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This section contains excerpts from our eight volume Flatpicking Essentials course.

Learning How to Flatpick by looking back at it's History

The history and development of flatpicking is not an easy or concise topic. But it is very important to understand the history of flatpicking when you are starting to learn the style because what the history can tell us about the chronological development of the style and can give us great insights regarding how we can proceed to develop our own skills and talents. Most of the guitar players who have a desire to learn the flatpicking style will do so because they are inspired by one of the contemporary performers that they have heard at a show or on a CD. Hearing a talented performer can provide tremendous motivation, and listening to their arrangements and solos can easily fuel your desire to learn. However, the mistake that many beginners make is that they will go out and buy an instructional book or DVD that features their current guitar hero and try to learn how to play those arrangements and solos without first developing a solid foundation. I feel that the best way to learn how to play like Doc Watson is not to start with Doc Watson solos, but first start learning from the performers who inspired Doc. You need to first study the style and technique of the players of the Pioneer Era.

What the Pioneer Era players did provides a very important foundation for what all of the professional players are doing today. Listening to their music will make you a better guitar player and learning their technique will provide you with a very solid foundation for learning what Doc Watson, Tony Rice, and Bryan Sutton are doing today. This article review the backgrounds of the pioneers, there simply isn’t room to do that adequately. Their names will be mentioned and then you can explore biographies on your own.This article will primarily discuss why learning about these early players and their guitar styles will help you become a better guitar player.

Learning How to Flatpick by Going Back to the Roots

While Doc Watson is the musician who is usually viewed as the “father” of modern flatpicking, there were many guitarists who came before Doc who applied a flatpick to the steel strings of the acoustic guitar. Although Doc, and his contemporaries—Clarence White, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, and, a little later, Tony Rice—certainly expanded the technique and took it to a whole new level, there were many guitar players before them who laid down a strong foundation for them to build upon. Every one of our flatpicking heroes had heroes of their own who inspired them. Could they have developed the techniques and skills that they made famous without first learning from the early pioneers? Probably not. So it is well worth spending some time developing the basic skills that guys like Doc learned before they developed their style of flatpicking. While Doc and the players listed above are certainly heroes to all modern day flatpickers, and we all emulate what they do, the pioneers who came before them, and the techniques they employed, are also certainly worthy of study.

Most flatpickers, in the early stages of development, will usually have some exposer to the chord-melody style of Mother Maybelle Carter, the crosspicking style of George Shuffler, and the rhythm styles of bluegrass players like Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, however, there are other early players who also deserve recognition and emulation. Guitar players who want to add more bass runs to their rhythm work need to take a look at the rhythm styles of early players like Riley Puckett, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Harvey, Charlie Monroe, Sleepy Johnson, and Edd Mayfield. Flatpickers who are looking for hard driving energetic runs to add to their repertoire need to examine the styles of early country players like Doc Addington, Edd Mayfield, the Delmore Brothers, Don Reno, and Hank Snow. Those who want to move towards playing acoustic jazz certainly need to study Django Reinhardt, but also need to explore the playing of guitarists such as Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang, George Barnes, and Charlie Christian. For any technique or style that we might want to learn on the guitar, it is always a good idea to trace the technique back to its source and use its chronological development as a roadmap to move forward in our study.

Flatpicking as an art has certainly gone through numerous evolutionary stages. In learning how to flatpick, and developing a style of one’s own, it would make sense to start with an examination of the earliest players and performers. Each generation has built upon the technique of those who have come before. Today many beginning students bring a Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, Kenny Smith, David Grier, or Steve Kaufman solo into their teacher and say, “I want to learn to play this.” Or they buy a instructional book or video that teaches one of these players’ arrangements and they try to move their study forward from there. Unfortunately, most students who start with Tony Rice or Steve Kaufman, or Doc Watson don’t know where to turn after they have memorized Doc, Tony or Steve’s arrangements. They are missing the foundation that Doc, Tony, and Steve built upon when they created those arrangements. Without a strong foundation, the building is always going to be weak. So let’s take a look at how we might go back and build up a strong foundation for flatpicking.

Building a Foundation

In almost every feature article that has been printed in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, all of the professional players that have been interviewed have stated that the best place to start learning is with rhythm. They also will tell you that when they learned how to play there was no tablature, so they learned it all by ear. This is not how most flatpickers learn today. I have observed two things that most flatpicking hobbyists, who have learned how to flatpick in the past fifteen years, have in common. First, not enough time is spent focusing on rhythm (and timing) and, second, not enough time is spent on ear training. I know this is a true statement for myself and, from the feedback I have received from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine readers, I would say it is true for a good portion of the flatpickers who have started learning since tablature, transcriptions and videos have become abundant.

