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Ragtime Guitar Lesson: How I Overcame Its Top 3 Hurdles

Lesson ID: TB426

How does he do that?

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Blind Blake. I sat in my truck slack-jawed from the sound coming out of my speakers. It didn’t seem possible to play like that.

I was familiar with the Piedmont Blues of Etta Baker and the Ragtime picking of Reverend Gary Davis.

But this guy? He blew me away with what he could do with 10 fingers and an acoustic guitar.

I was hooked and dove right into learning some Blake tunes.

I wish I could tell you that I breezed through the songs and can play exactly like Blake. But, that didn’t happen and I can’t. But I have been on a journey to learn his Ragtime Blues style and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

In this lesson, I’ll share three big hurdles that I overcame on my journey. Plus, I’ll share the lynchpin that helped me get closer to Blake’s sound.

Let’s dig in.

Hurdle 1: Rapid Chord Changes

On the surface, the chord progression behind a lot of Ragtime Blues doesn’t make any sense. That’s one reason that making rapid chord changes in this style can be difficult. We’ll tackle speed in a bit, but first let’s take a step back and try to make sense of the wacky chord progression.

The G Ragtime Blues example in the video cycles through 7 chords. Only two of them belong to the Key of G.

But the chords sound like they fit together even though it breaks the rules.


Understanding the Dominant Chord Function

To understand Secondary Dominants, let’s revisit how chords function within a key.

In the Key of G, we can build a chord from each note of the G Major Scale (G – A – B – C – D – E – F#) by stacking thirds.

Doing this gives us these chords:

G – Am – Bm – C – D – Em – F#dim

These are diatonic chords because they were all built from the same major scale. Each chord in the sequence has a relationship to the first chord which we’ll call the Tonic.

Let’s focus on the relationship between the Tonic and the fifth chord in the sequence, D.

This chord is the Dominant chord and it has a strong pull to the Tonic.

We can strengthen this pull by playing the D chord as a Dominant 7th, D7.

D7 presents tension in the Key of G that resolves to the Tonic, G Major.

Now, let’s apply this understanding to our ragtime piece.

Finding the Secondary Dominant

How can we create a similar pull towards the D7 chord?

To do this, think of D as the Tonic and find the chord that has the Dominant function in the Key of D.

Like we did before, look to the chord build on the 5th scale degree and make it a Dominant 7th chord.

D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

This gives us an A7 which sets up that same tension to D that D7 did in G.

Note that the A7 isn’t in the original key. In G, A “should” be minor. We are effectively playing the Dominant Chord of a Dominant Chord. Here A7 is a Secondary Dominant.

Chaining Secondary Dominants Together

Ragtime Blues frequently chains secondary dominants together creating tremendous forward momentum. The example chord progression chains several together starting with B7.

Here’s the chain:

B7 -> E7 -> A7 -> D7 -> G

Notice how each chord is the Fifth Chord of the following chord’s key.

It might seem difficult at first. But practice by simply strumming through the chords with this idea of Secondary Dominants in mind.

This could be the thing that unlocks the wacky Ragtime chord progression for you like it was for me. And it sure helps when you’re working on squeezing tons of chord changes into a few fast bars.

Know Each Chord Inside and Out

In Ragtime Blues, chords change fast and there’s hardly any time to think.

To nail the rapid chord changes, we need to do two things:

  1. Know the individual chords incredibly well
  2. Know the chord progression inside and out

Let’s start with the individual chords in the progression. How well do you know them? Test how well you know each chord with the Zero to Sixty Test.

Start with your fret hand completely off the fretboard. Then, in one motion, grip the guitar neck with one of the chords.

It’s a bit like going from a dead stop to full speed in your car.

Can you do it? If you can do this with a given chord shape, I’d say you know it. Your fingers can do the job and that’s half the battle. But what if you can’t quite do it?

Try this on-and-off exercise I picked up from Andy Guitar. It’s targeted at beginners, but it holds up nicely for those looking to learn more advanced chords too. Here’s how it works:

  1. Fret the chord shape
  2. Pick each note of the note to make sure it rings clearly
  3. Stop the strings from ringing
  4. Lift your fingers slightly off the strings, hovering just over the frets
  5. Press back down with the chord shape
  6. Check for clean fretting by picking through the strings
  7. Repeat the process several times

If you can do this accurately, you’ve got the chord shape memorized and you should move on to memorizing the progression.

Memorize the Chord Progression

Knowing what chord comes next is crucial, especially at higher tempos.

That means you need to know the progression cold. Hopefully, knowing a bit about secondary dominants demystifies the wild Ragtime progressions.

