Sugarfoot Rag was first recorded as an instrumental by
guitarist Hank Garland, and scoring him a hit at the age of 18. He went on to
be one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, working most notably with
Elvis Presley (that’s him on “Little Sister”) along with a who’s who of the top
country artists of the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Despite the word “rag” in the title, the tune itself is a flatpicked “breakdown”, a fast-paced instrumental showcasing the player’s virtuosity and usually featuring a driving, nearly constant rhythm. (Traditionally a “rag” utilized heavily syncopated rhythms and a swing feel). Breakdowns are the American descendant of Irish and Scottish reels, traditional fiddle tunes also characterized by running eighth-note rhythms.
This transcription is from a 1950’s TV performance. Note the heavy use of echo and Garland’s fluid right-hand picking technique.
Click here to download the music and tab.
The tune starts off with the guitar equivalent of a double-stopped “hoedown” style fiddle intro, with slides from the sixth to the seventh fret of the 4th string against a droning open A. It’s a familiar sound and you’ll probably recognize the “dum da-da dum da-da” rhythmic figure at the opening. The right hand will follow strict alternation throughout, but with one important detail. The pick direction will line up with the patterns of down- and upbeats. For example, four sixteenth notes would be counted “1 – e – and – a” and played down-up-down-up. But the “dum da-da” rhythm at the opening would be played down – down up. This is a great approach to picking in general, because it ensures that you land on the downbeat of every bar with a downstroke. This maintains a primary rhythmic accent – the first beat of each bar – and a consistent feel.
The A section melody begins with a two note pickup, the last two notes of the first line. Two sixteenth notes falling at the end of a bar would be counted as “and-a” to set up the following downbeat.
It’s worth mentioning that there are four different sixteenth-note patterns used in this tune. Even if you’ve never read written music before, it’s not hard to understand. Sixteenth notes are a subdivision of the beat, dividing a single count into four pieces. We generally articulate this as “1 e and a” so we have a way to designate each of the four subdivisions. In written music, the stems of all four notes will be connected by a double bar across the top (or bottom, if the stems point down).
The “dum-da-da” rhythm that starts off the intro looks like this, think of it as “long-short-short”:
We also find the opposite figure, short-short-long:
The third measure of the A section melody contains a dotted eighth note rhythm. This means that the first note lasts for three of the four subdivisions of the beat: ONE (e and) A.
Notice also that the first note of this figure (second line, third measure) is played with a slide into fret 5 of the second string, while the open E string is also struck to “double” the pitch. Pay close attention to the picking here.
The 8-bar A section is followed by an 8-bar B section:
Play the double-stops with the middle and ring fingers. In the first line, this puts us in 4th position and so the following 7th fret note would me played with the pinky. But the double-stop in the last measure of this example, on strings 3 and 4, places us in 5th position for just 2 notes. The third note of this bar, on the 7th fret of string 2, is played with the pinky to move us back to 4th position.
The overall form for our purposes is as follows:
A section (8 bars)
B section (8 bars)
A section returns (8 bars)
B section variation (8 bars, see below).
The chord structure of the tune is very simple, counted in 2/4:
A / G / A / E A
This lesson only focuses on the “head” melody. In performance, this would be followed by solos on the form, a return of the head, and some kind of ending “tag” figure. Here’s the lick Garland plays in this TV performance.
For a detailed explanation of the head melody, watch this lesson video.
As is often the case with this type of instrumental tune, you will find many variations from one player to another and from one performance to another. But the basic head melody remains the same. Have fun and take your time working up to tempo!