Lesson #17 – Freight Train Exercise

The Freight Train Exercise

This is another simple yet strong and beautiful melody. This time we’re playing in the key of C. The song was originally penned by Elizabeth Cotten when she was twelve years old around the year 1900, and has gone on to be recorded countless times by various artists. Elizabeth was a self taught guitarist who used a lot of unique open tunings. Being left handed she simply flipped the guitar over without restringing it. Her signature style became the alternating bass (also known as Cotton Bass). With the bass strings on the bottom she developed a method of playing where she used her thumb for the melody and her fingers to pick out the bass lines. Quite an incredible woman, I urge you to seek out some recordings of this American original. If you haven’t already, please read her biography here, and check out our Freight Train extravaganza here.

The Arrangement

This arrangement strays slightly from the original, we’ve used a few ‘Lenny Breau’ inspired chord and melody substitutions. In case you find these too difficult the standard chords have also been included where noted. In bar nine you have two choices to play the F note on the high E string; you can hit the note like you normally would by moving your index finger over, or you can continue to hold down the E major chord and quickly bar across the top strings with your index finger.

If you’re having trouble, try leaving out the hammer-ons and pull-offs until you get the hang of it. Try learning it both ways and see how much these subtle changes effect the general feel of the song.

    A few notes on the substitutions:

1-Playing the melody this way gives it a nice ‘chimey’ effect, be sure to hold down the F (6th fret) until it moves down to the D (3rd Fret) to get the full effect.

2-Here we’ve substituted a D7 in place of the F. This helps to drive the ear back to the C, fills out the sound and the bass does a cool little walk-up.

3-Finally we replaced the C with a neat ragtime style G13. This allows the same melody to be played while opening up the chord and giving it more air.

Here’s the arrangment:

This is the simplified version:

Freight Train

Freight Train

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7 Responses »

  1. Really enjoying playing this arrangement, though I am having a certain amount of trouble with bar 7; I can’t synchronise hitting the bass note G with the hammer-on from B to C. It sounds foolish to ask, but is there a trick to it? Or is it just practice and repetition? (I hope it’s the former…!)


    • There is a trick, and fortunately for you it involves me tabbing out the notes correctly!
      Try bar 7 again, hopefully it will make more sense now.
      Sorry for the heartache, hope you didn’t waste too much time on it.

  2. Thanks for your response.

    At the risk of sounding ungrateful, bar 2 is possibly transcribed wrong. Should the G and F on the high E string be played on the B string, as D and C?

    And I’ve just played this through and got the G13 without my usual cack-handed fumblings.


    • Doh!
      Thanks for pointing out that one out too.
      I’ve played through it again and everything seems to be in order.
      Congrats on the G13, that’s a beautiful chord.

  3. Thanks so much for updating the score. What a wonderful piece of music.

  4. I wrote an “original” based on this, stealing a riff or two from my favorite parts. I was wondering if you might be willing to critique it? I am just starting out with this style and might play an extended version of my draft at an open mic next weekend.

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