Scott Ainslie

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“Scott is the kind of musician they don’t make anymore, in the mold of the late Pete Seeger — unpretentious, dead serious about his craft … dedicated … versatile…” —Pamela Constable, The Washington Post (2015)

Considered a master of American roots music, Scott Ainslie brings a wealth of personal and musical history to the stage. With engaging stories he provide historical context for a repertoire of Delta Blues and ragtime guitar, gospel, and music of the banjo and fiddle traditions of the Southern Appalachians. Coming of age during the Civil Rights era, Ainslie studied with elder musicians on both sides of the color line. With a deep affinity for cross-cultural exchange, he plays this music with affection, authority and power.
Ainslie has spent more than 30 years looking for the right story, the right set of facts, the right piece of history, to introduce a song. He offers a personality, a moment in history, a vignette to entice you into a song and to give that song a chance to wake and breathe among us like a living thing.
Scott Ainslie literally wrote the book on Mississippi Delta Blues legend, Robert Johnson/At the Crossroads. He is a masterful and thoughtful historian, storyteller, and musician.

About Scott Ainslie

Scott Ainslie’s mother found him at the family piano picking out melodies from the records she listened to during the day when he was three years old. He’s been a musician all his life. A Phi Beta Kappa and honors graduate of Washington & Lee University, Ainslie came of age during the Civil Rights era, and cultivated a powerful affinity for cross-cultural exchange. He has studied with elder musicians on both sides of the color line – in the Old-Time Southern Appalachian fiddle and banjo traditions, as well as Black Gospel and Blues. He plays this music with affection, authority and power. Armed with vintage guitars, a fretless gourd banjo, a homemade one-string diddley bow, and carefully chosen historical personal anecdotes of his encounters with senior musicians across the South, Ainslie brings the history, roots music, and sounds of America alive. On stage, in educational teaching concerts, workshops, and school residencies, Ainslie explores the African and European roots of American music and culture. His easy, conversational way with audiences and cross-disciplinary approach to the music consistently garners rave reviews from presenters, audiences, students, and teachers, alike. He is a masterful and thoughtful historian, storyteller, and musician. Ainslie transcribed the original recordings and published a book on Delta blues legend Robert Johnson [Robert Johnson/At The Crossroads (Hal Leonard, 1992)], and has an instructional DVD on Johnson’s guitar work [Robert Johnson’s Guitar Techniques (Hal Leonard, 1997)]. Ainslie has six solo CDs to his name and maintains an active recording, performing, and teaching schedule that carries him around the country, to Canada, and to Europe. His most recent recording is an award-winning collection of songs played on a 1934 Gibson archtop, “The Last Shot Got Him.” The CD has received strong reviews from listeners and critics, alike, and among other honors, was chosen as the Album of the Year (a Tammie Award from the Times-Argus, Montpelier, VT). Ainslie has received numerous awards and grants for his work documenting and presenting traditional music. He has been a Public Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill, and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA, a federal agency in Washington DC) and the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council. As a traditional musician with expertise in Southern Appalachian fiddle and banjo traditions, as well as, Piedmont and Delta Blues, Ainslie has specialized in performing and presenting programs on the European and African roots of American music and culture in community and educational settings. His performances present a wonderful palette of sounds and stories that will delight the ear, awaken the mind, and satisfy the heart. ***Artists of Note is pleased to welcome Scott Ainslie to our roster. We are working in cooperation with the Loyd Artists in North Carolina.

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Festival or College Classroom Workshops

1) Songs of Conscience: Political Songs for the 21st Century My songs: It’s My World, Too (Economic Inequalities); The Land That I Love (Immigration); Confession (on torture); Rice Grows Again in Vietnam (Healing from War); Late Last Night (Human toll of war); some songs for veterans…. 2) Blues and Backstories A selection of blues songs and personal stories about their history, information about the original players, anecdotes from my work with senior gospel and blues musicians. 3) Ragtime Blues: The Music of Mississippi John Hurt A survey of some of John’s tunes, his life story, discovery in 1927, re-discovery in 1963 at age 72, etc. (featuring tunes from my recent CD “The Last Shot Got Him.”) 4) Africa and the Blues A brief survey of African musical traits found in American music today with tons of blues, spirituals, call & response, etc. Suitable for family/kids as well as general audiences.

