Learning the classic song
This write-up is all about breaking down Reverend Gary Davis' Cincinatti Flow Rag, on the guitar.
Is it really as out-of-reach as it sounds?
You'll have to find out for yourself!
Debunking the Reverend's notes
As a bird's-eye-view of what you can come away with, here's a transcription of Davis' playing; it's based on the Live In Portland version. (Each riff in more detail is analyzed in the next sections.)
The form of the song is:
- A (*equal to:' A, Break, A, Turnaround' as it appears in the above transcription)
Now, to tackle the notes..
Playing from G7 to C
The song starts off with the classic, carnival-sounding riff.
It's a 'secondary-dominant' move; the target chord is Cmaj (the root/tonic of the song), and the V7 of the Cmaj is G7.
Notably, it's not a straight-forward alternating bass; it's more deliberate! All those details that make the Reverend sound unique!
Shifting around the C chord
Next, Davis plays a string of double/triple stops within the 5th-8th fret range of the fretboard, all on the top 4 strings, and pretty much all within the C-major scale! (diatonic)
Like the first part, Davis' playing is more nuanced than simple alternating bass-lines & obvious treble-side notes.
Different types of breaks
Here's a platter of riffs that the Reverend uses as 'breaks'.
They're stuffed with chromatics ('passing tones') that connect the major pentatonic / major scale notes
Davis' riffs all happen to follow the 'rules' of a jazz concept called 'forward motion'; a way-of-thinking that helps explain the chromatic soloing lines of jazz musicians. Strong beats "1" and "3" are used for root/chord tones (strongly suggestive notes) while weak beats "2" and "4" can be used for scale/chromatic tones (weakly suggestive tones). Davis does this naturally, and it makes his lines always sound 'right'.
Different types of endings
One of the cornerstones of the Reverend's style is his improvisations through the chord progressions. He never plays them the same way twice!
These are transcriptions of each time they appear in the recording. The progression is: Fmaj - F#dmin - Cmaj - A7 - D7 - G7 / IV-#IVdim-I-VI7-II7-V7
Finally, there's the 'bridge' section, where Davis moves to the V7 chord and back to the I/root... G7 to Cmaj. This is again a 'secondary dominant'... toggling the V7 with the Imaj.