As the editor of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, one of the questions that I’m frequently asked by non-guitar playing music fans is “What is flatpicking?” Answering this question would seem to be the logical place to start this chapter that discusses flatpicking history. Providing a general definition of flatpicking right up front will not only give you an opportunity to know what is meant when I use the term, but it will also give me a starting place from which your understanding of flatpicking will grow.
Over the past fifty years the art of flatpicking has steadily changed due to the addition of new techniques and an expansion of the style beyond its traditional roots and boundaries. As flatpickers continue to “push the envelope” of the style by adding new techniques and exploring new musical genres, the definition of flatpicking has changed and evolved, and will continue to do so in the future. In order to adequately study the changes we must first have a starting definition.
Plectrum versus Fingers
The simplest, broadest, and most general, way to define “flatpicking” is to say that it is the technique of playing a guitar with a flat pick (or plectrum), sometimes called a “straight pick,” versus the use of bare fingers, fingerpicks, or a thumbpick. When asked about why a guitarist would want to use a single flat plectrum versus multiple fingerpicks, a thumbpick, or bare fingers, Dan Crary put it best in an article written for Frets Magazine (June 1985) by saying, “The answer seems to be that the plectrum—a simple piece of plastic, or nylon, or tortoiseshell, or whatever material a player holds dear enough to hold in his fingers—is capable of bringing something out of a steel-string guitar that nothing else can.” Indeed, the tone and volume one can get from using a pick to play a guitar are qualities of the style that make the technique very attractive to guitar players.
Acoustic versus Electric
Another element to add to our basic definition of flatpicking, for the purposes of this book, would be to limit its application to the acoustic steel-string flat-top guitar. While most electric guitar players do indeed use a plectrum while performing, the term “flatpicking” is not generally applied to their technique. Because the acoustic guitar does not rely on pickups and amplifiers for volume, and because the strings on the acoustic guitar are generally heavier, the power required in the right hand technique of a “flatpicker” is different than that of an electric player. Right-hand techniques employed on the electric guitar cannot always be effectively applied to the acoustic guitar. This was especially true back in the early days when little or no sound reinforcement was available to the guitarist. Thus, the varieties of guitar techniques that come under the flatpicking definition, for the purposes of our rudimentary definition, are those that are typically applied to the acoustic steel-string guitar.
One of the true challenges all flatpickers face, especially in fast, high-energy styles like bluegrass, is learning how to push a thick piece of plastic through heavy steel strings in rapid succession at incredibly high tempos. It takes a strong right hand and an incredible amount of dexterity and endurance to keep pace with a group of mandolins, banjos, and fiddles playing a fast bluegrass breakdown. Driving the rhythm is difficult enough; taking a solo in this musical environment remains challenging for players even after years of practice and experience. The strength, endurance, and speed required of the flatpicker inspired one writer to describe flatpicking as a “full contact sport.” So, flatpicking the acoustic guitar does indeed require a different set of skills than those required to play an amplified electric guitar with a thin pick and light-gauge strings. Due to the divergent right-hand skill sets inherent to the acoustic and electric guitar, we will only apply the “flatpicking” term to the steel-string acoustic guitar.
The third element that we need to add to our basic flatpicking definition is that of musical genre. The term flatpicking originated with early lead acoustic guitar players in traditional country and bluegrass music who used a plectrum. They devised the “flatpick” term in order to distinguish their technique from “fingerstyle” players who used finger-picks, thumb-picks, or bare fingers to pick the strings; Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Maybelle Carter, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Edd Mayfield, and others, were early country/bluegrass players who used a fingerstyle, or thumb-pick style technique.
Because the origins of the term “flatpicking” grew out of traditional country, old-time, early folk, and bluegrass music—and the term is most generally used in these circles—our most basic definition of flatpicking will be limited to genres of American roots music that were traditionally played on an acoustic steel-string guitar. In regard to genre, flatpicking is typically defined in terms of the music originally played by the style’s five “founding fathers”: Doc Watson, Clarence White, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, and Tony Rice. However, as we will discuss later in the “pioneers” section of this chapter, these destiguished guitarists did not necessarily “invent” the style, and the standards that they set down back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, are continually being redefined by generations of new players.
