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Piedmont Finger Picking Guitar South Carolina Rag (Willie Walker).

Willie Walker was THE King of Ragtime Blues Guitar Picking

Ragtime Blues Guitar Player Reverend Gary DavisIt was widely accepted that Reverend Gary Davis was one of the very best blues guitar pickers around, even though one of his students, Blind Boy Fuller, made more records and a lot more money. But where did Gary Davis get his skills? Most blues guitar players have a kind of natural aptitude that comes up when they are very young, and they either borrow a simple guitar or they make their own out of a cigar box.

However, you can only go so far this way - even innate brilliance needs encouragement and direction. It was said that by the time he was 33, he was 'scared of no guitar player!' He did have a lot of respect for certain players though - Broonzy ('nobody could swing it like Bill'), Blind Blake ('he was sportin' guitar player') and most of all Blind Willie Walker.

South Carolina Blues Man Blind Boy FullerUnlike Davis and Fuller, Walker was blind from birth, which might partly explain his almost supernatural skill on the guitar. It's not certain exactly when, but Davis had contact with Walker who must have had a big influence on his playing - he learned songs like Make Believe Stunt and Cincinatti Slow Drag from him.

Tragically for us, Walker was a very obscure person, probably making a living in his local area playing for parties and other events. he only cut two sides - Dupree Blues, and old standard story telling blues song in the style of Frankie and Johnny, and South Carolina Rag.

Dupree Blues was in G and Carolina Rag was in C.

Both songs had a second guitar player, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out exactly what Walker was playing, but his mastery of the guitar was evident. It wasn't just the dexterity, but also the overall timing and feel. He used old tricks, like speeding up the song gradually to build tension in the audience as the musical story unfolds.

As you might think, the alternating bass pattern was very solid and he could break in and out of it, changing the timing, whenever he wanted. However, I get the impression that in those days the audience weren't looking for surprises - they preferred clich├ęs they were comfortable with. Every now and again he would punctuate the end of a line of verse with a very tight and very fast single string run. Gary Davis does the same thing, alternating his picking thumb and finger to achieve the speed.

South Carolina Rag Record 
LabelI've tried to copy these runs using my thumb and forefinger and I don't think it's possible to do it with that technique, not at that speed. So how did he do it? My best guess is that he held a plastic plectrum between his thumb and finger, playing an alternating bass pattern with the plectrum and using one or more of his other fingers to play the trebles.

It's a technique that I've seen before, but it's something I can't do. If you can manage it, then it opens up a great opportunity - you'll be able to play ragtime using fast singles string runs played with a plectrum, just like a country flat picker!

In these Willlie Walker lessons I've assumed that most of us use the standard thumb techniques, and so worked out a way of playing these songs in that way. The challenge is to kind of simulate the two guitar parts while keeping the important flavor of the original songs.

Listen to the originals again and again (I do!) and try to find ways to capture the original feeling. Put yourselves in the blues man's shoes. What were their days like? Did they travel a lot? Live their lives in your mind and try to play in the way they would. It was their life and how they ate, so they must have played and practiced for many hours - you need to do the same!