      strum       strum
Foot:    tap       tap        tap         tap

Run through that group of four strums five or six times in a row without stopping. Make an honest effort to keep your speed the same all the way through.

What you’ve just played is a four quarter note strum.

What’s a quarter note?

Well, to understand that we have to talk a little bit about note vales.

Note Values
For this workshop we are working in 4/4 time. That just means that the song is sort of broken up into chunks of four beats. A beat is the term we use to describe the pulse of the music.

That four beat rhythm can be broken up in all sorts of ways by giving each note a value in terms of rhythm. A note can be played as a whole note for all four beats, a half note for two beats, a quarter note for one beat or an eighth note for one-half of a beat. The only “rule” is that the all of the notes in a measure have to add up to the value of the time signature. In other words, you couldn’t really play a measure in 4/4 time with three whole notes.

For this basic strum we are playing each strum as a quarter note. As a result we wind up with four strums for each measure in the song.

Chords
Now we can play a quarter note strum, but the open strings in standard tuning sound pretty cheesy. Lets look at some chords.

To simplify things (this is a pretty big workshop after all) we’re just going to use three chords for this workshop. The chord diagrams below use numbers to show you where to put your fingers on the fretboard and a “0” for open strings. An “X” signifies an unplayed string (I’ll explain why we don’t use some strings for these chord forms in a little bit)

Chord:          C             F               G
Strings:   6-5-4-3-2-1   6-5-4-3-2-1      6-5-4-3-2-1   
Fret:      X-3-2-0-1-0   X-3-3-2-1-1      3-2-0-0-0-3

I’ve marked the sixth string on the C and F chords with an “X” because beginners tend to have a hard time fretting all six strings. I’ll write out the “full” chords at the end of the workshop, but for right now take it easy. Making chords on the guitar can be tough at first and you don’t want to stress out your hands to badly- this is supposed to be fun after all.

When it comes to making chords you’re going to have to experiment with things a bit to find the best position for your hands. I’ll write out the chords one more time and add in a line telling you what finger to use:

l=little r=ring m=middle i=index

Strings:   6-5-4-3-2-1   6-5-4-3-2-1      6-5-4-3-2-1   
Fret:      X-3-2-0-1-0   X-3-3-2-1-1      3-2-0-0-0-3
Finger:    X-r-m- -i-    X r-r-m-i-i      r-i-     -m

As you might have noticed, you sometimes have to use a finger to fret more than one string. Mess around with your hand position until you can make the notes sound clearly on each string and then spend a little bit of time just moving from C to G to F chords. Try other random combinations until you can change chords smoothly while keeping the rhythm of the four quarter note strum smooth.

Now let’s take a look at playing a song using this strum. In order to do this without a lot of fuss we’ll use tablature, or “tab” for short.

Reading Tab
Tab is just a way to illustrate fingerings on a fretted instrument. You have six lines. Each line represents a string on your guitar. The sixth string is at the bottom and the first string is on top. When any string has a zero you play that string open. The numbers on a string tell you what fret to play.

So in this example you would play your sixth string at the sixth fret, your fifth string at the fifth fret, your fourth string at the fourth fret, your third string at the third fret and so on.

|------------------1-|
|---------------2----|
|------------3-------|
|---------4----------|
|------5-------------|
|---6----------------|

Let’s play a song!
I have tabbed out the quarter note strum over the lyrics so you can sing this one while you play it. Trust me, if you get used to singing and playing now the more complex rhythm stuff will come a lot easier. Besides, it’s a neat old song.