As we progress chronologically through the history of flatpicking our definition is going to expand due to various factors such as guitar design, technological advances in amplification and sound re-enforcement, the growth of the radio broadcasting and recording industries, the accessibility of teaching materials, and the introduction of new genres of music to the flatpicking repertoire. In addition, various technical advances and creative nuances introduced by key flatpicking artists over the last five decades will also serve to broaden our definition. As flatpicking’s founding fathers and their followers began expanding their repertoire, flatpicking grew far beyond its traditional roots.
As Dan Crary has said, “With flatpicking, it isn’t just what it originally was; it’s also what it’s becoming.” With that said, for the time being, let us define flatpicking as a technique of playing American roots music on the acoustic steel-string guitar using a flatpick. From this starting point, let’s now begin to explore how history has broadened that definition by dividing the development of flatpicking into four separate eras.
The Pioneer Era (Pre-Doc Watson)
Historically, we can break down the development of flatpicking into four distinct eras. While the term flatpicking and its application on the acoustic guitar originally came to prominence in the mid-to-late 1960s when Arthel “Doc” Watson began picking fiddle tunes on his acoustic guitar, Watson did not invent this style of guitar playing in a vacuum. There were influences that lead him to develop his technique and thus we will refer to the first era in the history of flatpicking, which pre-dated Doc Watson, as the “Pioneer” Era. While the guitar itself has a very long history, and the steel-string guitar dates back to around 1900, we are going to confine our discussion of the Pioneer Era to the time between 1920 and the early 1960s.
Guitarists of this era who influenced future generations of flatpickers include old-time players such as Riley Puckett, Tom Paley, Frank Hutchison and Roy Harvey; traditional country performers such as Maybelle Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Doc Addington, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Charlie Monroe, Joe Maphis, and Hank Snow; bluegrass players such as Lester Flatt, Edd Mayfield, Jimmy Martin, George Shuffler, Bill Napier, and Don Reno; early jazz players such as Django Reinhardt, Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang, and Charlie Christian; and early western swing guitarists such as Sleepy Johnson, Herman Arnspiger, and Derwood Brown.
The earliest plectrum players in old-time and country music typically combined a heavy use of bass runs with rhythmic strums. Occasionally they would throw in short runs (mostly on the bass strings) used as an embellishment to a bass line or as a fill at the end of a vocal line. Many old-time players such as Riley Puckett (with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers) and Roy Harvey (with Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers) made heavy use of bass lines in their guitar playing, especially when the bands they performed with did not have a bass player. Other early string band players, such as Sleepy Johnson, Derwood Brown, and Herman Arnspiger adopted a similar style. While this style of guitar playing is not prevalent today among modern bluegrass players, due mostly to the inclusion of a string bass player in bluegrass bands, this style is worthy of study for any player who wishes to improve their understanding, knowledge, and skill in playing acoustic rhythm guitar. In this book we will focus a lot of time and effort on studying the style of the early flatpicking pioneers.
A significant event in the evolution of early guitar playing, and traditional roots music in general, occurred in August of 1927 when Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Bristol, Tennessee to audition and record musicians in that region. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family where among those selected for Peer’s recordings, which subsequently helped propagate the guitar styles of Rodgers and the Carter Family’s Maybelle Carter. Rodgers’ plectrum style consisted of rhythmic strums punctuated by bass notes, bass runs and short lead lines. Although Maybelle Carter used a thumbpick and fingers, her chord-melody style (picking the melody with her thumb while inserting chordal strums with her fingers) is easily adapted to the flatpicking style and has been used extensively by all flatpicking guitarists. Both Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter’s guitar styles influenced many early country and bluegrass players, and that influence continues to this day.
The next group of influential guitar players came to popularity in country music shortly after Jimmie Rodges and the Carters and included guitarist from the “brother” groups like Charlie Monroe, Doc Addington, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Edd Mayfield, and others. Although their techniques were rudimentary by today’s standards, these guitarists were among the first to play lead guitar in the flatpick style and thus their contribution is of great value to the chronological development of flatpicking.
