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Maple Leaf Rag - A Fingerstyle Guitar Lesson

Guitar Lesson by Kirk Lorange

Maple Leaf Rag - The Lesson explained

Here is an old classic by Scott Joplin called 'Maple Leaf Rag'. I've done the main memorable parts and I arranged it after listening to an iTunes version I downloaded played by Scott himself. There are a couple of other sections that follow what's here, but they're very forgettable and rambling, more chord progressions than anything else. I wonder why he even left them in or didn't work on them some more.

This is no piece of cake! It's a fairly complex little piece and I kept a fairly early take of mine for the video. I usually work on the arrangements for my beginners' lessons a little more and strip away any clutter, but I did like the vibe of this one, and even though there are a few flubs here and there, you'll get the drift.

It's in A. I listened to Scott's version, which was in A flat. I tuned down a half step to play along and then re-tuned to concert pitch. A flat is not a friendly key for guitar! He's quite the composer, leaving the key several times, as you'll see. He keeps going to that F chord, which can be described as a #V chord I guess, as a way of getting to the V chord itself. There's also that diminished chord that keeps anticipating the I chord.

I tried to keep the very straight feel he used. I did listen to a few other arrangements and most swing the feel. I like the original ragtime vibe.

I think it's easiest to break it down into sections, I know I did when putting this together. You'll see in the movies that I indicate on the virtual fretboard in pale green the basic chord shapes I'm working around. There are of course many deviations from these shapes, but I put them there to help you see the underlying structure. I didn't put them under the diminished chords though, they seemed redundant. You can easily see the shapes with just the dots. You'll also see and hear a few of my own idiosyncrasies, like some little back-of-the-finger strums, etc. I did try to keep them out, but couldn't. Use them or lose them. The tab is a 'clean' version of what I played in the movie.

1) The opening bit: pretty straight forward, a I chord going to a V chord a couple of times. The ear catcher is that bass note moving up from the A to Bb then to B, the 5 of the E chord. The melody line on top is all part of the chord shapes, and you'll notice I changed the second time around to include the flat 7.

2) The next bit to lock in is that F to E, easy enough as, once again it's an arpeggio of the chord.

3) Next comes the diminished run. I simplified it, made it a little more guitar friendly. It's a fun little run to play.

4) Next comes the 'hook', the attention grabber. That diminished chord really does tug away at the ear, finally dragging the listener up to the I chord. The next bit is the trickiest I think, making that F to A to E7 (E13 really) chord flow properly. The second time round I tossed a little D7 chord in there. It's just one note out form the diminished shape, but that tiny detail adds quite a lot I think. There's no real need for it and Scott didn't do it so leave it out if you prefer.

5) Next comes the 'other part'. This time we're going from the V chord to the I chord (E7 to A), and once again that Bb note in the bass line brings us up to the 5 of the E chord. So instead of the usual 1>5>1>5 bass line under the V chord, we're going 5>1>5>1 ... backwards. Above that bass line, there's a neat descending line moving down through the 7, then flat 7, then 6 then 5. Woven into it all are other E shape notes. Getting this to flow is a real 'feel' thing. You really do need to zone out. Get that bass line moving back and forth, that melody line coming down, and let those other notes fall into place by making it -- forcing it -- to feel right.

The E chord happens three times. The first and last are as described above; the 'middle' one is more of an arpeggiated D9 chord as you'll see.

The A6 chord occurs three times and it's the same each time. Once again, lock that bass line in and get those top notes dancing back and forth.

6) The end bit. After the last A of the section above, there's a quick, unannounced semitone descent on the treble strings from that A to F#. I tried doing it in the bass but opted for this as it seemed to work better in the fingering department. So we take the 1 and 5 of A, move down in semitones through G#, G then F#. Then, there's a fairly straight forward phrase built around the F#7 and B minor chords which I barre, then, finally, an ending on the B9, E13 and A.


I recommend that you download the Scott Joplin version from iTunes -- it's only $1.69 -- and have a good listen. You'll hear the structure of the tune (he repeats the sections I did in this lesson) and you'll also hear the other sections. He does it much faster and it's actually easier to play fast. I slowed this down for the lesson and found it difficult to flow properly. Once you get the fingers to remember it all, try speeding it up, you'll see what I mean. If you want to play along to his version, tune your guitar down a half step.

Once you get it down, it's very hard to stop playing it, it really is that fun to do.



Most of my lessons, including this one, are now free. Please consider making a donation so I can keep these free lessons coming. -- To donate, simply click the green donate button below and you will be taken to a PayPal page where you can enter the amount you would like to donate. No amount is too small ... or big!

A big thanks in advance, Kirk Lorange