Boil Them Cabbage Down
    C                       F
|---0----0----0----0----|---1---1---1---1---|
|---1----1----1----1----|---1---1---1---1---|
|---0----0----0----0----|---2---2---2---2---|
|---2----2----2----2----|---3---3---3---3---|
|---3----3----3----3----|---3---3---3---3---|
|---x----x----x----x----|---x---x---x---x---|
  boil them  cab-bage     down     down
    C                        G
|---0----0----0----0----|----3----3----3----3---|
|---1----1----1----1----|----0----0----0----0---|
|---0----0----0----0----|----0----0----0----0---|
|---2----2----2----2----|----0----0----0----0---|
|---3----3----3----3----|----2----2----2----2---|
|---x----x----x----x----|----3----3----3----3---|
   bake them hoe cakes     brown      brown
    C                       F
|---0----0----0----0----|---1---1---1---1---|
|---1----1----1----1----|---1---1---1---1---|
|---0----0----0----0----|---2---2---2---2---|
|---2----2----2----2----|---3---3---3---3---|
|---3----3----3----3----|---3---3---3---3---|
|---x----x----x----x----|---x---x---x---x---|
 the on- ly song that       I  can sing is
    C         G             C     
|---0----0----3----3----|----0----0----0----0---||
|---1----1----0----0----|----1----1----1----1---||
|---0----0----0----0----|----0----0----0----0--*||
|---2----2----0----0----|----2----2----2----2--*||
|---3----3----2----2----|----3----3----3----3---||
|---x----x----3----3----|----x----x----x----x---||
   boil them cab- bage      down

Here are some more lyrics to this tune so you can keep it going for a while:

Went up on the mountain Just to give my horn a blow.
Thought I heard my true love say,
Yonder comes my beau.

chorus:
Boil them cabbage down, down.
Turn them hoecakes down, down.
The only song that I can sing
Is boil them cabbage down.

Possum in a ‘simmon tree,
Raccoon on the ground.
Raccoon says, you son-of-a-gun,
Throw some ‘simmons down.

Someone stole my old coon dog,
Wish they’d bring him back.
He chased the big hogs through the fence
And the little ones through a crack.

Met a possum in the road,
Blind as he could be.
Jumped the fence and whipped my dog
And bristled up at me.

Butterfly he has wings of gold,
Firefly wings of flame.
Bedbug got no wings at all
but he gets there just the same.

This is great, but the strum might get sort of monotonous after a while. To liven things up let’s change the strum a bit.

The Bass Strum
What we are going to play now is the bass strum. It works by playing a bass string as a single quarter note and following it up with a strum.

No, I’m not kidding. That’s all there is to it. I’ll add the lyrics to the first line of tab, but after that it’s all pretty intuitive so I’ll leave it out and save myself some typing.

C                          F
|---------0-----------0---|----------1-----------1---|
|---------1-----------1---|----------1-----------1---|
|---------0-----------0---|----------2-----------2---|
|---------2-----------2---|----3-----3-----3-----3---|
|---3-----3-----3-----3---|----------3-----------3---|
|---------x-----------x---|----------x-----------x---|
  boil  them   cab-  bage    down          down . . . 
 
    C                      G
|---------0---------0---|--------3-----------3-|
|---------1---------1---|--------0-----------0-|
|---------0---------0---|--------0-----------0-|
|---------2---------2---|--------0-----------0-|
|---3-----3-----3---3---|--------2-----------2-|
|---------x---------x---|--3-----3-----3-----3-|
    C                         F
|---------0-----------0---|----------1-----------1---|
|---------1-----------1---|----------1-----------1---|
|---------0-----------0---|----------2-----------2---|
|---------2-----------2---|----3-----3-----3-----3---|
|---3-----3-----3-----3---|----------3-----------3---|
|---------x-----------x---|----------x-----------x---|
    C           G            C
|---------0-----------3---|--------0-----------0-|
|---------1-----------0---|--------1-----------1-|
|---------0-----------0---|--------0-----------0-|
|---------2-----------0---|--------2-----------2-|
|---3-----3-----------2---|--3-----3-----3-----3-|
|---------x-----3-----3---|--------x-----------x-|

In the above bass strum version we are using the root note of the chord as our bass note. What’s the root note? Well, in order to understand that we will need to learn a little bit about scales and some basic music theory.

Basic Music Theory
A scale is just a sequence of notes. The formal term is something like “the key of E is a major mode with a root of E”, but we won’t be getting that technical here so thinking of it as a sequence of notes makes things easier for now.

In Western music we are only working with twelve notes. The twelve notes are named after the letters A through G with a whole or half-step between each pair of letters except between B and C and E and F.