During the 1950’s bluegrass music’s lead guitar pioneers included Don Reno and George Shuffler. Although Reno was primarily known as a banjo player, his guitar work is significant because, in a tune called “Country Boy Rock and Roll”, he was the first to record a bluegrass lead guitar solo. As Dan Crary likes to say, “The first recorded flatpicking bluegrass solo was by a banjo player playing a rock and roll tune!”
Reno’s guitar style incorporated a strong melodic sense combined with flashy runs, the use of harmonized scales, and various other effects such as a quick descending glissando, i.e., sliding down the fretboard from a high note to a low note. George Shuffler’s introduction of the crosspicking technique in his work with the Stanley Brothers in the late 1950s and early 1960s provided a way for flatpick guitar players to “fill up the space between vocal pauses” with arpeggiated rolls, similar to roll patterns used by banjo players. The crosspicking roll could also be intertwined with melodic bass note leads, as in the Carter style, by substituting Maybelle Carter’s strums with Shuffler’s crosspicking rolls. This technique added more texture and interest to the flatpicking style.
The most significant contributions to flatpicking from the jazz world came from Django Reinhardt and Nick Lucas. Django Reinhardt’s guitar wizardry has influenced every guitar player who has had the opportunity to hear his recordings. Doc Watson heard Django Reinhardt’s records as a boy when he attended a school for the blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is said that Clarence White carried a box of Reinhardt recordings on cassette tapes in his car. Direct quotes from Reinhardt records can be heard in a number of flatpicking solos by a variety of prominent flatpicking guitarists.
Nick Lucas had a long and distinguished career as a jazz guitarist starting with his first recordings in 1922, and was a major influence on large numbers of jazz guitarists who would follow him. His most direct influence on flatpickers, however, came from one of his instructional books. Doc Watson has said, “I ordered a guitar from Sears and Roebuck and there came a book with it with different little songs in there that you could flatpick. It showed the old-time jazz guitarist Nick Lucas; it showed how he held his pick. My youngest brother, David, showed me how Lucas held his pick, and that’s how I learned to hold mine.” Although you may not hear a lot of Nick Lucas licks in today’s flatpicking, his instructional book surely had an influence on the young Doc Watson.
During the pioneer era of flatpicking history, developments in radio and recording technology allowed regional music to reach wide-ranging audiences. For the first time, the pioneers of musical styles and genres from various regions of the country were able to hear and be influenced by guitarists from other areas of the United States and around the globe. Old-time mountain musicians from the Appalachian region and traditional country musicians performing in the southern states were able to hear western swing from Texas and Oklahoma, blues performers from the Mississippi Delta, and jazz musicians from the northern states and New Orleans. Thus, the playing styles of acoustic guitarists from many genres of roots music began to have an influence on the development of flatpicking as it began to take shape in the early 1960s. The influence of mainstream jazz, Gypsy jazz, Celtic music, Western swing, rock and roll, blues, and various other forms of American and world music has continually broadened the flatpicking guitar style.
The Heroes Era
Arthel “Doc” Watson is the man who is typically viewed as the “father” of the flatpicking style. While he was playing in a dance band, Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, in the mid-to-late 1950s, Doc was called upon to play fiddle tunes on the guitar. Williamsʼ band did not have a fiddle player about 90% of the time, however, the dance halls that hired the band would usually want them to do a square dance set. Williams, who had heard Doc fooling around with a few fiddle tunes on the guitar, suggested that Doc learn how to play lead on some fiddle tunes. During the “folk boom” of the early 1960s, Doc began performing as a solo act on the acoustic guitar and by the mid-sixties was traveling as a duo with his son Merle. Doc adapted his fiddle tune picking style to the acoustic guitar and folk music enthusiasts were amazed at Watson’s ability to play fluid lead lines at fast tempos on the acoustic guitar.
About the same time that Doc Watson began touring the country with his son Merle, several other prominent players in the bluegrass and folk music worlds also began featuring lead guitar work using the flatpicking style. While Doc Watson’s playing had an influence on all of these players to some degree, we cannot say that any of them were simply copying what Doc Watson was doing. We can’t even say that they all began to develop their style after first hearing Doc. Most of the great guitarists who we point to as our heroes were developing their own styles of lead acoustic guitar playing using a flatpick at the same time Doc Watson was touring the country and introducing this style to his audience.