Master Classes and Workshops

Two hours to full-week teaching expertise

Course Descriptions Over the past eighteen years, Scott has offered a variety of courses as an instructor at The Swannanoa Gathering, Common Ground On The Hill, the Summer Acoustic Music Week, Augusta Heritage Blues Week, and other residency camps.

Song Accompaniment Lab: Quick Arrangement Enhancements

The problem with most guitar instruction is that you have to learn on the instructor’s territory. This popular course flips that on its head and takes advantage of the fact that guitar technique is easier to retain in the context of an existing accompaniment. Do you have a guitar accompaniment that you think could sound better? Feel stuck in what you know? Bring a song you’re in the middle of working out (or have played forever) and we’ll listen to your accompaniment and dress it up, expanding your technique, knowledge, and musical thinking in the process. We’ll look at guitar alternatives in the accompaniment you already have established: chord forms, altered tunings, strategic use of the capo, bass runs, use of dynamics, delivering on the emotions of the lyrics with both guitar and vocal coaching. Most musicians get through building one accompaniment, heave a sigh of relief and turn to the next song. Our goal is to take the next step, make another version of the accompaniment and strengthen the piece by using all the artistic tools at your disposal. The beauty this course is that these are five minute fixes, not “Go home and practice your minor pentatonic scales in all keys starting on the sixth string, the fifth string, the fourth string—then play them in thirds, fourths, etc.”  We’ll explore concrete guitar instruction built solidly on the foundation of what you already know. The goal of each class is to take you a few steps further down the road that you are already walking, not transplant you. This is a perfect crossover class for singer-songwriters who play guitar, as well as, for guitarists who sing.

Robert Johnson in Standard and Dropped-D Tunings

In this course, we’ll take a look at how to play and understand chords in several different positions on the neck in the context of learning a couple of Johnson’s songs. Of the 29 songs that Johnson recorded, thirteen (including Kind Hearted Woman, Me and the Devil, The Phonograph Blues) recycle the same A-chord forms, common throughout the solo blues repertoire. Johnson’s Dropped-D work follows on the recorded work of Lonnie Johnson and Tommy Johnson (and he sometimes billed himself as “one of those Johnson boys”). This will be a concise fly over of solo blues playing strategies in standard tuning.

Robert Johnson’s Solo Acoustic Techniques

Robert Johnson’s recordings reflected and extended commercially viable solo blues guitar styles that juggle bass, rhythm and lead parts – the three guitar ‘jobs’ of a rock or blues band. In this intermediate class celebrating the centennial year of the Delta Blues Legend’s birth, we’ll walk students through Johnson’s signature pieces with an eye to learning to juggle these elements as soloists. The accompaniments Johnson and other solo acoustic blues guitarists laid down provided a solid foundation for much of the guitar music that followed. If you have wanted to get a handle on blues chord forms, slide guitar, or to begin to move up the neck of the guitar and have figures and chords there to highlight a vocal line, create an instrumental break, or vary the accompaniment to shift the emotions of a verse or bridge, focusing on Johnson’s guitar work will help you down those roads. Familiarity with some fingerpicking, slide guitar, open tunings and dropped-D will be helpful.

