Q & A: “Gallows Pole” and “Midnight Special”

Time to dip into the “email bag” once again! Today’s question concerns two of the song arrangements from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar:

Hi David

I want to tell you that I’m enjoying your book, a lot, and making some headway in the difficult but fun voyage of learning to play.  It sat on my bookshelf for a few months.  My first impression was that these songs would not be near as much fun as your Guitar Noise songs and, to be frank, “Tom Dooley” and “Banana Boat” reinforced that impression.

Luckily, I picked up your book and CD again, skipped around on the CD and heard many songs I liked.  I have worked my way through half of the book, skipping a few things I already knew or already could do, trying some things I cannot yet do and planning to keep going back and trying (like barre chords).  Your arrangement of songs like “Oh! Susannah,” “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Cruel War” enable a beginner guitarist to sound good.

 I’m struggling with playing both “The Gallows Pole” and “Midnight Special” at anywhere near correct tempo.  I’m wondering if this is typical, at my stage of development.  I’ve been working hard at learning the guitar for about eighteen months.  I find fingerpicking style easier (I can do your earlier Guitar Noise version of “Scarborough Fair”) but I do like the sound of the pick, too.  Perhaps, I should concentrate on learning just the fingerpicking style because I do not have the luxury of limitless time.  Any thoughts, David? 

Thank you for writing and thank you as well for your kind words concerning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar. Thank you, too, for giving it a chance! I know that “Tom Dooley” and “The Banana Boat” song are reasonably easy, but it’s hard to come up with something that a total beginning can play easily and still sound like a cool song. I did try to get my publishers on the “Horse with No Name” bandwagon, but they were totally set on using only Public Domain material (or my own songs, which is how I snuck in “Julia and John” at the very end).

With “Gallows Pole” and “Midnight Special” you’ve chosen two of the hardest pieces. Not because of the speed but because of the thought behind it. When I recorded both of these songs for the book, my intent was to do something very spontaneous, just as one would when playing a song on the fly. Then came the wonderful task of transcribing it all afterwards!

Of the two, “Gallows Pole” is a little easier because pretty much everything is a variation of the pattern given at the top of page 111. And that’s really the key to playing it at speed - work on just the first two measures at as slow a tempo you need to get the rhythm and the feel comfortably in your fingers. The first measure is totally based on the Am chord, so try to keep that in place – keeping your index and ring fingers very close to the strings after performing the pull-offs. Your middle finger should be at the second fret of the D string even though you don’t play it during the first measure.

Once you’ve played the first measure, then use your ring finger to get the third fret of the A string. Because you’ve not moved your middle finger, you should see that you’ve got two-thirds of a C chord. Pick the A, D and G strings and then slide your fingers up two frets to get the last three notes.

First try doing this without worry at all about the timing. Your object is to get your fingers to perform their assigned task. Once your good with that, then start very slowly and gradually increase your speed. You should find that, with surprisingly less repetition than you’d think, you’re getting faster than you’d imagine.

The strategy with “Midnight Special” is pretty much the same, only you want to work one phrase at a time. For what it’s worth, I’m going to be doing a Guitar Noise step-by-step piece on this arrangement of”Midnight Special,” much in the same manner as the “Oh! Susannah” lesson, sometime this spring. Hopefully that will be of help, too.

I should mention, too, that you can play either of these with just your fingers. I do it all the time. The percussive hits don’t sound quite the same but it still works. If you were to put twenty minutes a day into it I think you’d probably get it all fairly quickly.

I hope this helps and I look forward to chatting with you again.


About David

David Hodge is a music teacher with over twenty-five years experience who writes lessons for both Acoustic Guitar and Play Guitar! He is the author of five Idiot's Guide to Guitar books including The Complete Idiot's Guide Guitar and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Ukulele. David is also the lead editor and columnist for GuitarNoise.com. You can check out David's latest free online guitar lessons here and contact him by email at dhodgeguitar@aol.com.
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2 Responses to Q & A: “Gallows Pole” and “Midnight Special”

  1. Chuck Labate says:

    David….When you publish your next lesson on [ Re- Beginning the guitar] can you write a short paragraph on this question. How important is it to learn how to read music if you want to learn how to play guitar. Recently I sign up for guitar lessons at a adult education class held at our local school. Even though I’ve been playing for a couple of years [yes I have all your books and read everything you have written over the years] I was told I couldn’t take the class because I couldn’t read music. I told the teacher this is noncense. So I took out my guitar and played “julia” which you help me learn . I was told I played very well and he stuck to his guns saying all my students must know how to read music to take this class. After this statement 90% of the class walk out and he was left with only a few students. I’m 58 yrs. old. I don’t want to the next guitar hero or tour the world I just want to have fun. Thank you for your time……

  2. David says:

    Hi and thanks for writing

    In a nutshell, you’re both right but you’re a little more right than your teacher is. If he was that adamant about the prerequisite of reading music, it should have been in the course description and you would have known before signing up.

    I’ll be writing quite a bit on this topic up and putting it online this week. Hope that it will be worth the read!

    Thanks again for the post and I’m looking forward to chatting with you again soon.


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