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How to play John Fahey – Sligo River Blues on guitar

This week’s free guitar lesson from Folk Friend is responding to a request from Shane Tully who asked for a guide to John Fahey’s Sligo River Blues. Well it’s a great tune, so I was only too happy to oblige! I have made a free tab which shows you the entire song and in this videos I will be running you through all the chords, picking techniques and general top tips you will need to get this classic tune sounding great on your acoustic guitar!

Download the tab for free here.

Playalongs Polkas

John Ryan’s – D ionian



Basic chords

This tune is in the key of D ionian. Therefore the available chords are D major, E minor, F# minor, G major, A major, B minor and C# diminished.

If you listen to the tune my choices should be relatively self-explanatory. Notice that each section ends with a resolution from A D, aka chord V to chord I.

Basic substitutions

I have substituted the G in the second line for its related minor, Em. I have also substituted the D in the second half of the third line for its related minor, Bm and the G in the final line for Em.

In the second line of the B part I have replaced one D chord with a D in the first inversion (D/F#). This chord still contains the notes of a D major triad, D, F# and A, but has them piled up with the F# at the lowest pitch within the chord. This means that functionally it is exactly the same as a normal D major chord, but it’s altered bass note creates a nice bassline which adds a sense of movement to the progression, jumping from D to F# before dropping back down for the E at the bottom of the E minor chord which follows it. In the third line I have used a similar trick to link a G chord to it’s related minor E minor, passing through D/F# in order to make a nice descending bassline, G, F#, E.

Jazzy substitutions

Because of the excessive speed at which polkas roll along, I have kept my chord choices relatively simple for this one! If you’re feeling jazzy, you can replace any chord with the “right kind” of seven chord, by which I mean that in the ionian mode chords I and IV can become major 7 chords, chords II, III and VI become minor 7 chords and chord V becomes a dominant 7 chord (usually just referred to as a 7 chord). This is why my Em7, A7 (this is chord V so it has to be “A7” NOT “A major 7”) and Bm7 all work well.

In the B part I have added a C natural (♮) chord- this is decidedly cheeky. What I have actually done there is to borrow a chord from the mixolydian mode, which is only separated from the ionian mode by one note. If this tune were written in D mixolydian, its scale would contain a C♮ instead of C#, and therefore its VII chord would be C major instead of C# diminished. As the 7th note of the scale, C#, is not in the melody in this bar I can borrow the cheeky flattened VII chord from D mixolydian. So long as there is no C# in the tune it won’t clash but will just lend the tune a blues-y character for a moment instead!

Changing the third line from “D D G G” to “Bm7 A7 G D/F#” works because Bm is related to D (and therefore so is Bm7), A7 is a passing chord which creates a nice step-wise descent to G and then D/F# is chord I (D) but with a bass note which continues the little descending bass run, which then culminates in E minor in the final line.