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Reverend Gary Davis Lesson
Ernie Hawkins delves into Davis's fingerpicking approach to blues, gospel, and 1920s jazz. With audio and links to video.

By Ernie Hawkins

Tune Up

In 1965, I was a clueless, skinny, 18-year-old guitar player from Pittsburgh fresh out of high school. I loved the fingerpicking styles of Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, and others, but by far the best guitar player I had ever heard was Reverend Gary Davis. Though I was used to traveling any distance to find guitar masters, I imagined Davis, who lived "somewhere in New York City," to be out of reach. In spite of my misgivings, I made my way to New York and called him on the phone at AX 1-7609 (I still remember that number 43 years later). He gave me directions and made sure I had my $5 for the lesson.

I found Davis in the back of a store in Queens, asleep in a big chair. I waited a minute, then gently tapped him on the shoulder. He exploded, whoopin' and yellin,' and I retreated to the street. When he calmed down, I told him who I was and he asked, "Did you bring your money?" I had, so I spent the next seven hours with the legendary Piedmont master. Those hours turned into five years, off and on, of studying with Davis, and I've since spent decades working through his guitar style.

In this article we'll talk a little about the Piedmont fingerpicking style in general and then move on to a few of Davis's innovations, breaking down parts of some of his representative songs, such as "Crucifixion" and "Slow Drag (Cincinnati Flow Rag)." The subject of Reverend Gary Davis's guitar style is vast, but hopefully we'll be able to scratch the surface and show you some of what made his playing unique. You'll see how his playing moved in voices, with a bass or inner line working against a melody, and how he liked to syncopate the bass line.

Davis's Long Road

Reverend Gary Davis was born in 1896 in Laurens County, South Carolina. Blind from an early age, he grew up as a guitar prodigy in a musical culture, absorbing a wide variety of styles. In his teens he played in a string band with the legendary Blind Willie Walker that performed the blues, ragtime, jazz, country, and dance tunes popular at the time.

In 1935, Davis recorded 14 brilliant gospel tunes in New York City for ARC (American Record Corporation), only to disappear from the scene, disenchanted with the recording business. For the rest of the 1930s and 1940s, he survived on the edges by playing wherever he could, traveling with the tobacco industry around the Raleigh/Durham area with other musicians, many of whom were also blind. Wherever there were refreshments or a little cash flowing, the musicians would be there trying to pick up some change. During this time Davis befriended Blind Boy Fuller, teaching him many songs as well as his standard-tuning style. During the 1940s, Davis moved to New York City, where he lived until his death in 1972.

Surviving decades of trials and deep poverty, Davis finally became known to guitar players through four now-classic Prestige/Bluesville LPs released in the early '60s. When performers like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez recorded his songs, he earned royalties that allowed him and his wife, Annie, to live more comfortably, with a house and a car—for his various lead boys (like me) to drive him to gigs. He also had the benefit of a great manager, Manny Greenhill, who sent him on concert tours around the world.

Davis has come to be regarded as the genius of the Piedmont style of fingerpicked guitar. He deeply influenced many great players, including David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen, Taj Mahal, Bob Weir, Stefan Grossman, Larry Campbell, and Rory Block.

Davis once told me that he could imitate any guitarist, a skill he developed early-on by learning the latest hits that his hometown record store played through a speaker directed onto the street. By stopping every day with his guitar and working out the songs he heard, he learned almost every song that came out on record. Some of his favorite guitarists from the early days of recording were Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Willie Johnson. Davis also picked up a lot of music (including songs like "Candy Man") from guitarists employed by traveling medicine shows for their ability to attract a crowd. You might say that he had a "phonographic" memory, but it was one that reached deep into the traditions that preceded him. Davis was a walking encyclopedia of the Piedmont guitar style, a style that enabled him to play any type of music he came across.

Piedmont Style

Advice on Guitar Playing from Reverend Gary Davis.

Piedmont fingerpicking gets its magic by maintaining the integrity of a melody against a rock-steady bass. It can be thought of as a "two-part" style in which the bass alternates on the beat, pumping out the rhythm, while the melody is played on the treble strings. I was introduced to this style through some LPs that came out in the early '60s by two remarkable women, Elizabeth (Libba) Cotten and Etta Baker, and in person by a guy named Pete who ran a small farm belonging to my uncle Willie in Greene County, Pennsylvania. They were beautiful, clean pickers who kept up a steady alternating bass and a pure melodic treble line. Example 1 shows a bit of Cotten's iconic "Freight Train." Notice how the steady bass moves through the chords, while the guitar's treble line follows the sung melody. This is what Davis called "country picking," and he was a master of it, using just the thumb and index finger (with a plastic thumbpick and fingerpick) of his right hand to play songs like "Cocaine" (Example 2), which he said he learned in 1905 from a troupe of traveling medicine show musicians. One thing that makes "Cocaine" really interesting and adds to its hypnotic feel is the way Davis plays the basses. Though the song is in C, he never plays the low C (fifth string, third fret) itself, but alternates the sixth and fourth string basses through all the chords. Notice that he often adds a hammer-on to the high bass on the fourth beat, open D to E, when playing the C chord (measures 1, 2, and 4).

