VIDEO - Hillbilly Shred: How to Sound Like a Bluegrass Player

Courtesey of Guitar World's "Jimmy Brown"

Arranging fiddle tunes for guitar using a neat trick to make the guitar sound more like a mandolin.

STEP ONE: Understand that the violin has four strings, which are tuned in perfect fifths, low to high, G D A E. The G note is the same pitch as the guitar’s open 3rd G string. 

Figure 1 shows a way to play the violin’s four open-string notes together on a standard-tuned guitar. As you can see, the violin not only is tuned quite differently than the guitar but also encompasses a higher pitch range, though there is some overlap. 

The mandolin, (the violin’s sister instrument and fretted equivalent), uses this same tuning, except it has four pairs of closely spaced strings, known as courses, with each course tuned in unison, just like a 12-string guitar’s B and high E strings.

You can play these fiddle melodies on the guitar, mandolin-style, using alternate (down-up) picking, which is commonly referred to in bluegrass as flat-picking. In doing so, you'll discover that they can be challenging to articulate and perform with any kind of speed, as they typically require frequent string crosses, (which is a huge technical challenge for the pick hand). 

This presented the guitarist with a problem to solve, as you probably won't enjoy just doggedly muscling through the difficult string crosses, which will be quite arduous at times and not very much fun at all.

The creative solution—the previously mentioned trick—was to deploy a capo way up at the 12th fret (on a cutaway electric guitar equipped with a piezo pickup). Doing so will allow us to play the melodies in their original register—an octave higher than we would if looking at the music as if it were written for guitar. 

It also gives us additional fingering options, as the frets in this upper area of the neck are much closer together, effectively extending my reach. The result is that the instrument sounds and feels more like a mandolin.

Figure 2 presents a take on the popular bluegrass standard “The Eighth of January,” arranged for pick-style guitar, capo-12. (If you play this arrangement on acoustic guitar, you will need to lower the capo at least two frets and perform it in a lower key, due to the instrument’s wider neck joint.) 

In the video below guitarist "Jimmy Brown," is using alternate picking, and you’ll see that he strategically arranged the note fingerings so that every string cross is executed with what’s known as “outside-the-strings picking,” which is much easier on the pick hand than “inside-the-strings picking.” There are a few quick position shifts, but they’re not difficult to make because of the short scale.

This arrangement sounds cool all by itself, especially if you tap your foot loudly on beats one and three. But for an authentic, bluegrass-style second-guitar accompaniment, try additionally offering the set of chord voicings shown in Figure 3, which are played as if the tune were in the key of C, (with a capo at the second fret transposing them up a whole step to the key of D). 

The Video Lesson: