Flatpicking: The Licks, Tricks, and History Behind Fleet-Fingered Flat-Top Guitar

You can keep your flashy Tele pickers, with all their hybrid pick-and-fingers workarounds (cheaters!), their feather-light strings (wimps!), and their glass-bright pickups (glitterati!). If you want to hear real picking, in the buff and stripped of all that show-biz slickery and all those electrical gadgets, get near an old acoustic flat-top in the hands of a flatpicker who metes out alternate-picked justice on strings so heavy they’re closer to piano wire than Tele wire. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are allowed, but string bending raises an eyebrow, and fingerpicked arpeggios of any sort are strictly verboten. Flatpicking is its own genre—not just a technique, but a tradition.

In truth, Tele picking and flatpicking aren’t really adversaries. They’re like oil and vinegar—they complement each other nicely, but they just don’t mix. The best flatpickers come from the acoustic bluegrass school and often incorporate other acoustic styles—including swing, new acoustic, gypsy jazz, and Celtic music—whereas Tele pickers often have more in common with rock than bluegrass. And though both schools require formidable picking-hand technique and have shared roots, they have different aesthetics, approaches, and tools of the trade. You’re allowed to love them equally while acknowledging their differences—just as you would your own children.

Squeezing The Notes

Great flatpickers—Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton come to mind—make flatpicking look easy. It’s actually dang hard—and not just from a coordination standpoint. Because you’re picking lots of single notes on thick strings, physical strength is required in both your fretting and picking hands, which is not the case when you’re playing a nicely set up electric. Pressing down on medium-gauge strings in the lower frets of a big-bodied acoustic can be strenuous, to say the least. The stronger your fretting hand, the smoother your playing, because that characteristic flowing, sustaining sound is enhanced by your ability to bear down on the fretted notes for as long as possible. As Sutton said in a Flatpicking Guitar interview, “The harder you push down, the clearer the tone is going to be. When you get into a solo, that factor might seem small, but as far as the overall sound, it really makes a difference.”

Fashionable Flatware

Flat-tops—that’s what flatpickers call steel-strings made by Martin, Taylor, Collings, Santa Cruz, Gallagher, and other luthiers. Generally speaking, the flatpicking paradigm has always been a dreadnought guitar—preferably a pre-War Martin HD-28 or a D-18. That iconic ideal is still intact, but other makes and models are just as legitimate. Dreadnoughts (a model name first coined by Martin, and now used generically, too), D-style guitars, and similar models with that wide-waist shape (for Taylor guitars, it’s the DN and x10 series) are still the preferred choice. These behemoths shudder out a deep, booming bass, which is particularly suited for on-the-beat bass notes, and fill out the bottom beneath the higher-pitched banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and (at least timbre-wise) Dobro, which comprise the typical bluegrass ensemble. Some notable pickers choose to buck the system, though, such as Doc Watson, who has been associated with Gallagher Guitars for years, and Russ Barenberg, who often rips out lines on a small-bodied Gibson.

You can set your guitar up with either medium- or light-gauge acoustic strings, though many players prefer mediums for the same reasons electric guitarists do: They have a fuller tone. You won’t do a whole lot of string bending in flatpicking. Unless you’re really into pain, it’s best to try to keep bends on the first and second strings.

What It Ain’t

Before we tackle some tunes and phrases, let’s talk about what flatpicking guitar is not. Flatpicking doesn’t involve the picking-hand fingers. In flatpicking, arpeggios are typically played using crosspicking style—a fiendishly difficult technique wherein you retain your down/up motion while crossing consecutive strings. (Another school adopts directional picking, which keeps the pick stroke going in the same direction that you change strings, so that you never cross over a string to pick it.)

Also, let’s be clear: Bluegrass guitar is not synonymous with flatpicking, though, in practice there’s often little difference, as most bluegrass players do play with just a flatpick. There are historical distinctions you should be aware of. Cases in point: Lester Flatt, guitarist for Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (the band that literally defined the bluegrass genre), actually played with a thumbpick and a fingerpick. And the greatest influence on flatpicking, Doc Watson, isn’t even a bona fide bluegrass player, but a multi-instrumental solo performer in the folk tradition (and an outstanding fingerpicker, too). Watson influenced Clarence White, Dan Crary, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake. Those guys influenced everybody.

