In this part of our site we look at songs and tunes and and guide you through the process of how to learn them. There are two ways to approach the material in this section:
Both of these are good learning objectives, but the second bullet is the main reason for putting this material together. We're going to look at the process of studying a tune and explore how to arrange it to play different picking styles. Our goal is to help you to learn how to develop your own arrangements by seeing how it's done for the study tune.
The tune we'll study on this page is "Arkansas Traveler." Here is the approach we use to study this well-known fiddle tune:
|Step 1||We'll start with melody as played by a fiddle. We'll transcribe the melody for guitar and learn the chords.|
|Step 2||We'll repeat step 1 but have the guitar capoed at the second fret and play out of the C position.|
|Step 3||We develop lead arrangements of the melody dropped down an octave|
|Step 4||We'll develop simplified versions of the tune with fewer notes that are easier to play up to speed|
|Step 5||We'll develop Carter-style arrangements.|
|Step 6||We offer suggestions on where to go for further study|
You'll find a couple of file formats in the Study Tune section for audio and tablature files. In order to view and hear them correctly, it is necessary for your to have the the right equipment installed on your computer. Please refer to the table below for details.
|mp3||We use mp3 files for sound clips. This format is compatible with almost all computers.|
|View/Play||We use our Cloud Viewer to display our tab files in your web browser. This viewer lets you play the arrangements while you view it. (To print a tab you must download the PDF version)|
|You can also view and print our tabs using the Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in for your browser. You can download the Acrobat Reader directly from Adobe if you need it.|
"Arkansas Traveler" started out as a song (with lyrics) played in minstrel shows, but today it is mainly played as a traditional fiddle tune. The best place to start is with a fiddle version of this song. Click on the link below to hear the basic tune.
|Fiddle Recording||Listen to Audio Clip
Once you have listened to the audio clip the next task is to transcribe it. How do you do that? Because may fiddle tunes are played at fast tempos, we often have to slow down the playback so that you can tab out the notes being played. The product we use for this is the Amazing Slow Downer by Roni Music.
You can use any blank tab sheet you like to write out the notes for the tune. There are many guitar staff manuscript paper products available commercially. You can also download and print out our free Blank Tab sheet.
Here is our tab for the basic Arkansas Traveler melody from the fiddle tune recording above. Notice that it is organized into an "AABB" form. The A part is played twice and then the B part is played twice. Both the A and B parts are 8 bars long.
|Melody from Fiddle Recording||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Finding the Key
The next thing to figure out what key it's played in. You can do this by playing chords along with the recording until you find the right key. Most fiddle tunes have a standard key they are played in. Among the best places to look this up is at the Fiddler's Companion and the Traditional Tune Archive. In the case of our Arkansas Traveler study tune, the key is D.
Once you have the key, the next thing to do is to figure out the chords that go with the tune. We recommend that you learn the basic melody enough so that you can sing it (or hum it). Break up the tune into small sections ("phrases") that are easily remembered. Don't make these sections too long; two measures works well in most cases. Then while you hum the melody for these sections, play chords in the right key on your guitar and how they sound. Start out with the major chords for key: the I, IV and V chords (these are D, G and A for the key of D). If there are phrases where these chords don't fit, try the minor chords for the key: II, III and VI. These are Em, F#m, and Bm chords in the key of D.
Learning the chords this way is hard when you first start out, but the more you do it the easier it becomes. There is also a major benefit for doing this: you begin to hear the chord changes in the tune. As you work through the phrases, write the chords on the tab sheet you created when you figured out the basic melody. Then, play back the recording of the tune and listen to how your chords sound. If you find spots where something doesnt sound right, go back to those sections and use the humming technique with other chords to find a better fit.
Basic Arrangement of "Arkansas Traveler" with Chords
We added chords to our basic melody using this technique and published it here in both Scorch and PDF formats. The arrangement is in the key of D, and includes both standard notation and TAB.
|Guitar Arrangement in D||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Are Your Chords Different?
The chords you come up with might be different from the ones we show. Does that make one correct and the other one incorrect? Not necessarily! As long as the chords sound good with the melody they're fine. In a two-player setting (one person playing melody and the other chords), this is great. However, in a band setting with more players it's essential for everyone to play the same chords. The main point here is that the chords can vary from one arrangement to another.
