Beginner Guitar Song
and Fiddle Song Too!
Boil'em Cabbage Down

Beginner guitar song Boil'em Cabbage Down makes a great technique song for both fiddle players and flat-picking guitar players. When they learn to play it up to speed, it will be FUN too! This is one of the most easy guitar songs around for flat-picking, and for the fiddle, Part A is all on one string.  Now with easy open-string duet parts for beginner guitar and violin -- see farther down the page!

There is so much you can teach beginning fiddlers and guitar players with this simple but fun piece! The more you work with it, the more uses you find for it as a teacher. It is a terrific, high-energy song for groups, but is excellent for brand-new beginners to wrestle with on their own. 

Below is a FABULOUS rendition of Boil'em Cabbage Down, but the music starts just after 30 seconds in...

Boiling Cabbage Down guitar tabs

            Download guitar and fiddle tabs for Boil'em Cabbage Down 

One neat thing about the first part of Boil'em Cabbage Down on the fiddle is that the melody stays all on one string -- perfect for beginning fiddle players. Even very young children, just learning their finger numbers, do well with this piece. The rhythm is all the same -- "blue-ber-ry, blue-ber-ry," is how we say it for my beginners. Or, "One-two, one, one, One-two, one, one," as we clap the half notes and quarter notes.

And for beginning guitar players, Boil'em Cabbage Down is a good first song to practice the Down, Down-Up movement of the pick. (With the chords, also, the Down, Down-Up pattern makes a nice strum.) 

Download guitar and fiddle tabs for Boil'em Cabbage Down 

This sheet is only half the melody, but since it uses 2 strings and employs a tricky rhythm, that is quite enough for a young guitar player.

Look at the slow (in appearance) rhythm I have presented this song in (it really uses quarter and eighth notes, not the ponderous-appearing half and quarter notes). Students will certainly want to stroke it all DOWN strokes (Down, Down-down), and at first that will be fine. But as they get able to play it faster and faster, you will want them to flat-pick it with a Down, Down-UP stroke. 

Violin sheet music Boil'em Cabbage

Violin only sheet music for Boil'em Cabbage Down 

For beginning fiddlers, I like this simple sheet with only half the melody. It is clean, with no distractions, not even chord symbols. To be able to get all the way to the end of the page seems like a real accomplishment, and even that may be too much for a very young beginner. Save the full piece (see below) until after they can do part 1 smoothly, unless they are eager for the whole thing NOW.

Boilem' Cabbage Down is also my favorite way to have guitarists learn the A - D - E chords.  But I recently taught it a new way to a beginner... instead of STARTING with A then going to D & E, I started with Em, a chord (the only chord) he knows well.  

Then, keeping the Em chord (fingered with 1 & 2), we changed fingers to 2 & 3, & added the index (finger 1) in fret 1 of the G string to change the chord to major.  From THERE we slid down with “anchor finger” 1 (index finger) to the A chord.  Back & forth we played the chords.  Finally, we added the D chord.  Soon he had it almost memorized, as we played Boilem’ Cabbage with a DOWN, DOWN-UP rhythm.

Then finally I had him try without looking at the strings.  That is also his goal for his next guitar lesson, to be able to play and change these chords with closed eyes.          

Here is the full melody of Boil'em Cabbage Down, on two pages for guitar and fiddle. 

Guitar tabs and staff for Boil'em Cabbage

Guitar tabs and staff for Boil'em Cabbage Down

Full melody for guitar free sheet music for Boil'em Cabbage Down 

And here is the full melody for fiddle, on one page: 

Fiddle sheet music Boiling Cabbage Down

Free fiddle sheet music for Boil'em Cabbage Down, full melody with guitar chord symbols 

Now here is the new open string duet for guitar:

Duet with open string harmony part for Boilem' Cabbage Down, for beginner guitars

Duet with open string harmony part for Boilem' Cabbage Down for guitar

Duet for beginner guitars

Download easy open-string harmony duet for guitar

I've put the Harmony part on top, instead of on the bottom where it is usually found, so that beginners won't have to search so hard!