Example 1: "Freight Train"

Example 2: "Cocaine"

Blind Blake's Influence

Davis took this relatively straightforward two-part style and jazzed it up, much as Blind Blake had. Davis admired Blake. He often commented on Blake's "sportin'" right hand and could reproduce many of Blake's 1920s hits (such as "West Coast Blues" and "You Gonna Quit Me Blues") practically note-for-note. Blake's complex signature licks often appear in interesting ways in Davis's blues, rags, and gospel songs. They both loved to run bass and treble lines in opposition to each other, as in bars 3 and 4 of "Let Us Get Together" (Example 3). Notice how the melody goes up (E–Fn–F#) while the bass goes down (A–G–F#). They both also often syncopated the beat by "double-thumbing" the bass, as in Blake's "West Coast Blues" (Example 4). Notice how Blake adds a pickup note on the and of four at the beginning of the example and in measures 1, 2, and 3.

Example 3: "Let Us Get Together"

Example 4: "West Coast Blues"

Davis's style, however, was freer, more open than Blake's, a result of his ability to navigate the whole neck effortlessly and improvise multiple voices through the changes, like a jazz player. Also, Blake's playing is very "cool," while Davis's playing, though economic, efficient, and effortless, burns with a spiritual fire full of thunder and lightning. Davis is able to free the bass from a strictly alternating pattern, moving it in lines beneath the melody. In "Slow Drag (Cincinnati Flow Rag)," one of his great rags, the opening bars combine syncopation (what Davis called a New Orleans–type beat) and counterpoint that runs beneath the melody (Example 5). As the melody descends, G–F#–F–E–D–C, the bass works its way up: G–D–A–D–B–G–D–G–B–C. And notice that instead of just playing the bass notes on the beat, Davis "jumps" the basses, playing them an eighth note early, as in the ends of bars 1 and 5.

Example 5: "Slow Drag (Cincinatti Flow Rag)"

Watch Reverend Gary Davis Perform "Slow Drag (Cincinnati Flow Rag)"

Ernie Hawkins video lesson from Grossman's Guitar Workshop

Davis's Gospel Picking

Davis came up in the traditional gospel of the country churches, and his deep faith was extremely important to him. He saw himself primarily as a sanctified singer, put on earth to praise God. He seemed to know every gospel song in the tradition, and he wrote hundreds of songs, including "Death Don't Have No Mercy," "Let Us Get Together," "Samson and Delilah" (see the full transcription on page 54 of the June 2009 print edition), and "12 Gates to the City."

Davis's bass runs in gospel songs seem to come from the choir's harmony parts. You can see this in the bass line that echoes the melody in "I Belong to the Band" (Example 6). Instead of just playing a bass accompaniment, Davis's bass answers the melody and has its own integrity and movement. The style Davis used for a song depended on what key it was in. He had signature sounds in every key. This is because the open first-position chord determined what notes are easily played in that chord. When fingerpicked, a song often seems to have its natural key, the key it "belongs in."

Example 6: "I Belong to the Band"

Davis's guitar served as a foundation for his powerful voice, which soared out over the music. In the case of a song-sermon like "Crucifixion," his playing becomes an almost orchestral background to the partly sung, partly spoken New Testament narrative. The guitar part for "Crucifixion" is based on a 16-bar phrase in G that includes moving, inter­twining lines, starting with the descending D–C–B–G bass line in measure 1, which reappears as the song rolls along. The first eight bars of "Crucifixion" (Example 7) end with a famous Blind Blake turnaround: G–G7–C–Eb7–G.

Example 7: "Crucifixion"

Pop Tunes, Ragtime Guitar

At our lessons Davis would often surprise me with jazz tunes from the 1920s played in flat keys. I learned his version of songs like "Florida Blues" (in G and C) and "Stormy Weather" (in G). F was one of his favorite keys—he used it for the '20s dance hit "Walkin' the Dog" (which was recorded twice by Hoagy Carmichael), the first part of "United States March," some gospel songs, and popular songs like "Darktown Strutter's Ball" (Example 8). As in "Slow Drag," Davis used a unique stride-influenced fingerpicking style that enabled him to work through the changes while moving a bass line as he played a melody or improvised on the treble strings.

Example 8: "Darktown Strutter's Ball"

Ernie Hawkins teaches "Darktown Strutter's Ball"

In "Fast Fox Trot" (Example 9) Davis plays a treble melody from the '20s jazz scene (similar to the song "Jazz Me Blues" recorded by Bix Beiderbecke) accompanied by a counterpoint line on the middle strings and punctuated by low bass notes on the first or fourth beats of each measure. It sounds very complex, but with Davis's extraordinary technique, it just rolls off the hand. I found that learning this song really helped me improvise Davis-style on a C blues.

Example 9: "Fast Fox Trot"

These examples that come out of his jazz style have come to be known as "ragtime guitar." He did play what was then (in the 1920s) known as ragtime, but he jazzed them up, much the way Louis Armstrong did. He didn't really separate these styles. Blues, popular song, country, jazz, ragtime, and gospel all came together to make a Gary Davis song.

A Powerful Inspiration

Keep in mind as you're learning these examples that while they are brilliant guitar pieces, able to stand by themselves, they served as the trains that carried Davis's powerful, compelling vocals. Even though I often feel like I've learned a Gary Davis song, when I go back and listen, I always hear something new and different, something deeper. Many of us still feel his powerful, inspirational presence—sitting alone playing, at performances, or through dreams. His is an enduring spirit. Jorma Kaukonen said, "Reverend Davis is one of the important figures of 20th-century American music. His architecture of harmony and verse is unparalleled. He embraced all with his spirit and his positive life force. As he sang in one of his great songs, 'He is the light of this world'."

Photo credit, top, Sherry Rayn Barnett

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This article also appears in Acoustic Guitar, Issue #198

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