If all of our heroes are telling us to spend more time focusing on rhythm and training our ear, why aren’t we doing it? If I were to guess at an answer I’d have to say that, first, for most people, learning to play lead guitar is more exciting and interesting than playing rhythm. Secondly, learning from tablature is easier than learning by ear. Ear training is hard work. In this book I have done my best to present these two important foundational aspects of learning how to play the guitar in a way that I think will be interesting and exciting to you.

Advice From the Pros:

The Two Most Important Aspects of Learning to Play the Guitar:
1) Rhythm & Timing
2) Ear Training

The problem with the way new students are learning these days is that they are missing some important fundamentals. If you start your flatpicking development by learning fiddle tunes from tablature, I predict that you are going to run into some problems. After you learn fifteen to twenty fiddle tunes from tablature, you may indeed be able to execute the memorized arrangements of those tunes in a jam session at a moderate speed.

But one or more of the following difficulties will fall upon you:
1) You may have trouble remembering the chords when you start to play rhythm (because you never practice rhythm).
2) Once you do know the chords, you will eventually get tired of playing the same old rhythm lick (because there is not much tablature available for rhythm).
3) You will have a very difficult time learning how to improvise. You will “crash and burn” when you are in the middle of a memorized solo and you will get lost.
4) You will have a difficult time coming up with your own solo arrangements, especially on vocal numbers.
5) Finally, you will have a hard time playing songs at a jam that you have never heard before.

All this will lead to you reaching a plateau in your progress. You will not feel like starting over again, so you will continue to memorize more fiddle tunes and noodle around on the ones that you already know. Then you will reach another plateau. Eventually you will realize that there is a lot missing from your flatpicking education and you will not know what to do about it. In order to avoid these pitfalls, I recommend you journey back to the roots of flatpicking to begin your study.

After interviewing hundreds of flatpickers, studying dozens of instructional books and videos, listening to hundreds of flatpicking CDs, and talking with thousands of flatpicking students and enthusiasts, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to study flatpicking is directly along the evolutionary line that it developed. It took me over ten years of publishing and editing Flatpicking Guitar Magazine to realize the importance of the chronological development of flatpicking to modern day students. Now I’m convinced of its importance.

So now that I’ve boldly stated that I have discovered the method by which all flatpickers should learn and develop their craft, I suppose that I should lay out this method for all to read. The way I wish to present it is to first talk about the evolution of the flatpicking technique here in this chapter and suggest that a solid learning method might follow a similar course. I will then present some of these fundamental methods and techniques in this book, and in those that follow in this series, so that you will begin to develop a very strong flatpicking foundation.

While I don’t feel that strict chronological adherence is absolutely necessary, I do feel like spending some time studying each of the most important players in the chronological development of the style will serve to give the student a complete understanding of the flatpicking style and fill in any holes in one’s knowledge and/or skill. For instance, in order to develop your ability to play rhythm in a bluegrass band it is fine to study Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, or Red Smiley before studying the styles of Riley Puckett or Roy Harvey. However, if you ever want to improve your bass run repertoire, or if you are going to play in a small ensemble that does not include a string bass, studying players like Riley Puckett, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Monroe, Edd Mayfield, Tom Paley, or Roy Harvey is highly recommended. However, in general I feel that chronological adherence is the best way to proceed. For instance, I would not recommend that someone study Doc Watson, Tony Rice, or Norman Blake before they study Maybelle Carter’s chord-melody style or George Shuffler’s crosspicking technique. You have to learn to add and subtract before you learn algebra, and algebra is necessary before you try to tackle calculus. Learning to play the guitar should follow a similar step-by-step development. Rhythm and Ear Training

As stated previously, the large majority of professional players and guitar instructors that I have talked with over the years agree that rhythm is the most important place to start when learning how to flatpick. Most will also agree that students do not generally spend enough time studying rhythm before they try to move on to playing lead. In the early years of the steel-string flat-top flatpick playing, the guitar was used as a rhythm instrument almost exclusively. So if our learning method is going to follow the chronological development of the style, a solid focus on rhythm is where we need to start. And that is where we will start in this book.

Typically a beginning flatpicker will start learning basic first position chords with the left hand and the simple alternating bass-note strum, or “boom-chick”, with the right hand. Once that has been accomplished, then many students will learn a couple of G-run variations, a handful of simple bass runs, and then maybe a couple of alternate right hand strumming patterns, all the while chomping at the bit to move on to learning how to play lead.

