How to Play Railroad Bill by Traditional (Guitar Lesson)

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Orville Johnson

Railroad Bill

Orville Johnson teaches the traditional blues song "Railroad Bill."

Taught by Orville Johnson in Songs with Orville Johnson seriesLength: 16:10Difficulty: 2.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (16:10) Railroad Bill Scene 1
Orville introduces the song Railroad Bill and talks about the use of an alternating bass line with your thumb while playing melody with your index and middle fingers. He likens this separation of parts to the way piano players split the bass and treble parts between their left and right hands. Playing your guitar this way gives a piano-like quality to the sound and creates interesting interplay and counterpoint between the two parts.

Like many folk-blues tunes, Railroad Bill is based on a real person's story. He was never conclusively identified but detectives from the L&N Railroad in southern Alabama claimed he was a man named Morris Slater aka Bill McCoy. He rode the rails from town to town and was implicated in the murder of a deputy sheriff. After escaping the lawmen he robbed trains and supposedly distributed his profits to the poor Robin Hood-style. As his legend grew, supernatural shape shifting abilities and magic powers were said to have helped him elude the authorities.

Thru ballads, songs, and stories the outlaw's legacy has been passed along thru generations. One of the earliest recordings of the story was in 1924 by country singers Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett. Many fingerstyle blues guitarists including John Jackson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Etta Baker have recorded this traditional tune.

Scene 2
Orville describes the chords we'll need to know for this lesson. C, E, F, and G7. He then plays the tune all the way thru at tempo with a few variations that he doesn't break down in the lesson. After you learn the tutorial version come back to this scene and see if you can pick out a few of the variations for yourself. Once you've learned the prescribed version it'll be easy for you to see the moves that Orville adds in performance.

Scene 3
Orville shows you the alternating bass lines that your thumb will be playing. While on the C chord your right thumb will be playing a pattern of 5th string-4th string-6th string-4th string. Your left hand holds a C chord and your left ring finger alternates between 5th string 3rd fret-6th string 3rd fret in concert with your picking thumb. When you change to the E chord you'll pick 6th string-4th string-5th string-4th string. On the F chord you'll just move between the 6th string-4th string. As you play the G7 you'll alternate 6-4-5-4 with your thumb. The C chord is the only one you'll need to be fretting different bass notes with your left hand rather than just holding the chord down.

Scene 4
Orville demonstrates the bass line while singing the melody notes that he will later play with his fingers. Singing the melody to any song, lick, or passage that you're learning is very helpful. It enables you to internalize and memorize things more easily. Even if you don't consider yourself to be a singer, being able to sing melody lines is important to your development as a musician. Its not something you have to do on stage if that's not your calling, but doing it in your practice room to help your learning process will make you a better player.

Scene 5
Orville picks out the basic melody notes. Most of the notes are on the first string with a couple on the second and only one melody note on the third string. After calling out the individual notes he points out that some of the melody notes are picked at the same time as a thumb note while some fall in between the alternating bass notes. The in between notes are said to be syncopated. If you refer to the music/tab you can easily see which notes are which.

Scene 6
Orville shows a variation that he uses on the C to E change at the beginning of the piece. This is based on a version of the tune by the great fingerstyle guitarist Etta Baker. It uses a ringing dissonance between the fretted Eb on the second string against the open E natural as you play the C chord. Orville changes his fingering of the C chord to enable his little finger to hold the Eb with the C and then slide down one fret to D as he fingers the E chord to make a rich E7 chord.This kind of tension-resolution adds a pungent flavor to the tune.

Scene 7
Orville plays the tune at tempo with the the dissonant variation added the second time through. Once you've mastered this go back to scene 2 and try to pick out some of the other subtle variations Orville throws in. Have fun!

Notes: Artists who play this style that you need to check out- Etta Baker, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, and John Jackson. There are many more but these are a good start and all have many accessible recordings.

