Cajun Guitar Music

The Cajun Guitar -- The Secret Leader of the Band

You could say that the Cajun guitar is what keeps the Cajun band together, for it is the beat of the music. Basically, you could also say that there are four styles of Cajun guitar playing:

  • Old Time Style - Very basic style of traditional older guitar players.
  • D. L. Menard Style - Same very basic style, but with bass runs added when the chord changes and with an upstroke on the strumming part.
  • Rodney Balfa Style - Complicated open chord rhythm style with extra upstroke in the strumming.
  • Modern Bar Chord Method Style - First beat is stressed in each measure, while the following beats are muffled.

Backing up the Cajun accordion and the Cajun fiddle, the bigger the Cajun guitar, the better -- because you need to be loud (except when the vocalist sings)! The Cajun guitarist only needs to learn four cards to play Cajun music, with many of the songs only being played in the chords of G and D.

What Makes the Cajun Guitar Cajun?

The Cajun guitarist, of course!

Famous Cajun Guitarists

It's hard to know where to begin when listing influential and famous Cajun guitarists, both past and present. Many of them didn't limit themselves to just Cajun music. Certainly, the list of eight Cajun guitarists to know are:

  • Rodney Balfa
  • Sam Broussard
  • Papa Cairo (Jules Angelle Lamparez)
  • David Doucet
  • Cleoma Falcon
  • Sonny Landreth
  • D.L. Menard
  • Paul "Lil' Buck" Senegal

Dewey Balfa sur scène à l'Alhambra de Bordeaux
Dewey Balfa sur scène à l'Alhambra de Bordeaux | Source

Rodney Balfa -- Cajun Guitarist Extraordinaire

It's hard to know what wonderful Cajun guitar songs may have been written by the late Rodney Balfa, whose life was cut short in a tragic accident. Not only was he a talented Cajun guitarist, but he also sang and played the harmonica.

He and his brothers, Dewey and Will, were instrumental in spreading the popularity of Cajun music both at home and internationally (Balfa Brothers). He and his brother Will, lost their lives in a car accident in February 1979.

Rodney Balfa Home Movie

Christine Balfa playing the guitar at the 2009 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.
Christine Balfa playing the guitar at the 2009 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. | Source

Jules Angelle Lamparez - Papa Cairo

Papa Cairo, born Jules Angelle Lamparez, is a Cajun steel guitarist as well as a singer. Since there wasn't much of a demand for steel guitar players with most Cajun bands, he would also play with Western swing and country music bands.

In one of his many Western swing bands, he featured an unknown star vocalist at the time, George Jones. He was involved in a later dispute with Marty Robbins, who he accused of stealing some of his songs.

While he later branched out into the country music genre, he also performed regularly with many Cajun greats, such as Jimmie C. Newman, Rufus Thibodeaux, Harry Choates and Doug Kershaw. Commercially, he was hugely successful.

David Doucet - Cajun Guitarist of Note

David Doucet, along with his fiddling brother Michael Doucet, in the band most highly respected Cajun band, Beausoleil -- have been instrumental in keeping Cajun music alive and well in the 21st century. Not as famous as his brother, but a Cajun guitarist whose talents worthy of knowing.

His "1957" Solo Guitar album is invigorating and very pleasant to listen to. His finger picking and flat picking, have been compared to the talents of Doc Watson and John Hurt. These techniques married to the common Cajun guitar techniques have completely changed the complexity and splendor to the listener's ears.

An image of Cléoma Breaux with her husband Joe Falcon
An image of Cléoma Breaux with her husband Joe Falcon | Source

Cleoma Falcon - Half of a Great Cajun Musical Team

Cleoma Falcon (Cleoma Breaux), wife of legendary Joe Falcon, is certainly a female Cajun vocalist and guitarist legend in her own right. She and Joe were the first Cajun musicans to ever be recorded. Their record, "Allons à Lafayette" for Columbia, truly introduced Cajun music beyond Louisiana.

At a time when women did not perform on stage (especially Cajun women) without being thought of as something less than a lady, Cleoma was both playing her guitar and the lead vocalist nightly. While they performed on stage -- she and her husband had to shield themselves behind a chicken wire partition, to insure both their safety and that of their daughter at times.