Over the years that I’ve published Flatpicking Guitar Magazine I have frequently run into frustrated flatpickers who are “stuck” in their development as a rhythm player because they feel as though they only know a few things and they play those same things over and over. One question that they will typically ask is “How can I learn more about bass runs?” My answer to that is to go back to recordings by some of the earliest flatpickers like Riley Puckett with Gid Tanner, Roy Harvey with Charlie Poole, or Edd Mayfield with the Mayfield Brothers. Also take a listen to any of the musicians who played with the Light Crust Doughboys (Herman Arnspiger, Sleepy Johnson, or Derwood Brown) or any of the guitar players in the brother duets groups of early country music (Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Delmore Brothers, etc). Why? Because these guys played in bands that did not have a bass player so their style of rhythm was filled with bass runs. They played the part of both the guitar and the bass in the band and so their rhythm work was full of creative and interesting licks and runs.

Many players who are accustomed to learning from tablature are going to say, “Where can I find transcriptions of these players so that I can learn some of those great bass runs?” Well, there have been some transcriptions over the years in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, and I have presented a good number of them here in this book. However, another way to learn this stuff is to buy the CDs and listen! You will not only hear some great music and guitar picking, but you will also begin to learn how to train your ear. Ear training is a vital part of learning how to play the guitar and, like anything else, if you don’t spend time with it everyday, you will not get very far.

Ear Training

If you try to start your ear training by listening to Doc Watson or Tony Rice CDs, you are going to become frustrated. It is too hard for a beginner! Guys that have a very good ear and have been transcribing for years find it challenging to transcribe some of Tony and Doc’s stuff, so you can’t expect to start training your ear by listening to any of the modern players. Going back to some of the early players and picking out bass runs is not nearly as challenging and thus you will begin to develop your ear and gain confidence in using your ear if you start with transcribing bass runs and rhythm.

Starting your ear training by picking out bass runs on old recordings is advantageous for several reasons. First, the ensembles are small and since there is not a bass in the band the bass runs on the guitar are easier to hear. Secondly, because bass runs are mostly played on the lowest three or four strings, and since they are usually played on the first three or four frets, you have a limited area of the fretboard to work with in trying to find the notes that you hear. Lastly, the notes in most bass note runs are usually at least a quarter note in duration, so trying to transcribe bass runs is far easier then trying to transcribe eighth-note solos. There are fewer notes to worry about. So I highly recommend that you download a few Gid Tanner fiddle tunes and try to figure out Riley Puckett’s bass runs. Work with the transcriptions and tabs that I have provided in this book to build some confidence in the style and technique, but then listen to some CDs and try to pick out some runs on your own. You might be a little frustrated at first, but you will find that it gets easier with practice and it is well worth the effort.

In working to transcribe these rhythm runs yourself, you are going to begin your ear training development at a place that is appropriate for your skill level. Plus, in transcribing all of these bass runs by yourself, you are going to learn to internalize them in a way that is not possible if you do it by using tab. You are going to really hear how and where they are employed and thus you are going to instinctively know how to do it when you go out and play in a jam. You are going to hear it in your head and you are going to be able to find it on your guitar in real time. That is the great value of ear training. This skill is harder to achieve when learning from tab.

So, my suggestion to those who want to either learn how to spice up their bluegrass rhythm, or who want to learn a different way to accompany a fiddle, mandolin, or banjo in a small ensemble—that does not include a bass—is to go back and listen to some of the early pioneers of flatpicking and try to transcribe their rhythm work by ear. If doing that gives you some confidence, then move on up to the bluegrass era and listen to, and study, early rhythm masters like Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, and Red Smiley. Having spent time with their predecessors, you may have an easier time hearing what these great bluegrass rhythm players are doing. Spend some time studying how they shaped the guitar’s role in the bluegrass band setting and your ability to play rhythm guitar will improve greatly. In this book I will give you some examples to practice that will help you hear what the pioneers were doing.

Learning How to Play Lead

Once you have spent time studying the rhythm styles of the early old-time players like Riley Puckett and Roy Harvey and then examined what bluegrass players like Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, and Red Smiley were doing, you are ready to step into the realm of playing lead guitar. During your rhythm study you should have become very familiar with playing bass runs while integrating them with a steady rhythm strum. The natural progression for moving from rhythm to lead is to now turn those bass lines into melody lines. A study of Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar style is just the thing to help you do that.

