Mandolin Sheet Music: Song Breakdown Bill Cheatham

I thought I’d take a slightly different route with this weeks song breakdown and use it to answer a question I get a lot – “how do I practice“? Honestly, that exact question isn’t really what I get asked but it’s the heart of most of the “how do I get better at X” questions. The answer is of course “practice” – but that begs the question at the heart of this post – how do you practice? This week I thought I’d explain how I tackle tunes by reviewing the mandolin sheet music for Bill Cheatham – a fiddle tune I definitely should know but don’t (or didn’t before starting this).

Here’s a full chart for the breakdown – mandolin sheet music for Bill Cheatham song breakdown.


As always, the first part of playing is listening. So here’s a bunch of versions of this song. Personally, I like what Larry Rice does on the Rice brothers track a lot – so eventually I’ll write out his breaks in a later step.

Write out the Basic Melody

Anytime I approach a tune, I’ll start with the most basic version of it I can find. Often it’s hard to find a simple recording of traditional tunes like Bill Cheatham since they’ve been played so much. Thankfully basic sheet music can be found in various books like the Fiddler’s Fakebook and many others. The melodies in these books may be “one” way to play them, but it’s worth noting that often they aren’t the “only” way. If the sheet music songs “wrong”, default to a recording.

Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - basic melody

Basic Closed Melody

Once I have the basic melody down in an open position (meaning using open strings when possible), I’ll then move to using a closed position (meaning playing no open notes except maybe the low G if needed).  Generally the only change from the “open” melody to this “basic closed” melody is changing any open notes to be the 7th fret of the string before (i.e. the open A string notes are played using the 7th fret on the D string). 

Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - closed melody

Changing the starting finger

Here’s where things get interesting for me. Once I have the basic and basic closed melody down, I’ll change the finger I use to hit the first note. While this may seem like a simple change, it requires using a new fingering pattern for the rest of the tune.  Often these patterns are much more difficult that the basic or basic closed – so they’ll take some time to get down.  

In Bill Cheatham, the song starts with an A note. In the basic position that’s just the open A string.  In the closed position, I used my pinky on the 7th fret of the D string.  So in the next position, I use my ring (or third) finger to start off playing the A on the 7th fret of the D string. Then, I’ll move to use my middle (or second) finger to start. And finally I’ll use my first finger. Each time I use a different finger to start, my hand position will change slightly and I’ll need to finger the song completely differently.  I’ve noted the starting finger in each section below:

Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - 3rd finger start
Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - 2nd finger start
Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - 1st finger start

Melody based Exercises

Once I’ve written out these parts, I’ll look for things that are difficult for me and look for ways to practice those ideas and parts. This involves two things really:

  1. Playing specific difficult sections
  2. Creating new exercises to target difficult patterns / ideas.

Both ways of practicing are important. If all I did was practice the “hard” sections, I’d get good at those sections for a particular tune – but that’s it. By building new exercises that target the difficult patterns, I’m working to incorporate those ideas into my playing – meaning I can use them more easily in other tunes (and in different keys). Remember, practice is about getting better at something. Practice is not just learning songs, but learning new skills to play songs better.

Here’s a few samples of exercises I used in learning this tune.

Bill Cheatham - Mandolin Sheet Music Song Breakdown - exercises


Playing the rhythm to any song is an important step in learning it. While it’s easy to just play the “cowboy chords” (or the most simple versions of a chord), that can get really boring for me as the player and for the audience. There’s nothing wrong with easy or simple things – but I believe it’s important to stretch out a bit.

I like having at least three different positions to play the rhythm of any song. By this I mean if I’m playing the “big chop” A chord for example, I’ll keep the other chords near the 5th fret.

Once I’ve gotten the “static” positions down well, it’s time to mix and match these different voices. Here I’ll start to moving from one position to another at specific intervals – like every measure or every other measure etc. I find this can really help solidify a good understanding of where chord tones are around the neck – and gives some good boundaries for soloing as well.

The full charts I’ve provided each have a variation on the chord voicing. I have one version (the 2nd finger start) that moves around a bit as an example of mixing and matching etc.

Study a Recording

After doing the above and getting a “simple” version down, it’s time to study a more complicated recording. Generally this means transcribing a particular recording by ear without sheet music. While that may sound daunting, programs like the Amazing Slower Downer really help. Learning tunes by ear is a really good way to get better at jamming with others and learning their tunes on the fly when needed.

If transcribing a tune is out of your reach today, you may also be able to find a transcription someone else has already written out. While that’s an okay starting point, remember that even transcriptions from large publishing house can be wrong – so be careful and always trust the source (i.e. the recording) over someone else’s transcription.

At the time of posting this, I haven’t gotten to this part yet. When I do, I’ll update the post accordingly.

Wrapping up

Getting better at music means putting in the work. It’s not always easy, but in my opinion at least, it’s pretty much always fun. Take the time to learn songs by ear when you can and you’ll find your abilities will improve quickly.

If you need a coach to help you, I know a guy 😉

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