Analysis of Five Bluegrass Guitarists: Interpretations of “Billy in the Lowground”




1.       Doc Watson “Billy in the Lowground” – Foundation: The Doc Watson Instrumental Collection 1964-1998

This being the archetypal version of the tune Doc Watson stays close to the melody in both the A/B sections. Several sections are worth diving into depth as they appear quite frequently in Watsons playing throughout his career. In the A section (mm.5) Watson uses a banjo like rhythmic device on the decent on the Vi chord. Although this being a common line in the lexicon of flatpicking guitarists viewing the melodic rhythm as 3+3+2 figure makes this a unique standout in A section as it breaks the contour of the fairly basic contour line of the melody. In the B section Watson navigates out of first position and shifts to the third position. Within this there are numerous points of interest. Measure 18 uses a F# passing tone moving into a G melody note (C Major). In mm 20, Watson’s use of “Cakewalk’ rhythm on the IV chord is of note. The first instance of a minor 2 intervallic idea occurs in mm 22, with both notes fretted. It reappears in mm 24, with one note open string, and the third instance of minor 2 intervallic idea (b3/nat 3) occurs in mm 25, where one note is bent in ½ step.


2.       Clarence White “Billy in the Lowground” -The Kentucky Colonels: Appalachian Spring

Clarence White being well known for playing with syncopation and stretching time is on full display in his solo on Billy in The Lowground. White begins the melody with slight grace notes going into the third (b3-nat3).This repeating motif appears in the A section frequently. He also displaces the first melody note in bar 14 via 16th mm pulloff maneuver. This idea occurs throughout White’s career. Beginning in the A section, White uses rhythmic displacement, generally speaking, as a way to stretch the time values of said melody notes. This mostly occurs over the A minor chord. Also, in the B section, White’s signature crosspicking appears. These patterns are tricky to master, however they are necessary to achieve the full effect of the sustained notes and dynamic attack. In the B section it is worthy of note that White uses the Flat 3rd (Eb) in three different positions (mm 19, mm 20, mm 22, mm 24). White ends his solo with a Doc Watson-like lick, mm 32. This should be familiar to all bluegrass guitarists.


3.       Tony Rice “Billy in The Lowground” California Autumn

Tony Rice plays the melody very straight in the A section, very similar to Doc Watson’s version. Except for a few minor instances, where Rice uses a chordal pattern on the melody. In the B section, Rice also uses this chordal approach to embellish melodies, often having a full chord ring while in certain melody notes are accented, while holding said chord. The use of the Sus 2 on the F chord is of note. This open sonority adds more modern sound on the IV chord in the B section. Rice paraphrases White’s pulloff lick at the end of the solo (mm 33).


4.       Bryan Sutton “Billy in the Lowground” Not Too Far From The Tree

Moving forward in time, Brian Sutton represents a new generation of guitarists, all influenced by players such as Watson, White, and Rice. Sutton bases his solo on the melody, but there are many instances of variational phrases, usually based at the end of a turn around. Of note is Sutton’s use of 4th intervals, based out of C position playing. This is all done with one finger, which has become the du jour of most modern bluegrass guitarists. Mm 14 see the familiar Doc Watson phrase reappear, followed by Sutton’s use of the 4th interval in the descending line. Sutton, like Rice, starts the B section using a chordal approach and also highlights the Sus 2 over the IV chord. One particular measure (mm 24) shows the Blake influence on Sutton, as there is a downward contoured line that uses chromatic notes from strings 3 to 6. Sutton is also a master of position shifting, as heard in his fast leaps to 3rd position from open position.


5.       David Grier “Billy in the Lowground” – Live Recording.

Of all the guitarists mention, Grier is the most iconoclastic of the group. Starting his solo, he does not state the melody plainly—he hints at it, using devices such as 3rds, crosspicking melody while holding chords, and unique intervallic figures (mm 5). Also embodied in Grier’s playing is his unique sense of chromaticism, which underlines his entire approach. Measure 14 is a typical Grier line, using a triad and fast position shifts to outline the I chord. Ample use of slides, pulloffs, and ghost notes are typical of a Grier solo. Grier approaches the B section in a chordal manner, albeit simultaneously hammering on, while picking on another string—an approach known as “ghost picking.” Grier also plays the melody in the low register (mm 23-25). Measure 28 sees another reworked Doc Watson lick, though phrases in Grier’s inimitable way. Lastly, the Watson motif that each guitarist has played, reappears at mm 32.

Andy Novara


Billy In The Lowground Transcription