Although Maybelle played with a thumb pick in combination with her index finger, her style is easily adapted to the flatpicking technique. Because of the small ensemble situation she played in when she began performing with her brother-in-law A.P. Carter and her sister Sara Carter, Maybelle had to find a way to play the lead lines without allowing the rhythm to drop out. She accomplished this by playing the melody on her bass strings while placing rhythmic strums in-between melody notes.

In order to learn how to play Carter style, on your own without tab, simply work out the melody to a song on the bass strings and then strum the appropriate chord when there is a melody note that has more than a quarter note duration. If you have spent a sufficient amount of time training your ear to identify chord changes and bass runs while working on your rhythm technique, it should not be too difficult for you to pick out melody lines and mix them with your rhythm technique. It is always helpful to go back to the source. Listen to some old Carter Family recordings to help you better learn the style and inspire new ideas. There have been plenty of examples of Carter style solos printed in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine over the years.

Early Flatpicking Guitar Solos

Most flatpicking instructors, and flatpicking instructional material written for beginners, will introduce the student to flatpicking lead solos by first teaching a Carter style tune such as “Wildwood Flower.” After introducing two or three more Carter style tunes, they will usually move right on to flatpicking fiddle tunes. My feeling is that in moving directly from Carter style to fiddle tune picking the instructional method is missing key techniques that developed historically prior to Doc Watson popularizing the flatpick fiddle tune style. The first is a style of lead playing that was prominent in the 1930s and 1940s. George Shuffler called it the “quick wrist mandolin style” and indeed it was a style of lead guitar playing that was probably brought over to the guitar by mandolin players because it involves filling in the gaps between melody notes by simply repeating the melody note in an eighth-note tremolo fashion.

>p> While this style of playing is looked upon as “old-fashion” today, given the advances that have been made in flatpicking technique that have been introduced over the past 45 years, I am becoming more and more convinced that any student of flatpicking should at least spend some time learning how to craft solos to vocal tunes by studying musicians like Edd Mayfield, Doc Addington, Alton Delmore, Hank Snow, and Don Reno in order to help transition from Carter style picking to instrumental flatpicking fiddle tunes. This is the way it developed historically, and it makes sense as a learning progression.

Solos on Vocal Songs

A study of this early flatpicking style on vocal tunes is helpful for several reasons. First, the solos are simple, straight-forward, and melody-based. The repeating of the melody notes in a tremolo fashion introduces the student to the alternating pick stroke technique that they will need to learn when they begin flatpicking fiddle tunes. The introduction of alternating pick direction while playing an eighth note tremolo makes sense because your left hand doesn’t move and the pick stays on the same string. So it is a simpler way to learn. Secondly, this style teaches the student a very simple way to fill in the spaces between melody notes on a vocal song. When flatpickers, who started their learning process with fiddle tunes, are at a jam session and are required to take a break on a vocal tune they have a difficult time because they don’t know how to fill in the space between the melody notes. Had they spent sufficient time learning the simple methods of the Carter style, the use of double stops, the tremolo style, leading tones, neighboring notes and crosspicking, I don’t think this would be such a tough problem.

For ear training purposes vocal songs are much easier to learn how to play than fiddle tunes. Vocal tune melodies are more sparse than fiddle tunes and it is usually easier to pick out the melody because you can hum the words. However, it is a challenge to learn how to fill in the gaps between the melody notes if you don’t have experience with it. Learning how Doc Watson or Tony Rice does it is not an easy task for a beginning player. Going back and studying how the pioneer’s did it provides a stepping block between playing rhythm and playing Doc Watson style leads. We know that Doc was a fan of Riley Puckett, Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, and other early pioneers. If you go back and listen to these artists, you can hear, in their playing, many of the runs that Doc later incorporated into his style. Doc did not invent what he did without having first been influenced by these players.

In Volume 2 of this series, I will provide you with a few examples of the “tremolo style,” and the other techniques mentioned above, and I’ll explain how they work so that you can get a feel for the techniques and begin to develop your own ideas, your own solos, and be well on your way to learning how to improvise.

Let’s Boogie

During the late 1940s and into the 1950s the techniques of early flatpicking took another evolutionary step forward as the “boogie-woogie” rhythm gained popularity and served as a link between the Western swing of the 1940s, popularized by Milton Brown and Bob Wills, and the rockabilly of the 1950s. Perhaps the most well-known of the early boogie songs was the Delmore Brothers “Freight Train Boogie,” which reached number two on the Billboard charts in 1946 as performed by the Delmores and number five on the charts in 1947 as performed by Red Foley. This song was later recorded by Reno & Smiley, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Bill Harrell, John Denver, and many others. (For a transcription of Ronnie Reno’s guitar solo to “Freight Train Boogie,” See FGM Volume 6, Number 4).

