Flatpicking Guitar Lessons

As rock and roll continued to take over the world in the nineteen seventies, the plectrum-wielding lead guitar player became fixed in the minds of music lovers. This style of guitar playing originated in the nineteen thirties with jazz guitar players like Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, and reached a wider audience through prominent guitarists like Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Hank Marvin.

It was inevitable that a generation of "lead guitarists" would be born from the rich musical tradition of bluegrass. In fact there were already famous flatpickers in bluegrass music with names like George Shuffler, Don Reno, and Bill Napier. During the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies flatpicking guitar players like Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Larry Sparks, Charles Sawtelle, and Russ Barenberg rose to prominence.

To get some insight into the evolution of flatpicking guitar playing, it may help to look at how Doc Watson, who guitar playing career began in the nineteen fifties, contributed to the use of flatpicking guitar in bluegrass music. It was simply that the band he was working with did not have a fiddle player and Doc was not able to become a good fiddle player himself. So because he enjoyed fiddle tunes, he simply learnt how to play them on the guitar.

Another astounding flatpicker is David Grier. The son of an accomplished banjo player, David was shown a few chords by his father and allowed to develop his love and talent for music naturally. As a result he never learnt to read guitar tab or conventional music notation.

And where did the first bluegrass guitar album come from? Dan Crary. Dan, if not the father of bluegrass guitar, is at least one of its uncles. Many bluegrass standards were recorded with the guitar for the first time by Dan Crary.

Now to get onto more technical stuff, let us look at what a flatpick is and how to use it. A flatpick is made of tortoiseshell, plastic or nylon. If you want to learn to be a flatpicking guitar soloist, you will need to learn to use a thick pick. If you are like most guitar players you will be using a light to medium weight pick. For flatpicking solos you will have a much greater control over your playing by getting used to using a heavier weight pick. The main advantage to flatpicking over fingerpicking is tone. A steel string acoustic guitar sounds much nicer using a flatpick compared to fingerpicks, and using nails is totally out of the question. You will also gain speed much quicker if you use a flatpick. Playing fast with right hand finger picking techniques takes a lot of intestinal practice.

One question you are going to be confronted with as your flatpicking guitar technique develops is whether to play using your hand and forearm as one unit holding a lot of tension in your wrist, or to play with your wrist relaxed. There are guitar players who swear by either of these ways of playing and some who use both. Generally speaking the advantage of having a stiff wrist is speed. A relaxed wrist does not take as readily to playing fast but many guitarists feel that it gives then greater control.

The thing you need to do if you are thinking about learning flatpicking is to widen your knowledge of the genre by listening to a range of guitar players. Jesse McReynolds, Clarence White and Tony Rice are a few flatpicker guitarists to look out for but I am sure you will find many more as you explore this wonderful musical genre yourself.