The Power Of Traditional Melodies


Traditional Melodies

In my journey as a serious guitarist I’ve been lucky enough to meet a boatload of great teachers and players. As a consequence, I learned that as teachers and players we all have a great many things in common, among them was the ability to skillfully play and teach traditional old-fashioned melodies. As a modern musician it’s critical and essential that you develop a love for things like roots music, bluegrass, ragtime, fiddle tunes, Americana, Celtic music, Irish jigs, reels and all of that great melodic and firey picking that traditional music offers. All the great guitarists I have ever known are deeply involved with learning and studying traditional melodies not only because they are fun but they are also highly informative and educational, quite literally a school to themselves. Traditional melodies represent sound musical ideas that have been around for hundreds of years, and it’s not because they’re bad it’s because they’re quite good. We all owe it to ourselves to be students of those famous traditional and folk guitar picking melodies often categorized as: Jigs and Reels, Flatpicking, Bluegrass or most commonly Fiddle Tunes.

Bits Of Chords And Bits Of Scales

At the risk of being redundant I sometimes like to oversimplify my approach with the following sentence: ‘lead guitar playing can be boiled down to bits of chords and bits of scales.” In this lesson you are going to study traditional melodies which are guitar pickers dream. They sound good, they’re not too hard to learn and are fun to play. To create musical studies, I have included a melodic analysis, the small red numbers as you, to provide an even more in-depth understanding of how and why certain melodies sound the way they do. The musical material for each melody as well as the exact chord shapes and scale forms used to create the melodies are also provided.

Alternate Picking

You have probably already learned the concept of alternate picking from your first guitar instructor. As a review, most competent guitarists favor alternate picking, the practice of alternating down strokes with up strokes, as their basic system for playing licks and leads. This concept is illustrated below using a common knowledge C major scale. For purposes of playing the streams of eighth notes in the flatpicking songs in this lesson, use alternate picking technique whenever possible.


Listen Twice, Play Once

When I identify a song or piece I am interested in I listen and listen, over and over, each time looking for something new and analayzing the music artistically, in my own way. Below is a short video of The Girl I Left Behind, an age old Irish melody and a great place to start.

Analyze Chart, Identify Source Material

After repeated careful listening I look over the chart to what elements of guitar music (chord shapes, scale patterns, cliche licks, etc…) may immediately jump out at me. In the chart below I have labeled the spots in the melody which rely on chord shapes and common arpeggios with blocks of highlighter color just above the tab staff.

Picking Strategy

These all American flat picking or bluegrass melodies are mostly passages consisting of eighth notes and quarter notes. Traditional flat picking technique requires using a down stroke followed by an up stroke when applied to eighth notes as I did in the C major chord diagram above. That means that the “and” of the beat, the second note in a group of two eighth notes, is played with an up stroke. This principle is illustrated in bar to of the third line in the for The Girl I Left Behind music below, playing a syncopated or off beat note, feels right with up stroke.

Naturally, the first a note in a group of two eighth notes is played with a down stroke. When you see a series of quarter notes, such as in the first measure below, you will want to use all down strokes because playing down each beat just feels right. Of course, we would like to use strict alternate picking technique whenever possible but sometimes the song will demand a series of up strokes or down strokes to facilitate quick and easy playing. Deciding when and where the of strokes and down strokes belong is called a picking strategy.


Source Material

Below are the elements of guitar music that apply, a review of these basic elements makes learning The Girl I Left Behind much easier. First, most obvious and most applicacable elements are of course is the good old G Major scale and G Majpor arpeggio found in position III.


Since the harmonic structure is a simple I – IV – V (G Ma, C Ma and D Ma) in the key of G the closest and most accessable C Major and D Major arpeggios are also of importance in our analyzation .


Most experienced guitarists will look at this lesson plan and immediately think, “This tune is well suited to the open position, and is very playable with open strings”. That is true. However the purpose of this exercise is to study the art and science of creating guitar solos, seeing the “bits of chords and bits of scales” and relating this information to common knowledge elements of guitar music. Finally, I wrote this lesson plan to challenge my students, make them think and give them a good finger workout.


If you aren’t hooked on fiddle tunes already you may be by the end of this lesson! Below are videos of three of the most famous and essential tunes of any good traditional musicians repertoire. First listen to the tunes, observe the videos carefully, then make a copy of the PDF printed material to study, play and learn more about these three flatpicking gems. Finally, if you are doing these lessons sequentially, I recommend the flatpicking for songs daily practice as a way of buliding up speed and accuracy.

Turkey In The Straw

Arkansas Traveler

Fishers’ Hornpipe

Acrobat Printer Click here to open transcriptions of the 4 traditional flatpicking melodies studied in this lesson plan.


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