But you’ve got to know the progression well at slow speeds before you can play it at faster tempos.

So, practice the progression by strumming through the chords slowly. As you do, make sure your fingers nail the change and each chord sounds clean.

As you gain confidence, increase the tempo and always think ahead. Try to focus on the next chord more than the one you’re on.

If you are having trouble thinking ahead, write the chords down and look ahead of where you are.

Hurdle 2: Playing Basslines with Your Thumb

Thrash metal got me into guitar.

When I dove into blues, I was a decent player and I thought it would be an easy transition. Turns out, there’s not a lot of carryover from gallop-picked riffs to fingerstyle acoustic blues.

So, I had to build my fingerpicking technique from the ground up. Like everyone else.

I struggled to get my thumb to play a steady beat while plucking the other strings with my fingers. It didn’t come as naturally to me so I retooled my approach and got back to basics.

I’m glad I did, because the fundamental movements that I drilled back then are the same movements that I use daily.

And Ragtime Blues is built on these same movements. So let’s get your thumb under control with a couple of targeted exercises.

If you haven't worked on building your dead bass thumbpicking skills, start here.

Alternating Bass Drills

In Ragtime Blues, you’re thumb plays the bass notes from the chord on each beat. Many rags are full of quirky thumb tricks – hello, Blind Blake – but we’ll hold off on that for now.

Start by alternating the bass between two adjacent strings like this:

Loop this exercise with a metronome but don’t do it in front of the TV. I used to do that and I lost so much time that way.

Instead, practice with an awareness. Is this exercise hard? If so, ask yourself what makes it hard and focus on improving that. Yes, you need time under your belt when it comes to building your thumb control but time alone won’t get you there.

Identifying these challenges will help you overcome them more efficiently.

Next, try this 6 – 4 pattern that skips a string.

When you’re comfortable with a two-string alternating bass pattern, try this three-string pattern:

Again, practice with awareness. If it’s hard, dig into what specifically is making it hard and work to shore that part of the movement up.

Take it slow.

Hurdle 3: Capturing the Ragtime Feel

One of the hardest things about playing Ragtime Blues is dialing in the feel. The bounce. The off-kilter, syncopated rhythm is at the heart of Ragtime Blues and it’s where the style gets it’s name.

Ragtime = Ragged Time.

In Tuesday Blues #405, we focused on a two-hand muting technique that will help you get closer to that bounce.

Here, we’ll focus on the rhythm. And in Ragtime, that means syncopation.

Syncopated rhythms are when accents occur off-beat or in-between the main count – usually a 4 count. But you don’t simply play 8th notes and accent them. The rhythm of the 8th notes is swung by pushing them closer to the next beat.

View this lesson on the different between straight time and swing rhythms.

Each player seems to have their own feel based on how they swing the 8th notes.

Develop your own Ragtime Swing feel, practice exaggerating the swing at slow tempos. Play through an example like this with a straight time feel:

Try to place each 8th note evenly between each beat. Now, let’s take the swing to the extreme. Play the same pattern, but pick the off-beat notes (the 8th notes) as close to the next beat as possible. Do this at a slow tempo to really feel the difference. I think of this as stumbling into the next beat.

Feels ragged to me 🙂

Speed up the exercise while maintaining this swing as much as you can. At faster tempos, you’ll likely dial back the exaggerated swing and that’s ok. It should start to sound a lot more like the bounce of great Ragtime Blues players.

The Linchpin for Learning Ragtime Blues

Ragtime is complicated, there’s no sugarcoating that.

Syncopated rhythms…

Alternating bass…

Crazy chords…

It’s a handful, but if there’s one thing to keep in mind, one thing to keep top of mind when learning a Ragtime tune, it’s this:

Focus on the Melody.

The melody is the hero of any song. The chords, the bassline and the rhythm are there to serve the melody. They provide the foundation for the melody to stand on. Every time I find myself in the weeds with a Ragtime tune, I pull back and focus on the melody. That guides me and for me, it has been the thing that helps everything come together.

I know that this style isn’t easy. And I know you’ve got to pay attention to the techniques we talked about already. But, don’t neglect the melody. Don’t let it get lost in the picking and don’t let it get lost while you’re learning a tune.

My little secret hack…?

Whistle the melody while picking through the song. This helps guide me through the song while keeping the melody front and center. You may choose to hum or sing, but whistling does the trick for me.

It helps the melody stand out.

Keep that in mind and learning Ragtime will be a little bit easier. Not easy! But easier.

I hope all of these tips help you nail you’re next Ragtime Blues tune.

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

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