Cléoma came from a long line of family musicians, and would leave her family's band when she married Joe Falcon. She and her husband would record during the 1930s, for all four of the most important record labels (Columbia, Decca, Bluebird, and Okeh). She died a year after a tragic accident, in which she was drug by a car.

Vocal and Guitar of Cleoma Falcon with Joe Falcon on Guitar

D.L. Menard playing at the 2008 Black Pot Festival in Wikipedia:Acadian Village in Wikipedia:Lafayette, Louisiana.
D.L. Menard playing at the 2008 Black Pot Festival in Wikipedia:Acadian Village in Wikipedia:Lafayette, Louisiana. | Source

D. L. Menard - The Cajun Hank Williams

B: 1932 -- More than being a Cajun Hank Williams, D. L. (Doris Leon) Menard, is also more than just a very fine Cajun guitarist. His song, "La Porte dans Arriere" is considered to be one of his finest. He is also a gifted folk master craftsman and owns a chair factory.

Like many others, he bought his first guitar from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. He first played for the Louisiana Acre‘s band before taking over as the band‘s leader. He is a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Paul "Lil' Buck" Senegal

Like many important musicians, he's been playing the guitar since childhood. His talents are rooted in a firm background playing with important Zydeco bands and artists. His own band, the Cowboy Stew Blues Revue, has afforded him the featured role his guitar talents deserve.

Sonny Landreth

As an electric guitarist, Sonny Landreth is known world over and has been an international guitar soloist for over fifteen years. He has his own distinctive finger picking style.

Sonny Landreth

Sam Broussard - Steve Riley and Mamou Playboys

Sam Broussard is a multi-talented Cajun guitarist, singer, and song writer with an impressive background in performing with legendary artists, such as Jimmy Buffet (and many others). He was the co-founder of the band, T-Mamou and an important part of the Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

Sam Brossard

Cajun Guitar Manufacturer

One Cajun guitar manufacturer that is recommended is:

Gerard Melancon Guitars, Inc.

249 West Main Street

Thibodaux, Louisiana 70301

Telephone: (985) 447 4090

Email: melanconguitars@charter.net

Relative Tuning A Guitar

Growing up, we didn't have external fixed source devices to turn our acoustic guitars. We relied on a method called "relative tuning." An out-of-tune guitar was of little use in a Cajun band, and the one thing you can count on with a guitar is that sooner or later, it will be out-of-tune.

Relative tuning, is also called "fifth-fret" tuning. You are essentially tuning the guitar to itself and therefore don't need an outside source for this job.

Basic beginner instructions:

  • Place your index finger on the 6th string, behind the fifth fret - pick the string
  • Now, pick the 5th string (without holding down)
  • Let both strings play simultaneously -- they should match in pitch
  • If the pitches are different, adjust the 5th string via the tuning machine
  • Next, place your finger on the 5th string, again behind the 5th fret and pick
  • Now, pick the 4th string (without holding down)
  • Again, let both strings play simultaneously -- they should match in pitch
  • Continue, doing the same for the 4th and 3rd strings; the 3rd and 2nd strings; and the 2nd and 1st strings
  • Finally, made the pitch of 1st string to math the 2nd string

As you find out, tuning the guitar to itself can be a little tricky in that it's very easy to make a mistake with one string and then continue with the following strings. 

With practice, most find that you can check your tuning by playing a chord very slowly, one string at a time, each time listening carefully.

Famous Guitarists

Regardless that most of them are not Cajun, anyone who loves the guitar and it's music, should be familiar with some of the most famous guitarists in the world:

  • Duane Allman
  • Chet Atkins
  • Jeff Beck
  • Chuck Berry
  • Lenny Breau
  • Charley Christian
  • Eric Clapton
  • Bob Dylan
  • Buddy Guy
  • Jim Hall
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Elmore James
  • Robert Johnson
  • Albert King
  • B. B. King
  • Mark Knopifler
  • Pat Metheny
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Wes Montgomery
  • Ramon Montoya
  • Jimmy Page
  • Joe Pass
  • Paco Pena
  • Carl Perkins
  • Django Reinhardt
  • Keith Richards
  • David Russell
  • Sabicas
  • Carlos Santana
  • Pete Seeger
  • Andres Segovia
  • Pete Townshen
  • Merle Travis
  • Steve Vai
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • John Williams

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