Updated: Jun 4, 2020
Boom-chick, boom-chick. Boom-chick, boom-chick.
If you're new to playing or listening to old time music, you might start to think the "boom-chick" noise is all the guitar is good for.
After all, you probably don't hear flatpicking fast melodies with flashy licks.
You don't hear fancy jazz chords way up the neck.
You don't hear slappy-tappy-pushy-smacky right hand stuff.
The guitar just literally says "Boom-chick". Over and over. With simple chords. Most of the time, anyway.
Yeah, in the hierarchy of old time music, guitar tends to be on the low rung.
Because in old time music, it's all about the fiddle playing the melody. It's how this music was done on porches and barns and hills and hollers. Heck, guitars didn't even come around the scene with prevalence until the end of the 1920s.
Banjos and any stray mandos can outline melody while keeping rhythm.
But guitars are usually assigned the straight-up rhythm role.
...Which is totally awesome! It's freeing!
But since all the "glory" is on the fiddler - typically in social jam settings, it's the fiddlers who decide what tune to play - sometimes we guitar players can start to feel a little ho-hum.
And those things, gosh darn it, are not (completely) true!
But the longer and more firmly we believe them, the more "stuck" and "ho-hum" we will feel with our guitar playing.
If you're an old time guitar player, do you find yourself believing any of these myths?
7. I have to play the right type of guitar.
Let us imagine a jam scenario. Unless they're having a banjo-fiddle summit or a closed jam, the other players in the group are probably really glad to see a guitarist approach. You have a baby Taylor? Ok, maybe it doesn't "look the part". But if you can hold your rhythm, play appropriate chords, and follow all the other unspoken jam etiquette rules, you'll be welcome in most circles.
How I feel when approaching a new jam
As you hang around old time music scenes more and more, maybe you'll hunger for that aged-wood tone and the sweet, sweet sound of a Gibson L00. That's all well and good. And yes, you'll get some Cool Points. But if you're just getting into old time, or if you have other reasons for wanting to play the guitar you do, go for it.
As long as it's acoustic!
6. It doesn’t matter what chords I play.
So here is a tricky thing. There are different recorded versions and arrangements of tunes. On top of that, different fiddlers sometimes have different preferences for the chords flavors (major 6th or minor 6th?). Plus, sometimes you are the only guitar player in the jam, and no one else is making chords for you to go by, and those slippery folks are playing tunes you have never heard!
It's easy to get complacent. And sometimes it's true that it doesn't matter what chord you're playing.
But most of the time, it matters.
Become an observer of your fellow musicians. Look at the faces of fiddlers. They are all scrunched up and serious, with furrowed brows or squinted eyes. That's their "fiddle face". It's normal. They're actually having a ton of fun.
But then check them out when you play a wrong chord. They might twitch. Or glance at you sideways. Or lean one way or the other. Or shout "4!" at you, like my friend Jenny does at me. This is their way of communicating to you that they did not like the chord you just made. They would tell you more information with actual words, but they're a little busy with all that bow-rocking. Try a different chord the next time around, and they'll probably nod or half-grin their approval.
If there happens to be another guitar player in the jam, be their friend, not their frenemy. Look at their left hand. If they seem confident, do the chords they do. Don't try to get creative here. It's better to have two guitarists confidently playing the "wrong chords" together than two guitarists BOTH playing wrong chords, in my opinion. Been there. Tried it. #regret
5. Changing strings is not important.
Maintenance. It sucks.
We can say we like the sound of dead strings. We can say it sounds "more authentic" (and to a point, it might).
But chances are, you are falling less and less in love with your guitar the deader your strings get.
It becomes harder to play. The intonation isn't what it was. You don't feel heard in the jams. The thrill is gone!
Change your gosh derned strings!
It will change your life! Or at least your attitude for the next few days of guitarring.
4. I don’t have to check my tuning.
Tuning is for fiddles and banjos, you might say to yourself. I checked my tuning before the session. I'm still good to go.
Though you aren't literally retuning your instrument to play in different keys as banjos and fiddles do, you still have tuning-checking responsibility.