To whatever degree each of our flatpicking heroes has been influenced by Doc Watson’s playing, they each also made their own significant contributions to the style in its formative years and that is why we list them here. These prominent players included: Clarence White, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, and Tony Rice as the main “heroes” of flatpicking with additional players such as Larry Sparks, Russ Barenberg, David Bromberg, Pat Flynn, Charles Sawtelle, Mark O’Connor, John Carlini, Phil Rosenthal, Eric Thompson, Joe Carr, and Steve Kaufman also playing important roles. This era of flatpicking history ran from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. We will call it the “Heroes Era.”
The Heroes Era was not only the time when the guitar stepped out of the rhythm section and began to be recognized as a lead instrument with its own voice and unique contribution to a band’s sound; it was also an era of exploration beyond traditional boundaries. While Doc Watson continued to add tunes from the blues, old-time, jazz, and folk genres to the standard flatpicking fiddle tune repertoire, Clarence White’s syncopated rhythms and extensive use of crosspicking also pushed flatpicking in new directions. Norman Blake supercharged the Carter chord-melody style by weaving intricate lead lines around rhythmic chordal strums, and Dan Crary brought powerful and expressive lead guitar work to fiddle tune and bluegrass melodies with his 1970 release Bluegrass Guitar.
Tony Rice and Russ Barenberg were two influential flatpickers who picked up what Doc Watson and Clarence White had done and mixed it with jazz influences to become founding members of the “new acoustic” music genre. Pat Flynn and David Bromberg brought in rock and roll influences; Larry Sparks and Charles Sawtelle introduced bluegrass guitar solos that were bluesy and sparse, and Mark O’Connor and Steve Kaufman helped define the contest style of hot and flashy flatpicked fiddle tunes. It was a time of tremendous growth, experimentation, and exploration. Now that the acoustic guitar had an accepted lead voice, flatpicking heroes were discovering new possibilities and avenues of expression and thus expanding the concept of flatpicking itself. As flatpickers embraced songs from standard jazz, Gypsy jazz, rock and roll, blues, Western swing, and Celtic repertoires, flatpicking was no longer restricted to traditional old-time, folk, and bluegrass music.
It was during the Heroes Era that flatpicking technique also began to change. While this change was ultimately brought on by the creativity of the style’s main proponents, guitar design and technology also had something to do with it. Due to player demands, guitar builders began making instruments that were easier to play up-the-neck and provided a balanced “modern” sound. Sound reinforcement technology also contributed to the change in technique as players did not have to hit the guitar so hard in order to be heard. Flatpickers could now play with a lighter touch, which allowed for better endurance, speed and fluidity.
The Second Generation
The next era of flatpicking runs from the early-to-mid 1980s through the first few years of the new millennium. During this era flatpicking continued to blossom and grow, building on the foundation laid down by the pioneers and heroes, and then expanding in new directions. We will call this the “Second Generation” era. Interestingly, since all of the heroes continued to record and perform during this era (with the exception of Clarence White who died tragically in 1973), they all continued to play a role in flatpicking growth and development as they themselves evolved as players and performers. The key flatpickers of the second generation include players such as: David Grier, Tim Stafford, Jack Lawrence, Kenny Smith, Brad Davis, Bryan Sutton, Wyatt Rice, James Alan Shelton, Robin Kessinger, Mark Cosgrove, Scott Nygaard, Beppe Gambetta, John Moore, Orin Star, Jim Hurst, Chris Jones, Tim May, Jim Nunally, Dix Bruce, Peter McLaughlin, Sean Watkins, and others.
During the early part of this era many of the young flatpickers simply copied the solos, licks, and overall styles of the heroes who came before them, with Tony Rice being the one who was most frequently “cloned.” As flatpicking approached the 1990s, however, the majority of the players who rose to prominence in the Second Generation had their own signature sound and unique style. David Grier developed a solo style that was based on an incredibly smooth and fluid crosspicking technique and a stream of endless musical ideas; Tim Stafford introduced solos that tastefully and creatively supported the song and overall band sound. He also became well known for his “floating” technique. Brad Davis introduced a “speed picking” technique he called “double-down-up,” which spit notes out like a chainsaw on overdrive. Jim Hurst combined his talents as a country fingerpicker with his flatpicking technique to develop yet another unique flatpicking voice. Bryan Sutton demonstrated that it was indeed possible for a guitar player in a high-energy bluegrass band to play fast and clean with good power, volume and tone.