Your half step is either a sharp (#) or a flat (b.)

The half step between A and B can be called either A# or Bb.

A# means that the A note is raised one half step higher. Bb is the B note lowered one half step. A# and Bb are the same note. The other half steps follow the same pattern.

So with all twelve notes laid out you have the chromatic scale:

A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/A

Once you understand the idea of half steps you can just write out the chromatic scale like this to save space and make it a tad clearer:

(The "| "symbol will be used to represent a half step)

A | B C | D | E F | G |

To hear this on your guitar play the third string at the second fret (an A note). Then play that string on each fret all the way through twelve frets. You have just played each note of the chromatic scale. This works because the fretboard is laid out to follow the chromatic scale.

Look at it this way. The third string of your guitar is tuned to G. If we fret the G string at the first fret we get a G#/Ab. Keep that idea moving down the fetboard and . . .

|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---0----1----2----3----4----5----6----7----8----9----10----11----12-|
|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
|--------------------------------------------------------------------|
   G  G#/Ab   A  A#/Bb  B    C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E     F   F#/Gb  G 

Each string on your guitar follows the same pattern. The first string is tuned to E so fretting the first string at the first fret gets you an F note and fretting at the third fret gets you a . . . come on, figure this one out on your own . . . if you said “G” you’ve got the idea!

Now that we know where the notes are on the fretboard the next step is to figure out how to organize those notes into scales.

To figure out the notes of the C scale we need to lay out a string of twelve notes starting with our root note.

In this case the root note is C so we start with the C note. Remember, because we are only working with the letters A through G the note after the G note is going to be A.

C | D | E F | G | A | B C

If you notice we started on C and ended on C. That second C is called the octave. It is the same note as the root but higher in pitch. What we have here now is a chromatic scale starting on C and ending on C.

In order to find the C scale we follow this pattern up the scale:

Root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step

C is the root. A whole step from C is D A whole step from D is E A half step from E is F A whole step from F is G A whole step from G is A A whole step from A is B A half step from B is C

So your C scale is: C D E F G A B C.

To play this on the guitar we could use the same formula that we used to play the A chromatic scale. We can start this on the second string at the first fret. Why? Because the second string is tuned to B and as a result fretting that B string at the first fret gives you a C note.

A whole step from C is D:

|--------|
|---1--3-|
|--------|
|--------|
|--------|
|--------|
   C  D

A whole step from D is E:

|-----------|
|---1--3--5-|
|-----------|
|-----------|
|-----------|
|-----------|
   C  D  E

A half step from E is F:

|--------------|
|---1--3--5--6-|
|--------------|
|--------------|
|--------------|
|--------------|
    C  D  E  F

A whole step from F is G:

|-----------------|
|---1--3--5--6--8-|
|-----------------|
|-----------------|
|-----------------|
|-----------------|
    C  D  E  F  G

A whole step from G is A:

|—-v—————–|
|—1–3–5–6–8–10-|
|———————|
|———————|
|———————|
|———————|
C D E F G A

A whole step from A is B:

|------------------------|
|---1--3--5--6--8-10--11-|
|------------------------|
|------------------------|
|------------------------|
|------------------------|
   C  D  E  F  G  A   B

A half step from B is C:

|----------------------------|
|---1--3--5--6--8-10--11--12-|
|----------------------------|
|----------------------------|
|----------------------------|
|----------------------------|
   C  D  E  F  G  A   B   C

And that gives us a C scale.

That isn’t the only C scale on your guitar. You can play a C scale anywhere on the fretboard. Try playing a C scale staring on the fifth string at the third fret. That’s a C note because the fifth string is tuned to A:

|--------------------|
|--------------------|
|--------------------|
|--------------------|
|---0----1----2----3-|
|--------------------|
    A  A#/Bb  B    C

