Big River

One of my favorite Johnny Cash tunes has to be Big River. It’s a fun tune to play, has some great potential harmonies, and everyone can sing along to the chorus. Whether it’s played at a bar or by the fireside, it’s just a fun tune!

Johnny Cash generally plays this song in F (here’s a chart for that key). While I encourage you to learn the song in that key, I’m using the Grateful Dead version of the song in A for my breakdown. Here’s the Big River Chord Chart in A.

Basic form

The song is essentially an 8 measure AB form song. That said, given how short the form is, I find it easy to just think of this as one part that loops over and over. Since there’s only really one part, the vocals for both the verses and choruses are played over the same progression.

Chord Progression

While most of this song is a straight ahead 1 4 5 song (if you’re not sure what that means, check out my lesson on the Nashville Numbering System) there’s a fun 2 chord in the 4th measure that breaks up the song. The 2 chord here is actually part of a 2 5 1 progression that helps the A part move to the B part of the song and makes it a lot more interesting than a generic 1 4 5 tune.

Using a 2 5 1 progression (or B E A in the key of A) is a fairly common device used in a lot of tunes. For example, the chorus of Old Home Place and the verse of Goodbye Old Pal both use 2 5 1’s. Most often this progression is used to help move the song from one part to another in an interesting way. You can add 2 5 1’s to many tunes to spice things up a bit as well. I’ll dive in to these more in a future breakdown.


Johnny Cash plays this song in F Major Scale as noted but since I’m basing this off the Grateful Dead’s versions – the Scale to know is the A Major Scale.

I’d recommend playing the A Major Scale straight through and in 3rds along with the arpeggios for each chord in the tune. Learning these in multiple positions will really help as well.

Melody / Soloing

Often times in jams, especially in bluegrass, you’ll only get one pass at the verse to solo. While this is good for most jams since it keeps the song moving, it can be somewhat limiting since you don’t have the opportunity to explore the melody much before your solo is over. Since Big River has a really short form (just 8 measures), generally this means you’ll get a few passes when soloing.

One thing I love about these short form songs is it gives the opportunity to play a simple melody followed by a more complex embellished melody. This makes it a lot easier for your audience to follow where you are going with your solo which is always a great goal. With that in mind, I’ve arranged two solos over this song – the first being fairly simple, the second being slightly more complex. Click here to download the PDF of these solos.

Once you’ve gotten these down, I’d suggest learning the solos in closed positions as well to help improve your finger strength and speed.

Happy picking!

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