Although the fingering for Arkansas Traveler in the key of D is not too difficult, it's often desirable to explore alternate positions to play in. The most obvious in this case is to put the capo on the second fret and play the tune as though it were in the key of C. This puts it in the correct key of D for playing with others.
To make up a tab sheet for this, start with a blank tab sheet and the tab made up in the key of D. The tab in C plays the same notes as the one in D, but the position on the fingerboard where those notes are played changes by two frets (one whole step) down. Try putting a capo on your guitar at the second fret, and then look at the tab in the key of D. Starting with the first note, figure out where you can play this now that the capo is on. This is a valuable exercise for those who are learning the guitar. You can use the following tab to see how we did it.
|Melody in C||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Changing the chords from the D arrangement to the C arrangement is straightforward. We're dropping everything down a full step, so the chord changes are as follows:
|Chords in D Version||D||G||A|
|Chords in C Version||C||F||G|
Basic Arrangement in C with Chords
We added chords to the basic melody in C by following the chart above and have published it here in both Scorch and PDF formats. The arrangement is in the key of C, and includes both standard notation and TAB.
|Guitar Arrangement in C||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Deciding What Key to Play It In
So now we have two arrangements for Arkansas Traveler: one in the open key of D, the other is played in C with the guitar capoed on the second fret. Which one should you use? We like to use the version in C because it works really well in a Carter-style arrangement, but it's good training to learn how to play it both ways.
One of the ways to create variety in playing a fiddle tune like Arkansas Traveler is to play it in a different octave. This not only changes the sound but often requires adjustments because some notes aren't available or are difficult to play. In our case, we're already playing the tune on the higher strings of the guitar, so let's see if we can lower it an octave and play it on the lower strings.
Lowering the Tab Arrangement in the Key of D
Try this yourself by grabbing another blank tab sheet and and create the tab by dropping each note in the first arrangement down an octave. Use your guitar as needed to help find the notes. As you do this you will probably see that we have a problem in the turnaround bars (measures 8, 9, 17 and 18). The second and third notes in these measures would fall below the low E string on the guitar when lowered by a octave.
To get around this we need to change the arrangement slightly. The ending note in the phrase is D, so let's ascend to D from the first note in the measures, which is an F#. The next note is an E in the first arrangement; let's change that to an A. Then the three note sequence becomes F# - A - D. Here is what the resulting note-by-note tab looks like when we drop it down an octave. The modified notes are shown in red.
|Melody in D - Lower Octave||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
And here is the full lower-octave arrangement in the key of D with chords and standard notation.
|Lower Octave Guitar Arrangement in D||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Lowering the Tab Arrangement in the Key of C
We can use the same process to develop a lower-octave tab in the key of C. When we do this, we run into the same problem in the turnaround bars (measures 8, 9, 17 and 18) where the notes are below the low E string. We can use the same approach as we did in the D arrangement and have an ascending melody line in those bars. Here is what our note-by-note tab looks like when we were done. The modified notes are shown in red.
|Melody in C - Lower Octave||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
And here is the full lower-octave arrangement in the key of C with chords and standard notation.
|Lower Octave Guitar Arrangement in C||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Many published arrangements of tunes are beyond the reach of beginning and intermediate players. Players often try to learn one of these arrangements, but can't play it up to speed. Their technique may not be developed enough to get that many notes in cleanly. There is nothing more deflating than to be in a jam and when it comes your turn to play the lead you try that arrangement you've been working on but crash and burn.
A useful technique in these cases is to create a simplified version of the tune. This is an arrangement with the minimum number of notes necessary to play it and still have it be recognizable. We will demonstrate this technique on our Arkansas Traveler study tune.
The notes in our previous arrangements of Arkansas Traveler are not all equal in terms of their importance to the melody. Some notes may be repeated, or are transition notes (passing tones).
Starting out with quarter notes
A good place to start in simplifying the arrangement is to look at the notes that sit on the downbeats of each measure. If we were to use just those notes, the resulting arrangement would be all quarter notes. We can play these and listen to the resulting melody to see how it sounds to our ears. There might be some notes that don't sound right. In this case you can look at the notes to either side and see how they sound. Write the resulting tab out and play through it until you're satisfied.