Video Subtitles / Captions


Supplemental Learning Material



Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.

gpkaliszgpkalisz replied

Any suggestions for working out the F part without fretting the low E with my thumb? Thanks.

lucclucc replied

Several members have noticed that there are differences between the video and the tab : it should be nice that the tab could be modified

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied

To be fair to the hard working transcribers at Jamplay, you should realize that I don't always play everything exactly the same way all thru the lessons. When I teach, my goal is not to show you only one way of doing things. The tab/music reflects one way of doing things and if you notice notes or passages in the video that are different, I'd suggest you learn them from the video (I try very hard to explain every move I make) and add them to the written material. Then try to create your own variations on the song. All of this work will improve your playing and your ability to hear and teach yourself, which I think is the ultimate goal. Thanks for looking at my lessons...oj

skaterstuskaterstu replied

Great lesson Orville, really getting into this one... I do find it confusing that the tabs are not the same as you play. JamPlay does this fairly often, and it can be quite confusing. I wish they would just put the tabs up as how it is taught... a minor moan about an altogether superb website, which has helped me greatly. Loving this song, thanks.

johnnyrockitjohnnyrockit replied

Gotta lot of work to get down these awesome styles that I am not accustomed tyo! Thanks for the help Orville!!!

BigTRSBigTRS replied

Hoping you can answer a simple question. The help desk couldn't. I'm trying to figure out what the number in parenthesis means. Here is my email to jamplay help. Would you mind having a look at "Railroad Bill" tabs that Orville does in Phase 3, 9th measure. It shows 6th string 1st fret, and 2nd string 1st fret, but underneath the 1 on the B string is a 2 in parenthesis. Thanks very much Jason. On 2012-03-12, at 8:14 AM, JamPlay Help wrote: Hello, Thanks for writing in! The numbers you are seeing are either going to be the fret number or a suggested finger number. Without seeing exactly what you're talking about, more than likely what you're seeing is the fret number where you need to depress the indicated string. If you can provide a screen shot of which piece of tab you're looking at, I can be more precise with an answer. I hope this helps you out. Have a great day! Sincerely, Jason Mounce ______________________________________________ Thank you for contacting JamPlay. To respond, simply reply to this email.

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied

I believe that is just indicating that I'm plucking strings 2 and 3 together and the 3rd string is fretted at the 2nd fret. If you watch the video of my right hand you'll see me doing that at times. I must say, though, I don't always play it exactly the same way so you should feel free to experiment with it. Hope that helps...oj

dancerdancer replied

Hi Orville. I have just started learning Railroad Bill. The Tab is great up to the E chord but not so great after that. Can you check the Tab when you get a chance. Dancer. It is your style of playing that Iwant to play . Dancer

dallendouglasdallendouglas replied

Orville, Thanks so much for this lesson. I especially like your concept of singing the song along with the Chords before going any further. I have been playing for a short time and always pick up a new idea. Thanks Dennis

kofanovkofanov replied

Orville hello! I noticed that the tab for F chord is completely different with your video and the melody notes in the tab in this part differ with original. Is it correct?

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied

I think I'm playing it with some variations included the first time I play it for you. Then when I break it down for you I don't include all of those. I think the tab corresponds with the way I teach it. Once you learn that you can probably figure out the variations for yourself or make up a few of your own...oj

lecuyerlecuyer replied

En français : très chouette assez facile juste le doigté index majeur annulaire plus académique contrairement à la vidéo ou seul l'index et le majeur d'orville sont utilisés l'annulaire reposant sur la guitare. J'ai quand même travaillé 2h par jour pendant 6 jours. Merci

blackriderblackrider replied

Nice tune, but a little frustration as I have small hands and can't thumb over to make F this way, or fret G with 2,3,4. I noticed most of the instructors have large hands so this thumb over thing is no problem...but it is a big issue for we small handed folk.

ragmanragman replied

great tune! however I noticed on video that when you change to the E, your thumb alternates between the 6th and 4th strings. Not the 6 4 5 4 as in the tabs. It sounds great though. I guess it doesn't make much difference then. I find it less confusing that way.

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied

its true that occasionally I vary from the tab in the video. That's mostly because I try to present a basic version of the tune for you to learn but, of course, if I were just playing the tune as I normally do I put variations in all the time. Good work on your part to notice the difference and you can play that line either way and it will work. In fact, learn both ways and mix them and you'll be further down the road to being able to create your own variations.

sendbahtsendbaht replied

I find this lesson a lot harder the depot blues. Or is it just me?

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied

that might be because this lesson requires your thumb to do a lot more work than in Depot Blues. It takes awhile to get the hang of the alternating bass style. Don't give up.

sendbahtsendbaht replied

Thanks Orville, I believe it is the syncopated notes that are throwing me off. Singing the song is helping. Also, in my 56 years never have I used the word syncopated so this is a english lesson for me also.:))) Don

mmillermmiller replied

More Oriville...More Oriville...More Oriville...

axisaxis replied

wow, you're fast Matt, much appreciated :)

oshizzleoshizzle replied

orville: Your finger picking lessons are the best on here, but we need tab for railroad bill. Thanks. Peace

mattbrownmattbrown replied

I'm working on it as we speak. It will be up later today.

mattbrownmattbrown replied

All done!

