Learn to Play: Tommy Emmanuel Teaches Variations in "Freight Train" by Elizabeth Cotten

Last week, our friend Tommy Emmanuel stopped by the Reverb studio to teach us his four magical steps for learning how to play fingerstyle guitar. Today, Tommy is back for a lesson on how to apply what we've learned to Elizabeth Cotten's classic song, "Freight Train."

Elizabeth Cotten, who was left-handed, taught herself how to play the guitar at 11 years old by flipping a right-handed guitar upside down. Since it was strung for a right-handed player, Cotten would play alternating basslines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb—a style that would come to be known as "Cotten picking."

In the video above, Tommy starts by explaining that he likes teaching "Freight Train" to new fingerstyle players not only because of its familiarity, but because the melody of the song is built into each standard chord shape. This keeps players in familiar territory, and prevents them from having to move up and down the neck to find the melody.

Tommy proceeds to break his variations on Cotten's "Freight Train" melody into slowed-down sections and explains his unique way of getting open notes when he's playing an F—"It's a bad habit that I've developed very well over the past 60 years of my life." For an added bit of fun, Tommy slows down a fun Chet Atkins-style embellishments at the end.

After teaching the traditional melody, Tommy introduces some colorful variations for players to experiment with, including a key change from C to E, and moving the melody from the high strings to the middle strings for a banjo-esque sound—things that Tommy cheekily admits to stealing from Chet.

Be sure to check out the full video above, and make sure to go back and watch Tommy's lesson on fingerstyle guitar if you missed it.

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