Introduction to Basic Slide Techniques

I’ve been teaching slide guitar for more than twenty years. Last spring, I envisioned reversing the order in which I teach the skill sets necessary to control the slide and the magnificent sounds it can make. This is how we’ll begin:  standard tuning, one string at a time, five new skills. We’ll look at slide in standard tuning first and all the muting techniques necessary to make the music work without the harmonic support of open tunings. Then, having established the basics, we’ll move to open tunings. When we’re done, you’ll understand and possess the keys to the kingdom of slide guitar. These five basic right and left hand techniques will open the kingdom of slide guitar to any player, in any tuning. We will quickly introduce these techniques and begin using them to explore slide in both standard and open tunings. Even if you currently play some slide guitar, this review of basics and exploration will be useful. This course is recommended for anyone considering the “Guitar Techniques of Robert Johnson.” Hand and guitar posture, controlled slide movement, getting a decent tone and developing several types of vibrato will all be covered as we proceed through slide in several major and modal open tunings and take a look at solo and ensemble slide playing in standard tuning as well. The music of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt as well as my arrangements will be featured. Bring a slide that fits snuggly on your little finger. For notes on choosing a slide see:

Demystifying Major Open Tunings

Open-G, -D, -A, -E, -C tunings all share chord forms such that once you’ve learned one of them, you’re sort of learned them all. We’ll have a look at these tunings and explore the fingerboard and harmony while looking at the blues among other things.

Blues, Give Me Your Right Hand: From John Hurt to Robert Johnson

Making music is a profoundly physical activity: what your fingers, your thumb, and your arm do impacts the sound you make. In this class, we will focus on developing a strong vocabulary for the right/picking hand. Think of it as calisthenics. We will spend the week developing muscle patterns, power, and freedom in picking hand skills that will transform your playing. Once established, these muscle patterns will be with you for the rest of your life. If your thumb fails to play that bass note when you fingers get busy, or you feel like your arm is glued to the top of the guitar and unable to move, this class is for you. While the fretting hand often monopolizes our attention, without a strong and sure grounding in right-hand/fingerpicking techniques, all those fancy runs and chord changes fall short. In this class, we’ll be examining and working through basic fingerpicking techniques that enliven and anchor acoustic blues grooves. Think of this as a boot camp for your right hand and wear your sweats. Your thumb (and your listeners) will thank you.

The Music of Mississippi John Hurt

Even before John Hurt was re-discovered in 1963 at the age of 71, his recordings had influenced a small coterie of guitar aficionados. His introduction to a wide audience at the height of the folk music revival allowed him to play a pivotal role in establishing fundamental finger picking techniques that have marked the music of everyone from Doc Watson to Beck; Bob Dylan to Bruce Cockburn and Jerry Garcia. In this class we’ll explore Hurt’s repertoire while focusing on his right and left hand techniques with a special eye to establishing the right/picking hand muscle patterns necessary to maintain a steady alternating bass while developing independence on the high strings to play melodies.

Singing the Blues

The voice is the most personal instrument and learning a new way to use it can transform you. African-rooted aesthetics – carrying traditional spiritual concerns – gradually brought the art of singing in America to dramatically new territory and changed what we expect of pop, blues, soul, jazz, gospel and even country singers today. From a white choirboy, folk singer, to stage singer and Blues singer, I’ve spent decades exploring what it means to sing in an African-influenced tradition. Come prepared to learn something of the differences between European and African traditions and techniques/strategies to use your own voice to greater emotional effect. No instruments required.

Playing the Blues (intermediate)

Understanding the African roots of blues, song structures, and the fact that we use the West African minor pentatonic scale for melodies and the Western European major scale for harmonies will give you a few important tools to begin to explore this sturdy and vibrant musical tradition.

Piedmont & Delta Blues (intermediate)

These two great branches of African American traditional blues form the backbones of country, boogie-woogie, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. This class will explore some of the repertoire and showcase the differences between the ragtime-based, East Coast Piedmont styles with the more clearly African Delta Blues.

Blues Guitar Strategies in Standard Tuning

We’ll lay the groundwork for understanding blues guitar techniques that are the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary country music. We’ll examine the chord forms and techniques (that allow solo guitarists to sound like two guitarists) with an eye to understanding how to find and employ these sorts of forms up the neck and how best to use them as soloists. A few chords, a few licks, a simple strategy, and enough guitar information to hold it all together.