Songs with Orville Johnson

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Orville Johnson teaches a select group of his favorite songs, including a few originals.

Come Back BabyLesson 1

Come Back Baby

Orville Johnson teaches his version of the classic blues song "Come Back Baby."

Length: 29:43 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Depot BluesLesson 2

Depot Blues

Orville Johnson teaches a classic blues song entitled "Depot Blues." This lesson was inspired by the blues great Son House.

Length: 35:31 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Railroad BillLesson 3

Railroad Bill

Orville Johnson teaches the traditional blues song "Railroad Bill."

Length: 16:10 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Bye Bye Baby BluesLesson 4

Bye Bye Baby Blues

Orville teaches the classic blues song "Bye Bye Baby Blues" by Little Hat Jones.

Length: 21:48 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Spanish FandangoLesson 5

Spanish Fandango

Orville Johnson teaches the classic "Spanish Fandango."

Length: 32:50 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
A Bicycle Built for TwoLesson 6

A Bicycle Built for Two

Orville Johnson teaches a classic song entitled "A Bicycle Built for Two." This song is also known as "Daisy Bell."

Length: 23:54 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Weave and WayLesson 7

Weave and Way

This fantastic tune entitled "Weave and Way" is a great song for beginners that want to take things to the next level. Alongside the simple chord progression, Orville also demonstrates 3-4 very different...

Length: 44:19 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Texas GalesLesson 8

Texas Gales

Orville presents this fiddle tune entitled "Texas Gales." This song lesson offers an opportunity to work on right and left hand synchronization as well as flatpicked melody lines.

Length: 34:11 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Gold RushLesson 9

Gold Rush

Orville presents a great fiddle tune titled "Gold Rush." This is yet another great beginner song that offers a secondary lead option that, by the end, will leave you with a complete tune perfect for jamming...

Length: 49:22 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
The Sailor's HornpipeLesson 10

The Sailor's Hornpipe

Orville will teach this classic tune titled "The Sailor's Hornpipe." This up beat song imitates the life of a sailor and the duties aboard the ship. This lesson provides the perfect opportunity for a beginner...

Length: 12:56 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Orville Johnson

About Orville Johnson View Full Biography Orville Johnson was born in 1953 in Edwardsville, Illinois and came up on the St. Louis, Missouri music scene, where he was exposed to and participated in a variety of blues, bluegrass and American roots music. He began singing in his Pentecostal church as a young boy, in rock bands in middle school, then took up the guitar at 17,with early influences from Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Chuck Berry. In the early 1970's, Orville spent several seasons playing bluegrass on the SS Julia Belle Swain, a period-piece Mississippi river steamboat plying the inland waterways, with his group the Steamboat Ramblers.

Orville moved to Seattle, Washington in 1978, where he was a founding member of the much-loved and well-remembered folk/rock group, the Dynamic Logs. Other musical associates include Laura Love, Ranch Romance, File' Gumbo Zydeco Band, Scott Law, and the Twirling Mickeys. Johnson, known for his dobro and slide guitar stylings and vocal acrobatics, has played on over 100 albums. He has appeared on Garrison Keilor's Prairie Home Companion, Jay Leno's Tonight Show and was featured in the 1997 film Georgia with Mare Winningham. His musical expertise can also be heard on the Microsoft CD-ROMs, Musical Instruments of the World and the Complete Encyclopedia of Baseball. He teaches as well at the International Guitar Seminar, Pt. Townsend Country Blues Week and Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.

Orville released 4 recordings in the 1990's: The World According to Orville (1990) Blueprint for the Blues (1998) Slide & Joy (1999) an all-instrumental dobro tour de force and Kings of Mongrel Folk (1997) with Mark Graham. He also appeared on 4 discs with the File' Gumbo Zydeco Band and produced Whose World Is This (1997) for Jim Page and Inner Life (1999) for Mark Graham. In the 21st century, he has released Freehand, a new Kings of Mongrel Folk disc, Still Goin' Strong, and been featured in the soundtracks of PBS' Frontier House and the Peter Fonda flick The Wooly Boys as well as the compilation cd Legends of the Incredible Lap Steel Guitar.

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