Oldtime backup guitar can play a variety of roles, depending a great deal on skill, setting, and personal preference. But first and foremost, it must lay down a strong rhythm, outline the harmony, and tell the listener when a chord change is coming up. A lot of the time, there’s no need for anything else. Here’s a great example.

The guitar backup we’re looking at comes from Pete McMahan. Now, it’s hard to think of two greater Midwest fiddlemasters than Herman Johnson and Pete McMahan. If you’re not from the region, these names may not mean much to you, but if you are, then you know full well who I’m talking about. And here McMahan is backing up Johnson at the long-running Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp, held in Shelby County, Missouri (1990). In other words, you have one of the most accomplished fiddle players of the region backing up another such giant on guitar. You better believe he knows the tune and knows how to make it sound great.

First, the tablature:

The Ascending Chromatic Walk

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The chord changes are not complicated, and there isn’t even any difference between the A and B parts. What McMahan is doing is almost exclusively using an ascending chromatic movement to get to each new chord. So, for the G to C movement, the bass runs G, A, B and then to C. This climbs the G major scale which gives the chromatic B to C movement for the new C chord.

Then for the G to D chord movement, McMahan uses a chromatic movement B, C#, D to get to the D chord, now using tones from the D major scale to get that clear C# to D movement as he goes to the D chord.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, to get from the D to the G chord, McMahan does the same basic movement again playing E, F#, G to create yet another chromatic walk up to the G chord.

A Brief Signpost

The only regular exception to this ascending chromatic movement is McMahan’s playing over the D chord in the penultimate measure of each line, where he most often plays D to A and then down to the open E for the walk up to G (e.g. M7-8). As simple as this may seem at first glance, it’s very effective. Why? First of all it’s different than the pattern used elsewhere in his backup, so it tells the listener, however subtly, that something else is going on here. Namely, the phrase is about to end and a new one will begin. Also, it gives McMahan a simple, consistent way to get back down from the highest bass note in the tune, the open D string, to the lowest, the G played on the E string.

Subtle Variations

The final aspect of McMahan’s playing that demands attention is his use of variation. Musical variation is a funny beast. If you do exactly the same thing over and over again, then most listeners will quickly tire of the pattern. The answer is obviously to change things up a bit. But how much? In most cases, far less than one might first think. The boredom a listener might experience from exact repetition is easily soothed by just two or three simple variations.

See for instance how McMahan handles the second measure of each phrase (M2, M10, M18, M26). In M2 and M18 he goes up to the E and then simply on to the G root of the next chord. In M10 he goes down to the low, open E and then uses the chromatic walk up to the G. And in M26 he decides to just leave the C chord change out altogether and keep on the G until M28 when the D comes around again.

These are very subtle variations, but they are essential to bringing it all together, creating a real conversation with the fiddle and the listener, and making music happen.

Just a dash

Oldtime backup guitar is the foundation of many sessions, and the foundation is not usually the place to get too fancy. If you’re a player who has mastered alternating I and V bass notes over the standard chords or maybe have one or two simple bass runs in your repertoire, then this is a great example to study and see how just a bit more variation and thought can push your playing to the next level.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Nice clear explanation, of a nice clear basic tune not played enough, one that sadly more and more the bluegrass fiddlers known but purported old time fiddlers dont. Love the guitar work and the instruction and the teaching here. While I have been more know as a budding banjoist I have been playing guitar since 1960, and with old time stuff since around 1963-4. This basic accompaniment of a fiddle, or for that any melody instrument or line, is the basic bedrock of old time guitar especially for those of us who aspire to play old time following the practice of traditional old time. Too many times we go to guitar workshops and someone is teaching how to play post-old time mandolin-style lead to fiddle tunes, or wants to introduce harmonic stuff that might be ok in singer song writer. Would love more pieces here on playing old time guitar with a band

  2. Very nice explanation of the kind of a traditional guitar accompaniment that works very well with old-time and bluegrass fiddling. BTW, I played guitar for Pete McMahan in a few contests and lots of jam sessions (when no other experienced guitarist was there who Pete could trust or put up with), and on one occasion Pete played backup guitar for me in a contest, along with one of his guitar-playing sisters (that was a fine day). That session at Bethel fiddle camp goes back to the days in Missouri before the Texas-based, swing-style, closed-chord guitar backup style began to displace old-time, open-chord, guitar backup. Today, here in Missouri, it is difficult to find a guitarist who know how to play, or is willing to play, the old-time backup style so well-demonstrated in this Bethel 1990 video. The gent in the cap so intently watching Herman Johnson is the great Little Dixie style fiddler and fiddle teacher Johnny Bruce from Bosworth, Mo. (died July 1993), a good friend with whom I played square dances. Thanks for posting, and thanks for caring. Cheers. (PS, there will be a chapter on McMahan in my third and final fiddle book, and some discussion of Johnson, if I can ever get the thing finished.)

  3. “…one of the most accomplished fiddle players of the region backing up another…”
    Yes! What a joy to listen to… with MO rules. Thanks for posting this!

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