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Guitar Tablature: "Swanee River" by Stephen Foster

This old tune of the South has four beats per measure, as its 4/4 time signature indicates. When you know how to play "Swanee River" on the guitar, you'll be able to demonstrate playing in an open position that combines the second position with the open strings — that is, your first finger plays the notes on the second fret; your second finger plays the notes of the third fret; and your third finger plays the notes of the fourth fret. You can also play the song by using the first position with open strings, but playing it that way is a lot harder. (Fingers 1 and 3 are stronger than 2 and 4.)

Notice the symbols for up and down picking above the tab staff. Play downstrokes (the open-bottomed box symbol) for the notes that fall on the beats and upstrokes (the V symbol) for the notes that fall between the beats. Again, sim. means keep playing that same picking pattern to the end. By the way, this song’s actual title is “Old Folks at Home,” but most people just call it “Swanee River.” (It’s the song that stumped Ralph Kramden on the game show The $99,000 Answer on the old Honeymooners episode. The tune was written by Stephen Foster — not Ed Norton!)

To play this song, you need to know how to count four beats per measure; how to finger notes in second position; and how to sound politically correct while playing a song about the old plantation.

The fact that a bunch of supposedly simple folk songs — tunes you’ve never thought twice about before — now make you feel slow and clumsy as you try to play them may seem a bit deflating. But playing the guitar is a cumulative endeavor. Every technique you pick up applies to all songs that use those same techniques, from Van Morrison to Beethoven, from “Moondance” to the “Moonlight Sonata.” Hang in there with the technical stuff and the rest follows.

Swanee River
Swanee River

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