So we start with C:

|-----|
|-----|
|-----|
|-----|
|---3-|
|-----|
   C

The next note in the scale is D- and that just happens to be the next open string:

|--------|
|--------|
|--------|
|------0-|
|---3----|
|--------|
    C  D

After D comes E and F:

|--------------|
|--------------|
|--------------|
|------0--2--3-|
|---3----------|
|--------------|
    C  D  E  F

The next note in the scale in G- and we can move over to the next open string for that note:

|-----------------|
|-----------------|
|---------------0-|
|------0--2--3----|
|---3-------------|
|-----------------|
    C  D  E  F  G

And you just keep that idea going until you hit the next C note:

|---------------|-------------|
|---------------|--------0--1-|
|---------------|--0--2-------|
|------0--2--3--|-------------|
|---3-----------|-------------|
|---------------|-------------|
    C  D  E  F     G  A  B  C

And you can start another C scale from that C note:

|———0–1–|–3–5–7–8-|
|—1–3——–|————-|
|—————|————-|
|—————|————-|
|—————|————-|
|—————|————-|
C D E F G A B C

So playing a major scale isn’t a big deal. In fact, it’s nothing more than playing a simple pattern of whole and half steps on the fretboard.

Try working out some more scales on your own. For the rest of this particular workshop we will be using the C, F and G scales. To save time I’ll tab the bass-string scales out for you.

C:

|---------------|-------------|
|---------------|--------0--1-|
|---------------|--0--2-------|
|------0--2--3--|-------------|
|---3-----------|-------------|
|---------------|-------------|
    C  D  E  F     G  A  B  C
F:

|---------------|--------------|
|---------------|--------------|
|---------------|--------------|
|---------------|-----0--2--3--|
|---------0--1--|--3-----------|
|---1--3--------|--------------|
    F  G  A  Bb    C  D  E   F
G:

|---------------|-------------|
|---------------|-------------|
|---------------|-----------0-|
|---------------|--0--2--4----|
|------0--2--3--|-------------|
|---3-----------|-------------|
    G  A  B  C     D  E  F# G

ALTERNATING BASS:

Using the root note for the bass sounds good but it’s kind of boring. In order to give the song a feeling of motion we can alternate the bass. To do this we play the root note for the first bass strum in a measure and either the fifth or the third note of the scale to start the second bass strum:

C:

|---------------|-------------|
|---------------|--------0--1-|
|---------------|--0--2-------|
|------0--2--3--|-------------|
|---3-----------|-------------|
|---------------|-------------|
    C  D  E  F     G  A  B  C
  Root   3rd      5th

So if we use the root and the third note for our bass notes for a C chord we get an alternating bass pattern like this:

C

|-----0-----0--|-|
|-----1-----1--|-|
|-----0-----0--|-|
|-----2---2-2--|-|
|---3-3-----3--|-|
|-----x-----x--|-|

And when you apply that to Boil Them Cabbage Down:

C                 F               C
|-------0-------0---|-----1-------1-|-----0-------0---|
|-------1-------1---|-----1-------1-|-----1-------1---|
|-------0-------0---|-----2---2---2-|-----0-------0---|
|-------2---2---2---|-3---3-------3-|-----2---2---2---|
|---3---3-------3---|-----3-------3-|-3---3-------3---|
|-------x-------x---|-----x-------x-|-----x-------x---|
 boil them cab-bage   down    down  bake them hoe-cakes
    
    G               C               F
|-------3-------3-|-----0-------0---|-----1-------1-|
|-------0-------0-|-----1-------1---|-----1-------1-|
|-------0-------0-|-----0-------0---|-----2---2---2-|
|-------0-------0-|-----2---2---2---|-3---3-------3-|
|-------2---2---2-|-3---3-------3---|-----3-------3-|
|---3---3-------3-|-----x-------x---|-----x-------x-|
   brown  brown   the only song that  I can sing is
    C       G      C
|-------0-------3---|-----0-------0--|-|
|-------1-------0---|-----1-------1--|-|
|-------0-------0---|-----0-------0-*|-|
|-------2-------0---|-----2---2---2-*|-|
|---3---3-------2---|-3---3-------3--|-|
|-------x---3---3---|-----x-------x--|-|
 boil them cab-bage  down

Nothing to it, right?

Give this a shot with your thumb, and then try it with a flatpick.

Until next time, -Patrick 7/29/04

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