How to Play The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me by Monsters of Folk
A student came to me recently wanting to learn this atmospheric song by Monsters of Folk. Another great thing about teaching the guitar—you get exposed to new music through your students’ wide-ranging interests.
Since one of the cardinal rules of good guitar teaching is making sure the student is always learning music that they really want to learn, I was happy to dive into this song and see what lessons it might contain.
And it turns out that The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me has lots to teach.
After checking out the song and following along with the changes, I could tell that it’s in the Key of C and generally uses the major chords with an A minor and E minor tossed in very lightly. No modulations or other tricky stuff.
The introduction and refrains where they play the melody in the bass and then in the treble strings creates nice possibilities for teaching how to hold down a bass line while also playing a high melody.
I headed over to YouTube to see if there were any helpful videos. And I found two.
First, here’s the actual band playing the song in a studio context.
The great thing about this video is you can see the players’ fingers for the majority of the song.
Just watching what they’re doing, it’s clear that the song is indeed in C and does indeed predominantly utilize the major C, F and G chords that you’d expect.
I also found this video of one dude’s rendering of The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me.
Interestingly, he worked it out in Open C (CGCGCE) Tuning. That tuning sounds like it’s how they play the song off the album recording.
Since my student is still getting his feet wet on the guitar, I didn’t want to send him off into an open tuning. Open Tunings are fantastic and I highly recommend them, but even the process of having to tune in and out of them creates a barrier to entry. I wanted to use this song to focus my student on the technical challenges of playing the melody while also playing the bass. So I sidestepped the open tuning for the moment.
If you’re looking for a tab for The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me, try this one.
I ignored the picking recommendation because I had a different technique in mind.
So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, how do you play a standard tuning version of this tune by Monsters of Folk?
First off, let’s tackle the opening intros.
To begin, just play the intro in the bass with alternating I and M:
Next, it was time to incorporate the higher melody line alongside a alternating thumb bass between the 5th and 4th strings. In the bass, you can just hold the C major chord shape while you finger the melody notes with your free fingers.
I had to modify the tab I just linked to in order to show the thumb bass alternation alongside the high melody. Here it is:
Play through the first line, then head straight into the second, then repeat that cycle a total of two times.
So that’s the melody line intro with accompanying bass, and if you want to figure out how to play that, watch the accompanying videos. The tricky thing in playing the melody intro with bass accompaniment is getting the fingering right in your picking hand. You’ve got to make sure I and M are alternating such that you can easily play the line as it unfolds. I show you how to do that in the video, so check it out.
Next, let’s move on to how to play the accompaniment that goes along with the chords.
If you watch Monsters of Folk play their song in that first video, you’ll notice that they’re primarily just strumming lightly along with the chords.
The song has a very quiet vibe, and the light thumb strumming works to keep the song’s energy quiet.
I have a problem, though—my thumbnail doesn’t let me strum with my thumb and have the sound be quite that soft.
Strumming lightly in whatever way works for you is definitely an option, but I wanted to give my student another something to work on, so I came up with a simple accompaniment that maintains the alternating thumb bass while switching up the technique used to accompany the trebles.
The accompaniment we’re going to do takes up two measures. Both measures utilize an alternating thumb bass. For the first measure, let’s use a technique called “frailing” that comes from the clawhammer banjo world.
To frail, you basically flick down with the tops of your index and middle fingers. They lightly brush the strings to create a soft strum sound.
When you flick your fingers out, aim for the higher strings. Don’t try to hit the basses since your thumb has those covered. Just flick out for the high strings and aim to hit them gently.
You’ll want to consult the accompanying video to make sure you’re clear about how this works.
For the second half of the accompaniment, I use a normal alternating thumb interspersed with first the middle finger playing the second string and then the index finger playing the third string. Just keep it simple to hold the contrast with the first measure we play where we’re doing that light frailing strum.
Take the chords for The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me and apply this two-measure half-frail half-normal alternating thumb style to the progression.
If you have trouble playing the chords with the new accompaniment pattern, just strum the chords for a while until you have them completely handled. Then, add in this more complex accompaniment.
Finally, add in the singing as you go through and enjoy your fingerstyle version of The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me!
You can return to the instrumental intro and use it as a solo or as an outro at the end of the song.