In addition, Grier, Davis and Sutton also frequently used a “hybrid” fingerpicking and flatpicking technique, which was first introduced to the flatpicking world by Clarence White and also employed by Tony Rice. With this technique the player uses the flatpick, held between the thumb and index finger, in combination with the fingernails of the middle and ring fingers. This technique is something that not only brought the fingerpicking and flatpicking worlds closer together, but it also brought the acoustic and electric worlds closer together since this technique is prominently used by country electric players. Each new prominent player of this era had something unique to offer and each has helped the art of flatpicking to grow, flourish and change.
Developments in cassette, video, CD, and DVD technologies during this era also made it much easier for flatpicking students to learn the licks and solos of their favorite performers and recording artists. By the early eighties, cassette courses from flatpicking heroes Tony Rice, Russ Barenberg, and Dan Crary were available, followed later by video tapes lessons from Norman Blake and Doc Watson. Additionally, Russ Barenberg wrote a book of Clarence White transcriptions. Steve Kaufman and Joe Carr also began to release, through both Homespun Tapes and Mel Bay Publications, a continuous stream of quality instructional material. As time progressed transcription books of nearly every prominent flatpicker became available. Additionally, video lessons by second generation pickers such as David Grier, Tim Stafford, Kenny Smith, James Alan Shelton, Beppe Gambetta, Wyatt Rice, Bryan Sutton, Orrin Star, Brad Davis, Dix Bruce, and others were also made available.
In addition to quality instructional books, CDs, and videos many instructional workshops, clinics, and seminars began popping up all over the country. Most notably, Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamps in Tennessee, Camp Bluegrass in Texas, Rockygrass Academy in Colorado, Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend in Virginia, Bluegrass at the Beach in Oregon, and many others made it easy for flatpicking enthusiasts to spend time learning from their heroes. In 1996 High View Publications also began publishing Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that explores all aspects of flatpicking the acoustic guitar. Prior to the Second Generation era, anyone who wanted to learn how to flatpick had to spend hours in front of a turntable slowing down recordings made by their heroes in order to learn this challenging guitar style. By the year 2000, anyone who had an interest in learning how to flatpick had opportunities to learn from any of their favorite flatpickers, either in person at a workshop or through their written and videotaped material.
Due to the variety of instructional material available during this era, the art of flatpicking the acoustic guitar became much more accessible to the average amateur flatpicker. Whereas during the heroes era it was rare to see a local hometown band with a skilled lead guitar player, by the year 2000 there was a lead guitar player in nearly every bluegrass band, from the local hometown bands to touring professional bands.
As the ranks of both the flatpicking professionals and hobbyists have risen over the years, the standard flatpicking repertoire has also swelled far beyond its original fiddle tune banks and borders. As flatpickers become more experienced they seek songs and genres of music that present challenges beyond those of simple fiddle tunes. During the Second Generation era far more Western swing, Gypsy jazz, Celtic, and standard jazz tunes (and the techniques that accompany them) have entered the average flatpicker’s repertoire. Today the definition of flatpicking has to extend beyond the genres of American roots music to include just about anything a player can perform using a pick and a steel-string acoustic guitar.
The Next Generation
We will call the fourth era of flatpicking guitar playing the “Next Generation”. This new generation of young players consists of those who have reaped the benefits of the creativity of those who have come before them and have begun to make innovations of their own. These are players who, due to their age, never knew that flatpicking was once confined to playing fiddle tunes. They have grown up hearing Tony Rice playing jazz and new acoustic music with the David Grisman Quintet and are using Rice and Grisman as their starting point. For the most part, their ideas about flatpicking have no boundaries in terms of genre, or the melding of various musical influences and ideas, or the mixing of electric and acoustic guitar techniques.