By 1946 the Delmore Brothers had moved from two-piece arrangements to a full band sound that included bass, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle, and harmonica. By the end of the next year they were also including electric guitars and drums. The Delmore’s material turned up-tempo and caught the wave of Western and big band swing that was sweeping the nation. Their material included a bluesy influence, thumping backbeats, and hard-driving boogies as evidenced in tunes like “Hillbilly Boogie,” “Steamboat Bill Boogie,” “Barnyard Boogie,” “Mobile Boogie,” “Freight Train Boogie,” and others. The long guitar breaks and extended solos on some tunes certainly helped usher in the rock and roll era. Unfortunately, Alton Delmore died in 1952 and one of the most influential groups in country, rockabilly, and rock and roll history ended.

Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie” (see Joe Carr’s column in FGM Vol. 11, Number 2), recorded in October of 1948, is often cited as being the first rock & roll song ever recorded. Hank Snow’s “Rhumba Boogie,” recorded in 1951, was also another popular country boogie tune that featured an example of early flatpicking. (See Harold Streeter’s column in Volume 11, Number 4 of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine for a transcription of “Rumba Boogie” and also refer to Kathy Barwick’s article in that same issue for more about Hank Snow). Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock and Roll,” recorded in 1956, is cited by many as the first song recorded by a bluegrass band that highlighted lead guitar work as the song’s central focus (for a transcription of that tune, see Adam Granger’s column in Volume 11, Number 4 of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine). Incidentally, in 1955 Arthur Smith and Don Reno collaborated on what was to become one of the most well-known bluegrass style songs in history, “Feudin’ Banjos”. The song was later renamed “Duelin’ Banjos” and featured in the film Deliverance.

While the country boogie-woogie guitar style of the late 1940s and early 1950s had a greater influence on rockabilly and early rock and roll than it did bluegrass, it is still a style worthy of study for bluegrass and flatpicking guitar players. Not only are there licks and phrases from these boogie tunes that can be used when flatpicking bluegrass, but these songs are just plain fun to play. The next time you are at a jam session pull out “Freight Train Boogie” and see what kind of reaction you get. People usually love it.


One other flatpicking technique that was brought forward by a bluegrass guitar pioneer, prior to the time of Doc Watson, is George Shuffler’s crosspicking. Like Carter style, this is one of the techniques that all beginning level flatpickers will usually learn how to execute and it is a technique that is used to some degree by all modern day flatpickers. George Shuffler says that he invented this technique on the guitar out of necessity. During the “lean years of bluegrass” back in the 1950s George was playing with the Stanley Brothers and the group was traveling as a trio, just Carter, Ralph, and George. George said he needed to come up with a technique on the guitar that would fill in the gaps between vocal lines on “those slow mournful numbers.” While all flatpickers have employed the crosspicking technique, guitarists like Clarence White and David Grier have made extensive use of crosspicking and have taken its application far beyond Shuffler’s employment of the technique. Crosspicking is a technique that has been covered extensively in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine and in various instructional books and DVDs and it is a technique that all bluegrass guitar players need to study.


Doc Watson has said that he first began learning how to play the guitar with the “thumb lead style” of Maybelle Carter. Later he started listening to Jimmie Rodgers recordings and says, “I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks.’ So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks on the guitar. Then all at once I began to figure out ‘Hey, I could play that Carter stuff a lot better with a flat pick.’” Doc started teaching himself how to flatpick fiddle tunes in the 1950s when he was playing the electric guitar with Jack Williams’ dance band. Doc has said that the first person he heard flatpick fiddle tunes was Don Reno. He also said that after hearing Nashville session guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland play some fiddle tunes on the electric guitar with Red Foley he figured, “if they could do it, he could do it.” Later Doc went back to the acoustic guitar and learned how to flatpick those fiddle tunes on his Martin D-18. The rest is history.

While it was Doc Watson’s lead acoustic guitar solos on fiddle tunes that is often seen as the beginning of modern day flatpicking, I hope that this article has given you an appreciation for those who came before Doc. My approach to organizing the teaching method in this instructional series will run along the lines of the chronological development of the flatpicking style. I will first present you with this book on rhythm, which focuses primarily on the study of bass runs.