When we did this exercise, we came up with the following chart. Note that in some cases we didn't select the notes that fall exactly on the downbeat. As mentioned above, those notes didn't sound right to our ear.
To view our complete quarter note melody, download the PDF version below. To hear what this sounds like, play it yourself or click on the sound file link below. What do you think? Does the quarter-note version get all the right notes? Do you think it could be better?
|Simplified Melody in D (Quarter Notes)||Download PDF|||||Listen to Audio Clip|
Simplifying Further - Half Notes
It's possible to simplify our study tune even further. Let's try to pick out the most important half notes in each measure. This gives us an arrangement with only two notes per measure. We will use use the lower-octave arrangement in D for this. The results are shown below. Try playing this and see what you think.
To view our complete half-note melody, download the PDF version below. To hear what this sounds like, play it yourself or click on the sound file link below. What do you think? Is the half-note arrangement still recognizable as Arkansas Traveler?
|Simplified Melody in D (Half Notes)||Download PDF|||||Listen to Audio Clip|
Developing Your Own Simplified Version
We invite you to develop your own simplified arrangements for some of the other tabs listed above. These include the lower and upper octave arrangements in C and D. Try each of these using quarter notes and half notes. This is an excellent learning tool, and you will learn the most by doing this rather than play pre-arranged tabs. As you work through this exercise, you half complete freedom to make the arrangement your own. You can have a mixture of quarter notes, half notes and eighth notes; it's all up to you. The goal is to end up with a version that you like and that you can play up to speed.
Carter-style is characterized by playing the melody notes on the bass strings and rhythmic fills on the treble strings. A helpful way to approach this is to play the rhythm for the tune using the chords in a boom-chuck style. This means hitting a bass note on beats 1 and 3 and a rhythm strum on beats 2 and 4.
Creating a Carter-Style Arrangement from a Lower Octave Simplified Melody
A good place to start for a Carter-style arrangement is to develop a simplified half-note simplified arrangement where the melody notes are on the base strings of the guitar.
The graphic below shows the first line from a the lower-octave basic melody arrangement in D. The corresponding line below it shows how this might be represented in a Carter-style arrangement. The key notes (on beats 1 and 3) are highlighted in blue in both arrangements. Note that the Carter-style arrangement eliminates the eighth notes in favor of quarter notes. This method illustrates the use of a boom-chuck style for a starting Carter-style arrangement.
We used this transformation technique to develop a complete Carter-style arrangement for Arkansas Traveler. These arrangements are listed below. They will work either for a solo or for rhythm backup.
Carter-style Arrangement in D
|Carter-style Arrangement in D||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
The Carter-style arrangement in D does have some fingering challenges. These are shown in the highlighted areas in the graphic below. These notes require different chord fingerings than what would ordinarily use for first position open chords. These are not impossible to play, but can be trouble spots.
Carter-style Arrangement in C
The trouble spots above can be avoided in a Carter-style arrangement in C. We used the same approach as we did before, and have provided the tab below. This arrangement is straightforward and there no chord fingering challenges.
|Carter-style Arrangement in C||View/Play Tab|||||Download PDF|
Other Carter-style Techniques
There are a number of things you can do to the basic Carter-style arrangements to make them more interesting and to give them your own interpretation. These include:
Carter-Style Learning Resources - A listing of Carter-style books and videos here at BluegrassGuitar.com.
We hope the process outlined in this section gives you some insights into how to take a basic fiddle tune, tab it out and apply different picking styles to it. If you liked this approach, we recommend you consider Rolly Brown's Solo Flatpicking Guitar video. It uses the same study tune concept, but goes into much more detail on technique.
Recommended For Further Study
Solo Flatpicking Guitar
by Rolly Brown
Media: DVD / Digital Download
This video course focuses on how to create solos for instrumental tunes and interesting vocal accompaniments. Most of the video is a study of one song: "Hard Times" by Stephen Foster. It starts with learning the basic melody and the chord progression, then moves on to Carter-style, using different strums, adding bass runs, crosspicking and rolls, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and arpeggios. This is a terrific course and a great follow up to our Study Tune approach.
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