Chester McMillian, legendary guitarist for Tommy Jarrell, was quick to coach me in this at the Banjo-Fiddle Frolic. He saw me slap a capo on the second fret to play in A. "You're out of tune now," he said. And it's true. The capo pulls our strings a bit, and our intonation is off unless we adjust our tuning.
Chester's hack? Push down on your strings with your right hand after you put on the capo. It will stretch the strings back into tune. Try it!
Take a moment while the banjos and fiddles are tuning to check your tuning too. Not only the capo, but also humidity, heat, and hunger (ok maybe not hunger) can affect your tuning.
Electronic tuners that clip on your guitar are your forever friend. Frank and I highly recommend Seiko rechargeable tuners. These bad boys have been our go-to for four years on all our instruments. Here's why we love them:
- big, bright display
- quick to respond
- have the "clip" or "mic" option for how they "hear" the frequencies
- have a FLASHLIGHT (how handy is that!?) and....wait for it...
- rechargeable with any micro USB cable.
3. I don’t have to know any tunes.
The beauty of playing guitar is that we can indeed skate by without doing our homework. We can figure out chords on the fly. We can skim, generalize, and bluff just like we did in Shakespeare class (sorry, Dr, Ricke).
But you will have WAY MORE FUN if you start learning the tunes.
Think of each tune as a new friend.
When you meet someone new, you learn her name, right?
You visit for a few minutes, while absorbing things that make her unique, like her sparking brown eyes or her melodious laugh.
Then you confirm her name again before parting ways, so you don't forget her.
Then you hope to run into her again, maybe look her up on Facebook, maybe Google her (just briefly, of course)....Don't be a stalker.
Likewise, when you meet a new tune, consider it a new friend. Get to know it. Try to remember its name, the source fiddler, what key it was in, any quirks (added beats, 7th chords, etc). Write it down or even record it with a recording device. Look up source versions later. Maybe you'll surprise yourself by geeking out and learning specific guitar runs from the recordings you find. Here's one I shared in my intermediate guitar class at Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week:
Jamming and playing is more fun when you know some tunes.
2. I can’t call the tunes in a jam.
True. In many jams, you can't. You are indeed the lowly guitar player in this sense.
But that doesn't mean you can't...shall we say...suggest tunes.
Replace "man" and "woman" with "fiddler" and "guitar player" :-)
Is your intent to help keep the musical conversation flowing? Some fiddlers feel pressure about calling tunes but don't want to admit it. So in bringing up a tune in a quiet side conversation, you are being helpful to the bigger musical conversation.
Let's picture a jam scenario. Are you sitting by a fiddler? In the space between tunes, begin a conversation. Ask what that tune was. Ok, then after the next tune, mention how that tune reminded you of _______ tune. They might say, "Oh yeah! That's a good one." And off they go.
Or maybe they have a tune list in their case. You can ask to check it out. If you see one you know, you could say, "Oh I love_____! I haven't heard that one in a while." And off they go.
Unless you're among good friends, directly asked to, (or playing the fiddle), don't call or request tunes. But you can try conversationally suggesting tunes quietly to a fiddler who might be sitting next to you.
1. I’m “just the guitar player”.
I feel you. Jams can happen without us. We are not the melody players. We don't have tune-calling status. We aren't the stars.
But don't despair! A solid guitar player can lift up a tune and make it soar.
Take some time to practice your guitar chops. Listen to source recordings. Study the bass runs of those who've gone before us. In doing so, you will grow your confidence (slowly but surely - I'm still getting there myself!). As you grow your confidence - and stop believing the first 6 myths - you will start to see yourself as a useful, helpful, functioning cog in the old time jam machine.
What do you think about this myth-busting? Leave me a comment!
Allie Lee is 1/2 of Frank & Allie Lee and 1/4 of The Freight Hoppers. She also teaches Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam classes and camps. She's a former 7th grade Language Arts teacher who always had a love/hate relationship with writing but a great love of grammar. She lives with husband Frank Lee in Bryson City, NC with their step-daughter and herd of rescued indoor/outdoor cats. www.frankandallie.com