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August 2009 Free Flatpicking Lesson
Flatpicking Guitar Magazine

Exploring Flatpicking Styles with "Billy in the Lowground"
by Dan Miller and Tim May

Tim May and I just finished our newest volume of the Flatpicking Essentials series. This one is titled Flatpicking Essentials, Volume 5: Improvisation and Style Studies. Improvisation is one of those things that flatpickers always ask about at workshops and seminars. It is one of those mysterious and elusive concepts that is hard for many people to grasp. In this volume of the Flatpicking Essentials series we take away the mystery by presenting a step-by-step gradual learning method that will have you improvising immediately and then build your skill slowly and steadily. By the end of this book you will have the confidence and the skill to step out and start improvising at your next jam session. If you are interesting in really learning how to improvise, I recommend that you check out this book.

In addition to the extensive improvisation section, part 2 of this book includes “Style Studies” that are focused on the “founding fathers” of flatpicking: Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Clarence White, Tony Rice, and Dan Crary. This section of the book profiles elements of each of these player’s flatpicking styles, and then teaches you how to work those style elements into your own solos by giving you many song and fiddle tune examples.

The purpose of this section of the Flatpicking Essentials course is not to teach you how to play like note-for-note like Doc, Tony, Norman, Dan, or Clarence. There are many books, CDs, videos, and DVDs that cover the exact playing styles of each of these great flatpickers. Our approach to this section of the book is to first present to you what we think are the major contributions that each of these artists brought to the world of flatpicking. This means that we are going to focus on the general ideas and techniques that each of these masters first brought to flatpicking that made their contribution unique at that time. Every one of these players, with the exception of Clarence White, is still playing to this day and they are each extremely versatile. Over the decades that they have been playing and recording music each have offered more to the world of flatpicking than we could ever cover in one book. So, a thorough study of each of these players is not our goal here.

Our goal is to examine what made these players unique back when the first entered the music world and how you can flavor your own playing with their ideas, techniques, or style elements. In order to do so, we present short sections on each player, which include a few example songs and/or licks that contain elements of their style. These are not exact note-for-note transcriptions, but rough arrangements based on solos that these artist performed during the early stages of their careers. Again, our goal is to simply give you a feel for their style, not teach you to mimic or clone their style.

After we present a short section on each of the above mentioned flatpickers, we then present arrangements of eight different popular tunes, or songs, that utilize these style elements. Each of these arrangement were improvised by Tim May and recorded live without any prearranging, overdubbing, or edits. In fact, coming into the studio Tim had no idea what songs he was going to play. We decided on the tune or song in the moment and then Tim played it improvisationally. The only outline that Tim wrote up before playing the tune was to say, something like “On the first section I’m going to think about Doc, the second section Clarence, and the last time through I’ll think about Tony.” Then we recorded.

Tim’s intention in playing these song’s improvisationally was to give each different section of the song the feel of a different player, but not be a clone of any of these players. We presented the songs in this manner because this is the way we would like our readers to study these flatpicking masters. There is no reason to copy, or clone, what these players do. We encourage you to learn something about what they brought to this genre of music and then develop your own way to express those ideas in your playing.

In this month’s lesson we present you with one of the tunes from this course, “Billy in the Lowground.” At the top of each section of the tune we have indicated which artist Tim was thinking about while he was recording this tune. You will notice that in this version Tim also threw in a few Pat Flynn and Mark O’Connor licks.