The Set List

A flatpicker worth his salt will have an established repertoire of bluegrass standards (“Rocky Top,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”), time-honored fiddle tunes (“Blackberry Blossom,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast”), rags (“Black Mountain Rag,” “Beaumont Rag”), and ballads (“Banks of the Ohio,” “I Am a Pilgrim”). It doesn’t hurt to know a few swing tunes, too (“Lady Be Good,” “Sweet Georgia Brown”). Learn as much of the flatpickers’ canon as you can, as it’s very hard to improvise a fiddle tune melody. But because you can’t memorize every song, you’ll need some improvisatory skills in the flatpicking style. Scale sequences are a good place to start, as these show up regularly in fiddle tunes, particularly in the B sections. The single most important aspect of flatpicking, though, is alternate picking.

Carter’s Little Fills

Because flatpicking guitar has its roots in bluegrass and folk as a rhythm instrument, we’ll start out with a passage that shows how the guitar’s first melodic impulses broke through. “Carter style” is named after Maybelle Carter of the Carter family, who placed the melody either in the midrange or the lower end of the guitar, and put the chordal fills on the top strings. It sounds very much like autoharp or frailing banjo, and has a quaint, old-timey feel. Carter style works splendidly in ballads, waltzes, and other slower-tempo tunes. In the hands of a skilled flatpicker, the results are beautiful.

What’s challenging in Ex. 1 is not the hammer-ons and pull-offs; those are designed to fall easily under the chording fingers. The tricky part is in bars 3 and 4 where an upstroke comes in on an offbeat after a spray of two- and three-note hammers and hammer-pull combinations. At first this may seem awkward, like trying to calculate the right time to jump in during Double Dutch jump rope. But soon your upstroke picking will naturally find its way into the game. Norman Blake is one of the best flatpickers around. His renditions of “Arkansas Traveler” and “Bully of the Town” feature some wicked crosspicking and Carter style playing.

Flatt Out Runnin’

In flatpicking circles, the ascending run in Ex. 2 is known as the “Lester Flatt run” (though Flatt employed a thumbpick to play it), or sometimes just the “G run,” but it’s credited with launching the entire movement of melodic guitar for bluegrass. Flatt’s playing is full-fledged melodic picking with no in-between filler. Note that this passage uses strict down/up (alternate) picking, with downstrokes on the downbeats and upstrokes on the off-beats—the hallmark of flatpicking. Also, there are no hammer-ons or pull-offs, despite the fact that they might lend themselves well to this passage. The rat-tat-tat, slightly staccato, all-pick-strokes-all-the-time sound is part of the style. Of course, hammers and pulls figure into flatpicking greatly, but the essence of the sound is getting a smooth sound between fretted and open strings.

Scaling the Heights

Passages like Ex. 3 are less “guitar lick-y” and more like a traditional melody, making them useful in both fiddle-tune playing and expanded runs. Note that this example fits well over two chord progressions, presented here with the alternate chords in parentheses. The primary chords work well for progressions such as the A section of “Arkansas Traveler.” This passage begins with a chromatic ascending run on the upbeat, so be sure to start with an upstroke, and you’ll be set up to execute the remainder of the notes correctly. The line ends with an ascending chromatic lick based over a G chord. This pattern of descending three notes and then skipping up a third is common. Transpose it to the key of C, where the notes will fall one string set higher, and then work on learning the passage in closed position (no open strings) in both the G and C positions for up-the-neck playing in any key.

Doc’s Famous Tag

With his inspired and inspiring flatpicking, Doc Watson has made certain fiddle tunes and folk songs classic “must-know” bluegrass repertoire. Here’s a well-known tag in the Watson style that utilizes a slide, chromatic notes, and open strings deftly pitted against fretted ones [Ex. 4]. This excerpt, based on Doc’s song “Nothing to It,” is in the key of C, the most popular “guitar key” after G.

Slurring the Lines

Just because flatpickers have honed their alternate-picking chops doesn’t mean they never get to hammer on and pull off like thier electric guitar-playing brethren. Ex. 5 was modeled after a sequence, but not the melodic kind (like that of Ex. 3). Here, the hammer/ pull lick outlines a C chord, and then alters by one note (E becomes Eb) when the progression changes to an F chord. This is a common blues and jazz trick—you set up a pattern of notes and modify them to fit the new chord tones, keeping the contour of the passage intact. With its rolling, multi-string sound, the line has an almost banjo-like feel. Note that it’s mostly in closed position, making many of its moves ripe for transposing to other keys.