So what's the POINT of this "easy-peasy" ensemble arrangement?  Mostly just to get them playing something that sounds like music, while working on their flat-picking.  And also, helping them feel a rhythm and hear simple harmony without being distracted and thrown off their part (a common occurrence in duets with beginning piano players).

This duet can be considered a Trio if a third guitarist strums the chords (but they'd better not strum too loudly and drown out the flat-pickers!).

How in the WORLD can we know what the rhythm is, with these guitar tabs?  Answer... we can't!  And this is an excellent opportunity to stress to your young guitarists the importance of learning how to read standard notation.  They want to be independent musicians, right?  Or do they want to have someone always holding their hand?

Of course, you can place a few notes in between or below the staves... quarter, eighth-eighth, quarter, eighth-eighth, etc. That's what I do.

But the rhythm... well, you'll have to teach them by rote.  You might do what I'm doing with this duet: writing "D   DU   D   DU"  etc., indicating "Down, down-up, Down, down-up" in each measure.

Here is the new violin (or fiddle) duet, also with an easy open-strings only harmony.  Will it be what your beginners WISH to play?  NO - they'll really want to play the MELODY.  But here is where they can practice their bow strokes while making music, without having to worry about their left hand.

Violin duet for beginners

Fiddle duet for beginners

Download violin duet for beginners, Boilem' Cabbage Down

All right, I'll admit that measures 23 and 24 are a bit startling, with the sudden divergence between melody and harmony.  Melody dives to the low G string, while the harmony leaps up to high E!  OH WELL - this song is very much about keeping the shuffle rhythm going, and making an easy duet together.  I haven't heard any complaints yet from my newest violin student.

No key signature.  Right.  Those are a very confusing item for beginners - I don't really go there for a while.

You will have to introduce your young fiddlers to the concept of chord symbols - they are very likely to presume the "A", "D", and "E" letters over the staff are the note names, especially as they often do happen to coincide, especially in this little duet.

As is common with traditional or folk sheet music, you can find many variations of the melody and words. The version I have here is like the one used by Brian Wicklund in his book Mel Bay American Fiddle Method, Vol. 1 (Book & CD). It is the first song in his very fine and useful book, which I use with my fiddle students.

However, instead of waiting until violinists can read and count these rhythms, I start the young ones out reading this song with half notes and quarter notes, so they can count it. Most young fiddle and guitar players don't really understand eighth notes... they just feel them and learn rhythms by ear (listening over and over). Playing by ear is necessary, but not enough to make a truly independent musician.

Here's a fun group called the Duttons playing Boil'em Cabbage Down:

For my non-readers learning how to play fiddle, they can use the music like a map, as long as they know their alphabet and numbers. I have them choose different colored felt pens to circle or loop around note groups -- all the notes on the A string, for example, might have a pink circle around them, or a pink loop enclosing them all, or a pink line linking them together. The student chooses which color pen goes with which "string". Recently, one of my young students (perhaps fearing I was about to make a mess out of his music with blue, green, and pink pens) suggested tiny dots of color beneath each note, instead of big loops. Very dainty. And fast!

The words of this melody do not match the rhythm most commonly used by instrumentalists in Boil'em Cabbage Down! You'll catch on to this if you listen to groups perform it.

Basically, the words go like this:

Went up on the mountain
To give my horn a blow
Thought I heard my true love say
Yonder stands my beau.

Racoon and a possum
Running side by side
Racoon says to the possum
Won't you be my bride.

Boil'em cabbage down, boys,
Turn the hoecake brown
The only song that I can sing is
Boil'em cabbage down!

Brian Wicklund has more words in his book, Mel Bay American Fiddle Method, Vol. 1 (Book & CD).


Do you have a story or a question about teaching guitar? Do you think it is a hard instrument for beginners, or easy? What have been your challenges?
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