I have a recording of someone playing Freight Train and I can’t find the music. What do I do?
Well, in brief, you look for the key. That tells you what notes are in the piece and what chords are being played. Likely I, IV, V and vi. Then if you can play any two keys a forth apart you choose the one that is below your target and capo it up to play along with your recording. Once you are comfortable with the chords you can transpose the piece into what ever key you are most comfortable singing.
Finding the Key
Since we already know the diatonic scales and the pentatonic scale up and down the neck we can find the key easily by just playing along. Starting with F on the first fret of the E string play every note down the string until you find a note that sounds good as a drone sound along with the recording. The tonic or root of the scale should sound consonant behind anything being played. Very often this note will be one of C, G, A, D, E so you should try these first. Check your guess by playing the first, third and fifth of the scale. Now if you know the I- IV- V chords in the key try them. Otherwise you have to capo what you know. This will work but your head will ache so go and learn some more chords.
Start with something that sounds simple. Sing/hum/whistle the melody. At first just strum the chords. When that gets boring play the root of the chord and strum with you nails or your thumb. The club where I learned to play used to call the basic style doom fwap. Bass chord. Bass chord. **video to follow
For folk rock and country most tunes will be in 4 4 time. That is four beats to the bar. Most of the rest will be waltz time which is 3 4 time three beats to the bar. Beginners should download a metronome and use it every day. The most important skill to get right is rhythm. You can pound a garbage can and folks will tolerate you just so long as you are in time with the music. Chords often change on the first beat of the bar.
Now that you have the Key you can play the major scale that has all of the melody notes in the piece. If you wish to learn it note by note you should transcribe it into guitar tab. This is an ancient notation for stringed instruments that tells you what string and fret you should play. Why not standard notation? Sure, if you already have a few years of piano lessons do what works for you, but remember you started out with a recording which is the perfect record of the melody, harmony and rhythm of the piece. To play it on the guitar you want it in your hands not on the page. All you need is to record where to fret the notes you hear. Tab is simple to read and write and shows you where to put your fingers.
If you don’t care to learn the piece note for note the best notation is just the chord names over the words. This is what every performer who is not a classical musician uses. You find melody notes by first trying the notes of the chord. Remember this is the first, third, and fifth for major chords. First, third, fifth and seventh for major seventh chords. A flat seventh means a dominant seventh. A flat third makes the major chord minor. If that doesn’t sound right try other notes of the scale.
If you are arranging your own song you should create a melody in some key that you like to sing. Then using the chord scale for that key choose chords that will provide a harmony for the notes you are singing and away you go. If you are singing in some key that has difficult minor chords transpose your melody to C and work out the harmony( the chords ) in C. Then transpose it back and capo C or G up to your chosen key.
What if I just want to strum?
Oh, like wail and flail. Just use a six string grip and flail away. No problem. Play single notes with your thumb or pick. Most chords in first position are OK for this. Alternate the bass on the First and Fifth or the First , Third and Fifth. Make sure you are in time. Use that metronome or find a drummer or a bass player to play with.
Is their a better way?
Well, as it happens there is finger style which is a collection of right hand techniques for guitar players mostly cribbed from the classical guitar techniques developed by Sor and made popular by Segovia. Flat pickers can look to Doc Watson and learn to cross pick. The technique I use most often is called Travis picking after Merle Travis who used it in some popular recordings in the 40’s and 50’s . Chet Atkins refined the style and it was further developed by Tommy Emmanuel and Billy Strings.
Here is a short list of techniques that you may use to express three or four chords in most any folk or country song roughly in order of difficulty. In spite of the ordering shown here you should feel free to learn what appeals to you. With a bit of practice anyone can manage Travis picking in a simple form. The main thing to know is that there are a lot of things you can do with a C chord or any other chord.
- Strum — wail and flail — you need only learn one or two chords
- Doom Fwap — first or third or fifth of the scale then the chord
- Grab and Run — grab the bass note with your thumb finger other notes.
- Single notes — Find the melody notes in the Bass or on the high strings
- Bass Runs — use scale fragments to connect chords
- Carter picking — melody in the bass – fingers brush chords up and down
- Arpeggios — play the notes of the chord. This often has melody in the bass
- Travis Picking — has a steady bass played with the Thumb and a melody line played with the fingers – usually on the top three strings but good players play melody notes anywhere they feel like.
- Chord melody — uses lots of chords to follow the melody line.