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For Fans of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine

Answered by Bryan Kimsey

The "rest" stroke is a very important flatpicking technique, especially if you're after more of a Clarence White/Tony Rice/Charles Sawtelle sound. The basic idea is just to use a lot of downstrokes with slurs filling in the other notes. Steve Pottier's article in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine (see below), suggested the idea of using picks to play tiddly-winks. Place the pick on a coin and snap it down- that's the motion you're looking for. On the guitar, you need a quick, snappy motion to drive through the string and then you immediately stop. The note you just pounded is ringing away, and you can modify it with a hammer-on, pull-off, slide, or just let it ring. When the next note comes up, repeat. At some point, you'll have to hit an up-stroke, but it's surprising how few you can actually get by with. It's entirely possible to play an entire solo, with plenty of notes, using only rest strokes. Note that you'll get a distinctly White/Rice/Sawtelle sound as opposed to a Kaufman/Crary sound. With some exceptions, of course, I think you'll find the former camp using a lot of slurs and rest-strokes and the latter using a lot more picked notes and even up-down strokes.

The timing of the rest stroke takes some getting used to. With a DUDU pick direction, it's easy to get your hand swinging in an arc to help keep the timing, but with rest strokes you have to pick a note, stop the pick, and then start again when the beat comes to the right place.

It will help to:

  1. practice with a metronome,
  2. think "rock n roll". "Johnny B. Goode" for instance, is all down-strokes (as is much of Monroe-style mandolin),
  3. play some jigs with a strict DUDU right hand. This will force you to accent the upstrokes to keep the 6/8 time going. This will help a lot in freeing your right hand up to accent whatever note needs to be accented, and in the process it will be easier to play consecutive down-strokes. If you can't play rest strokes after some practice and thought, don't force it. Not everybody does rest-strokes and they may not work for you.

Steve Pottier wrote an excellent article about rest stroke in Volume 1, Number 3 of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine in his column titled "Beginning Clarence White Style Guitar." We have re-printed that article here in order answer the question about rest strokes.

The Rest Stroke

One of the major problems for a bluegrass guitar player is how to be heard above the din of the band/jam/banjo player. I think it's a great idea for a player to think about how much of what he plays counts - how much is effectively registered in the ears of the audience. You would like all of your notes to come out with conviction, clear, and toneful. To that end, I'd like to describe what may be the most important right hand technique for a bluegrass guitarist: the rest stroke.

Rest strokes changed my life! Seriously, once I became aware of them, I saw that all the great rhythm players used them in their bass runs. Clarence even played his leads to "I Am a Pilgrim" with almost all rest strokes! I saw David Parmley, Del McCoury and Jimmy Martin using them! I found that the George Shuffler down-down-up cross-picking style (the pattern Clarence used in almost all of his cross picking) starts with a rest stroke! It is the ultimate secret of bluegrass guitar (OK, one of the ultimate secrets)!

The term rest stroke comes from classical guitar playing, and it means (in our case) that the pick is pressed downward on the string until it snaps off and down onto the next higher string and comes to a solid rest there.

Consider the two note Lester Flatt G run shown in Example 1. The first note of the run (4th string 2nd fret) starts with the pick on the string. Apply pressure with the thumb, aiming for the bottom edge of the guitar nearest your body. Slide the pick slightly as you apply pressure and it will slide of the 4th string and snap onto the 3rd string. Without bouncing, continue to apply pressure and do the same thing on this string until you come to rest on the 2nd string. This is a classic G run. I am using "+" signs between the notes of consecutive rest strokes on adjacent strings to make you aware of where to think of the two notes as one continuous down stroke. Example 2 gives you another G run to practice.

example 1

example 2

Somedetails: the right hand really doesn't move much. Put the backs of your fingers on the top of the guitar, and just apply pressure from the thumb. The pick should have about a 45 degree angle downward toward the face of the guitar. The pick MUST come to rest solidly without bouncing onto the next higher string. Try doubling your volume- you can! Play so loud that you're getting buzzes and distortion. You will be amazed at how much tone and volume you can get. Then back off to a more comfortable level where the buzzes and distortion go away. You should be playing at noticeably increased volumes, even at this backed off stage. If you still haven't gotten a feel for it, try playing a round of tiddly-winks: place a spare medium or thin pick (you don't need those anyway) on a flat hard surface. Press down with your pick near an edge of the pick on the table and slide your pick off and down onto the table. The other pick should jump a good distance. Try for height and distance. This should give you a feel for how the pick should snap down onto the next string.

OK. How about some classic runs using this technique? Example 3 is a classic Del McCoury/Jack Cook run. Notice how the notes come in pairs to give you a subtle timing to the run that would be very difficult to emulate without a rest stroke.

example 3

Example 4 demonstrates a Jimmy Martin style run using pairs of notes. The rest stroke just plows through both as if the were an arpeggiated strum.

example 4

Example 5 is a notier G run. The pick direction shown is important, also be aware of the 2 beat hammer on from 1 to 2.

example 5

Clarence White used a lot of down strokes in his playing, both in rhythm and lead. I don't know if he just stumbled onto the sound or whether he got the idea by observing Bill Monroe, or by wanting to get some of Django Rheinhart's sounds on his guitar. "I am a Pilgrim" on Appalachian Swing (Rounder) is almost entirely rest strokes. Example 6 is a lead-in from one of his breaks. The consecutive down strokes on adjacent strings give a kind of shuffle feel to the timing, accenting the overall bluesy feel of the tune. If you get a chance, check out his leads on the Muleskinner video - those down strokes really pop out at you.

example 6

Clarence used syncopated bass runs to great effect in his rhythm work. Be aware that he was doing this in a band that played all day every day at home. His brothers knew it was coming. Roland even would anticipate it and incorporate it in his leads. Point is, syncopated back up doesn't work too well in jam situations where people are not used to it. Second, it works better against straight time lead than syncopated lead. That said, Example 7 demonstrates some Clarence-style backup runs.

example 7

Most bass runs end on the tonic- the note that is the same name as the chord. Example 8 is a syncopated run up to the third, an E note in the C chord, for a nice effect:

example 8

Last updated by Dan Miller Mar 24, 2010.

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