The Next Generation includes players such as: Cody Kilby, John Chapman, Josh Williams, Chris Eldridge, Andy Falco, Edward O’Day, Adam Wright, Tyler Grant, Matt Arcara, Dillon
Hodges, Justin Carbone, Matt Wingate, Jake Stargel, Tony Watt, Megan McCormick, and Mo Canada. These young players are not only including influences from the flatpickers who came before them, they are also incorporating influences from various other musical styles to great effect; furthermore, they are doing so in positions of prominence. Cody Kilby performs with Ricky Skaggs, Josh Williams toured with Rhonda Vincent; Chris Eldridge with the Infamous Stringdusters and the Punch Brothers; Andy Falco with Alecia Nugent and the Infamous Stringdusters; Matt Wingate with the Lovell Sisters and the Greencards; Jake Stargel with the Greencards and the Lovell Sisters; Edward O’Day with Adrienne Young, and Tyler Grant with Drew Emmitt.
In addition to being more musically open-minded and versatile than the average flatpicker of the past, many players in the Next Generation era are also more musically educated. In an interview with Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Chris Eldridge, who has a college degree in music said, “The new standard is to be educated. Three generation back, guys like Clarence, Doc, and Norman were all intuitive players. Guys like Tony and David Grisman, knew a little more about theory. Today the younger musicians are getting more educated and taking it further. Chris Thile thoroughly knows his theory and he is setting the standard for the next generation. The approach is changing.”
The art of flatpicking the acoustic guitar has come a long way since the day the first guitar player pushed a flatpick through a set of steel strings. While this chapter has briefly discussed the various stages of development the style has undergone during its continual growth, the chapters which follow in this instructional series will provide far greater insights through more detailed discussions of the most prominent and influential players and their milestone recordings, as well as examples of their techniques.
This Instructional Series
This is the first book in an instructional series that aims to teach you flatpicking sequentially, along the chronological lines by which it developed. My feeling is that this is the most complete method to study any musical style or technique because it allows the student to learn in a step-by-step progressive fashion in a way that develops skill through a complete and systematic method. In the next chapter I will outline this approach.
Side Bar 1:
Flatpicking Versus Fingerstyle
In America, from the 1800s through the 1930s, the guitar was primarily used as a rhythm instrument in an ensemble setting or as an instrument that a solo vocalist used to accompany his or her singing. Typically the ensemble guitarist would strum rhythm with a pick as this technique produced a louder volume, and the full “punchy” chordal sound of the strum of the pick across the guitar’s strings provided a nice rhythmic backdrop for the rest of the band. One of the reasons that the guitar player did not usually take solos in the ensemble setting was that the small-bodied acoustic guitars of this era simply did not posses sufficient volume to be heard as a lead instrument. By comparison, mandolins, banjos, fiddles, and horns are much louder ensemble instruments.
On the other hand, when the guitar was being played by a solo vocalist such as a traditional Delta blues guitar player, the fingerstyle technique was more effective than playing with a pick. A fingerstylist can play a melody line with his or her fingers while continuing to thump a steady bass-line rhythm with the thumb. Using fingerstyle technique, the player is able to provide both lead and rhythm simultaneously. This is much more difficult to accomplish when utilizing the flatpicking technique because when lead lines are being played with the flatpick, the rhythm strum drops out by necessity.
Early-on we can see a trend starting to develop which continues to this day in the world of acoustic steel-string guitar playing. Fingerstyle players tend to be either solo instrumentalists or vocalists who accompany their singing with the acoustic guitar, while flatpickers can mainly be found performing with ensembles. The intricacies of the fingerstyle technique can sometimes clash with other instruments in an ensemble setting, while the fingerstyle combination of melody and rhythm make this technique ideal for solo performance. Conversely, the sparse single-string lead lines of traditional flatpicking don’t typically provide a very full sound when this technique is used solo, but fits perfectly in an ensemble setting with the other instruments holding the rhythm. The flatpicking technique also brings more volume out of the acoustic guitar and thus is ideal for strong and full rhythmic accompaniment for other instruments.
