Techniques for creating solo guitar arrangements of traditional tunes

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Excerpt from the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Cameron Knowler

Ballads and track songs from early United States history not only tell of their time and place, they are also excellent vehicles for instrumental music. Because their melodies are often simple and mostly composed of longer note values, a number of techniques can be added to flesh them out, allowing greater creative latitude than more prescribed pieces like fiddle tunes.

In this lesson, I’ll demonstrate a few techniques you can use to make lead guitar arrangements of ballads and track pieces: active bass tracks, cross picking, and hybrid picking. I’ll then show how you can bring all the approaches together in a concise arrangement of “Cindy, Cindy,” a diverse tune whose melody is woven into the landscape of American traditional music.

Bass races

To get started, let’s look at how common chord progressions can be interestingly related to the use of quarter-note bass tracks. Although I will discuss this technique with the use of a flatpick in mind, you can also use the following ideas as fingerstyle exercises.

In Example 1, quarter notes are used in both chromatic and scalar patterns, leading to the bass notes contained in the preceding chord. The bass run beginning at beat 3 of bar 2 leads with a chromatic movement to C#, the third of the A major chord. In bar 6, however, the bass leads diatonically to the root as a way to start again at the top of the melody. Since these tracks are made up of quarter notes, you’ll perform them with downward strokes if you’re flatpicking, or with your thumb if you’re fingerpicking.

On a technical level, it is preferable to approach the use of bass runs with a clean, even dynamic sound at first. Since the bass notes have more sonic potential than the upper strings of the guitar, care will need to be taken to balance the force of your striking hand. Once you are comfortable playing this exercise evenly, try playing the bass notes with stronger dynamics than the strums; this will give your performance a half-beat feel, as the pulse will now be centered on the first and third beats of the bar. This technique is often used by jazz, western swing, and early music bass players, giving more sonic room to other accompanying instruments.

Cross picking and hybrid picking

Next, we’ll see how to fill out a common chord progression with the use of flowing eighth notes. Mimicking the three-finger banjo technique, cross-picking uses alternately chosen note clusters to fill in chord shapes without the use of strums. To get the hang of it Example 2, it is best to take it measure by measure, slowly playing each figure. As with the first example, start by emphasizing the clean dynamics. From there, experiment by moving your emphasis points.

You may be familiar with the term chicken picking, which refers to the idiosyncratic style of electric guitar playing in which a player’s middle and index fingers are used in conjunction with a flatpick to render phrases. I find this technique particularly useful for vocal tunes like this, as the melody runs at the top of common chord takes.

To learn how to engage your fingers with a pick in hand, try Example 3. Note that this exercise harmonizes an E major scale (ME#G#ABC#D#) on strings 1-3, using the open B string as the second note of each harmonic change. Adding that B gives the snippet a steely pedal sounding quality, which is especially useful for adding interest to a melodic or rhythmic performance. In terms of right-hand logistics, your pick will play the first and third beats of each bar, with your middle finger assigned to the second string and your ring finger to the first.


Syncope refers to the act of playing weak beats in contrast to louder beats. Typically, a low beat refers to the eighth notes that exist between downbeats. This technique, in the context of traditional American music, should be used sparingly in order to achieve maximum effect without disrupting an otherwise sonorous melody. In the case of Example 4you’ll notice that syncopations are used between chord changes as a way of looking ahead, allowing more emphasis to be placed on the first beat of the current bar without the need for stronger pick dynamics.

When playing a syncopated phrase like in bars 2, 4 and 6, the dotted quarter note will be played with a down stroke and the only eighth note will be played with an up stroke. This is because we take into account the missing downbeat, which is occupied by a silence.

Cindy, Cindy

The tune to “Cindy, Cindy,” a knockoff of “The Gospel Train,” originated in North Carolina, but you’ve probably heard hit versions by Frank Proffitt, Bob Wills, and Johnny Cash. The source I’m going to refer to is from a well-known western, Rio Bravo (1959). Walter Brennan, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson come together in a cramped prison cell to deliver this song with an altered chord progression that first caught my attention as a young child.

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You are now ready to tackle the full song, as shown in Example 5.(For a recorded example of this version, consider listening to my freshman solo record, Consequence places.) You’ll notice that all of the techniques we’ve discussed individually are present in this arrangement, displayed sparingly to accentuate the beautiful melody of the song. All the same technical considerations come into play; however, be sure to pay close attention to the dynamics of the melody, which largely exist in the upper parts of cowboy chords.

While the other techniques are clearly placed in this arrangement, where to add hybrid selection is up to you. In my own playing, I’m inclined to include this technique where there are groups of harmonics on string sets 1–3 as well as 2–4. Some examples of these moments can be found in bars 1, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. Another opportune area for hybrid picking is in bar 13, on beat 3, where the eighth note figure includes a G# on the fourth string and an open B; this phrase is rather economical to articulate with a pick on the fourth string, followed by the middle finger on the second.

With all of these techniques in your back pocket, try applying them to new keys, chord shapes, and songs, adapting their use to the curvature of the melody.

Cameron Knowler, author of the method book Guitars also have feelings, is a Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist and educator specializing in jazz, bluegrass and early music.

arrange traditional tunes for guitar notation sheet 2

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.

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