Crossing the Great Divide

Okay, no avoiding it. You’re now primed to tackle the oft-beguiling flatpicking technique we mentioned earlier—crosspicking (in which consecutive strings are picked to execute a specific pattern—often a syncopated arpeggio). Ex. 6 shows the B section of “Beaumont Rag,” where the G7 chord is outlined as a pattern of three ascending eighth-notes. Because the pattern is grouped in threes, and the music in twos and fours, a built-in syncopation device known as a rotation occurs. This creates a cool effect where the high, melodic notes (the top notes in the pattern of three) naturally get accented. But this technique can be a bear to execute cleanly, and is often the bane of otherwise competent flatpickers. Astute students of picking-hand techniques will recognize instantly how easily this passage can be played with hybrid picking, but true bluegrass players would consider that a cop-out. You wouldn’t cop out, would you?

Drone Tones

Flatpickers tend to favor the keys of G, C, D, and A because they love to capitalize on the open strings that figure so prominently in these keys. For this reason, they often don capos to play in other keys using the open-string rich C or G hand positions. This blending of open strings and fretted notes makes things physically easier on the fretting hand, imbues the notes with a more legato sound, and helps facilitate a drone effect, so it’s common in folk-based guitar, mandolin, and fiddle music. You’ll often hear the drone technique in the kick-off to a fiddle tune. In Ex. 7, the fretted notes play in unison with the open-string notes, providing a nice timbral contrast—and yes, a drone. In the second half of the example, we see the same three-against-two technique used in crosspicking, but with fretted/open-string unisons adding the drone.

Putting the Blues in Bluegrass

Blues tonalities crop up often in bluegrass, though in the genres’ names the words “blues” and “blue” are not related. Ex. 8 shows a blues-based line that features shifts in direction, slurred triplets, pull-offs, and a good use of fretted strings incorporated with open ones. Note that the first half of the passage uses only notes from the six-note G blues scale (G, Bb, C, Db, D, F). During the second half, some blues notes are kept (F, Bb), but the more “bluegrass” sound of the major 3 (B) and major 6 (E) remains too. One of the best players to incorporate blues seamlessly into otherwise major, minor, and pentatonic tonalities is Tony Rice. Rice not only tosses off deft blues figures, but does so with heart-halting syncopation. Rice has the best sense of syncopation in flatpicking since Clarence White.

Fiddle Fodder

Here’s a full-fledged fiddle tune—a popular classic titled “Blackberry Blossom” [Ex. 9]. It’s a good example of a melodic sequence, and one in which the chords change every two beats. Notice that the fourth bar uses a notational shorthand device to effect first and second endings. The first time, play only the up-stemmed notes, which correspond to the primary chords. On the repeat, play only the down-stemmed notes (which follow the parenthetical chord symbols). The first time through bar 4, the notes ascend chromatically, which has the advantage of playing a C#—an active ingredient in A7. Rice, Watson, Blake, Mark O’Connor, and Dan Crary all do versions of this tune. Spend less than five bucks on iTunes and you’ll have five versions—and, more important, an amazing education in interpretation.

Triplet Tour de Force

Of course, sometimes you just want to play flashy—like a rock star—and for those times open strings, slurs, and triplets can help facilitate a slur-blur of notes without taxing your technique. Ex. 10 is an excerpt from the fiddle tune “Billy in the Lowground,” which is in C, and features the chords C, Am, F, and G. Like many fiddle tunes it employs melodic lines and scale sequences. There’s even a chromatic run-up (launching on beat three of bar 2). If your goals is to, like a fine wine, finish well, feel free to shamelessly employ this snazzy triplet riff. It makes for a great tag, and closes off solos with a fine flourish.

A Too-Short List of must-learn Flatpicking Classics

Norman Blake “Arkansas Traveler” Whiskey Before Breakfast [Rounder] 
Doc Watson “Black Mountain Rag” The Essential Doc Watson [Vanguard] 
Clarence White “I Am a Pilgrim” Appalachian Swing [S&P] 
Tony Rice “Bill Cheatham” The Bluegrass Guitar Collection [Rounder] 
Dan Crary “St. Anne’s Reel” Jammed If I Do [Sugar Hill] 
Russ Barenberg “Big Sciota” Skip, Hop & Wobble [Sugar Hill] 
Mark O’Connor “Dixie Breakdown” Markology [Rounder] 
Bryan Sutton “Beaumont Rag” Bluegrass Guitar [Sugar Hill] 
Cody Kilby “Shenandoah Breakdown” Just Me [Rebel]

Jon Chappell is the author of Guitar for Dummies [Wiley], now in its second edition.