With time the world of flatpicking has evolved technique-wise to the point where super-charged styles of Carter-style picking combined with intricate crosspicking have allowed performers such as Norman Blake, David Grier, Steve Kaufman, and Dan Crary to perform solo with the flatpick style. In the early days of the style, however, flatpicking technique was mainly reserved for use with an ensemble.
Side Bar 2:
The Flatpicker's Guitar:
During the flatpicking Pioneer Era, the guitar underwent many design changes and technological advances. Most of the modifications that where made to the guitar’s materials and physical design after 1900 were for the purpose of making it louder. Steel-strings had been introduced around 1900. A strengthening of the X-brace pattern, which guitar builders began using around 1850, not only allowed the guitar’s top to support the tension of steel strings when they were introduced, but also allowed for wider body styles, which gave the guitar the increased volume and resonance players were seeking.
It was during the Pioneer Era that the coveted “every flatpicker has to have one” style guitar was invented. Due to its volume, tone, and unique voice, the Martin Dreadnought guitar became the perfect flatpicker’s tool. Doc had one, Clarence had one, Tony had one, Norman had one, and in the early days of flatpicking, nearly every other flatpicker had to have one too. The Martin D-18 (mahogany) and D-28 (rosewood) Dreadnought guitars made during the Martin Company’s “Golden Era” (1934 through 1945) have always been the standard by which all flatpicking guitars are measured.
Since most of the early Pioneer Era flatpickers were not playing Dreadnought guitars, we can’t say that the Dreadnought style guitar helped define flatpicking until we reached the next era in the evolution of flatpicking. The Dreadnought style, however, was invented, improved upon and came into high regard—especially in bluegrass circles—during the Pioneer Era.
Martin originally manufactured the Dreadnought-size body style under the Ditson name from 1916 through the late 1920s. The first Dreadnought guitars that carried the Martin name were introduced in 1931 and designated as styles D-1 and D-2. The “Dreadnought” name was adapted after the British Dreadnought warships, which had a similar wide shape. These models featured twelve-fret necks (12 frets clear of the body) and slotted headstocks. The D-1 had mahogany back and sides while the D-2 had rosewood back and sides. In 1934 the D-1 and D-2 models were discontinued. The D-1 was modified to include a fourteen-fret neck and renamed the D-18. The fourteen-fret version of the D-2 became the D-28.
As Flatpicking Changes, so Does the Flatpicker’s Guitar of Choice
Although the Martin Dreadnought is still prominent today—and those Martins that were built during the “Golden Era” are still the most coveted—many players have moved on to Dreadnought-style guitars that are made by other builders. The bass response of the Martin D-28 made it a great rhythm guitar, especially in the bluegrass setting. Early bluegrass players who primarily filled the rhythm roll in the band, whose bands played around one microphone, and who kept their lead work in the area of the first four or five frets loved the D-28. As sound re-enforcement technology improved and players began to play into individual microphones, the D-28 could sound too “boomy” to some players and they opted for the sound of the D-18 which had a stronger treble presence and cut through the sound of the other instruments better when they took solos.
As flatpicking solos became more intricate and flatpickers explored areas up-the-neck more frequently, especially when playing music outside of the bluegrass genre, flatpickers began to seek Dreadnought style guitars that could provide a more “modern” sound. They sought Dreadnought designs that provided a better mid-range and treble response than the standard D-18 or D-28 Martin provided, especially in those up-the-neck areas. Builders such as Taylor, Collings and Santa Cruz began to fill this void in the 1980s.
With the improvements made in sound reinforcement over the years, volume is no longer such a big issue. For decades, sound re-enforcement for the acoustic guitar consisted of pick-up systems that made the acoustic guitar sound very brittle or “nasal.” Early pickups removed the warm woody tones that made players fall in love with the sound of the acoustic guitar. In order to achieve an adequate acoustic sound when played through a PA system, the only solution was to use a high-quality microphone and hope that you had a good soundman. Today the situation has changed and many players are not only finding better external microphones, but are also taking advantage of blended systems which help maintain the warm tone of the acoustic guitar when it is amplified.
With volume less of a concern, some flatpickers are now using smaller body styles which are generally more comfortable to play than the large Dreadnoughts. Just as our definition of flatpicking technique changes over time, the tools that flatpickers use to practice their craft have also changed.