Old-Time/Claw-Hammer Banjo

A picking technique and instrument directly out of Africa, claw-hammer banjo is a unique part of American music. After more than a century of conjecture, we now know that the claw-hammer technique is traditional among Ghanaian and Senegalese players of what in Ghana is called an akonting, an ancestor of the American banjo. Playing claw-hammer transformed my right hand guitar techniques by mobilizing the entire forearm to address the string. If I have anything special to offer in the world of claw-hammer banjo, that is directly due to the time I was blessed to have spent with the Hammons Family of Marlinton, WV back in the 1970s. We’ll have a look at some common tunes in the three most commonly-used tunings for the banjo. And we’ll also spend time on a selection of Lee and Sherman Hammons’s banjo tunes and tunings, which lay somewhat off the beaten path and share a singular beauty because of it.  

Arts in Education

Teaching Concerts for Schools

Before Rock ’n’ Roll (K-6, 5-8, 9-12, family events) Where did our music of today come from? With interactive call-and-response singing and syncopated hand clapping, Ainslie leads the audience back in time to look at the early spirituals, work and slave songs, Delta and Ragtime Blues— and how these rhythms and music have given rise to Rock ’n’ Roll. Tailored to grade level for general and arts-centered school audiences. (Large audience assembly or small class groups.) Across the Color Line: The African South (K-6, 5-8, 9-12, college) In this varied program featuring the calabash gourd banjo, diddley bow, and guitar, Ainslie tours the music of the American South where European and African musical traditions cross-pollinated to make the powerful hybrids that have long dominated popular music in our nation and, subsequently, the world. Suitable for all ages, this is a tour-de-force in Southern musical traditions that exposes their roots from the Scots-Irish fiddle tunes of the Appalachians to the musical traditions of West Africa.Ideal for American Studies, Music, and Social History cross-curriculum learning experiences. Study guide and step-by-step guide for making diddley bows with students. (Large audience assembly or small class groups.)

Teacher Workshop: Blues and the Science of Sound

Three-hour arts integration workshop for teachers involving Blues & The Science of Sound. This workshop begins with call & response singing and outlines significant African retentions (parts of African culture and music) that are still operating in American music today. Ainslie introduces the homemade one-string instruments common across the South (cigar box guitars/Diddley Bows) and together with the teachers experiments with the physics and science behind musical stringed instruments. By working with simple tuning forks, the group will zero in on how vibrations, sound waves, sound transfer and the mechanics of human hearing work. At the end of the workshop, if there is interest and time, Ainslie often does some group Blues lyric writing with the teachers, essentially demonstrating how this work can be done successfully with students of all ages, down to 2nd grade.



Scott Ainslie in concert is an engaging and visionary combination of music and history, using stories from the many blues legends and musical elders who have mentored Scott over more than 30 years. Easily staged in concert hall or intimate non-traditional performance spaces, from house concert to library, college classroom to the museum gallery.

1934 Gibson Concert

Centered around his sixth and latest CD, The Last Shot Got Him, this concert features a 1934 Gibson archtop guitar and the music of its youth: Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Fats Waller, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Oliver Wallace, and more. (Note: When airline travel is required, an additional travel allowance for this vintage instrument may apply).

Multi-Media Concerts

Feeling a strong connection between the music and his mentors, Scott also offers scripted, multi-media programs. These Delta Blues Pilgrimage concerts feature projections of original photography from Scott’s collection. Contact us to discuss costs and technical needs.

The Land Where the Blues Began

A survey of Delta music and geographic and social history of the birthplace of the Blues.

Robert Johnson - At the Crossroads

The music, life & times of a Delta Blues Legend Delta Blues master Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 and made his first recordings in 1936 at the age of 25. The year 2011 marks both the centennial of Johnson’s birth and the 75th anniversary of his recordings that – more than 20 years after his death – would fall into the hands of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and change the course of rock and roll. In this special one man show, noted musician and Johnson authority Scott Ainslie will explore the music, times, and life story of the Delta Blues legend – telling stories and playing the songs that electrified Johnson’s contemporaries and went on to change music history.