Flatpicking Guitar Network

For Fans of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine

The most frequently asked question we receive from guitar enthusiasts who discover us on the web and are not familiar with the term "flatpicking" is: "What is flatpicking?"

Answered by Dan Miller.

The simplest, and most general, answer to that question is that "flatpicking" is the technique of playing a guitar with a flat pick (or flat plectrum) versus the use of bare fingers, finger picks, or a thumb pick. 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."

Traditionally in America, from the 1800s through the 1930s, the guitar was primarily used as a rhythm instrument. As more and more guitar players began to play lead breaks on the guitar throughout the 1940s and 50s, two main styles emerged--"fingerstyle" and "flatpicking." The term "flatpicking" originated with early lead acoustic guitar players in traditional country and bluegrass music who used a plectrum to play the guitar. The plectrum of choice was called a "flat pick" or "straight pick." 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 guitar's strings (such as Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Maybelle Carter, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Edd Mayfield, and others).

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 definition of flatpicking, for the purposes of providing a narrower scope for our Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, limits the term to genres of music played on an acoustic steel-string guitar (e.g. we do not cover any electric guitar music or nylon string guitar music).

With those parameters in mind, we can now loosely define "flatpicking" as a technique for playing the acoustic steel-stringed guitar with a flat pick. Although the term is most often used in bluegrass circles, the genres of music that are also covered in our magazine include old-time (fiddle tunes), traditional country (Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Delmore Brothers, Hank Snow, etc.), Celtic, new acoustic (acoustic jazz, newgrass), folk, gypsy jazz, acoustic swing, western music, acoustic blues, and acoustic rock.

Because the guitar was traditionally used as a rhythm instrument, the technique of playing lead breaks on the acoustic guitar with a flat pick in bluegrass, old-time, folk, and country music did not really begin to become wide spread until the late 1950s. Prior to that, most of the people who were playing lead breaks on the acoustic guitar, or using the acoustic guitar to accompany their singing in these genres, were either using the fingerstyle techniqiues or primarily playing rhythm guitar with the occasional lead run used as an embellishment between vocal lines.

Some of the pioneering players, during the 1920s through the 1950s, who did use the technique which was to become known as "flatpicking" included George Shuffler, Don Reno, and Bill Napier in bluegrass music; Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, and Nick Lucas in jazz music; and the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Snow in country music. Additionally, a few influential players in early country and bluegrass music, including Mother Maybelle Carter, Riley Puckett, Roy Harvey, Charlie Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, and Edd Mayfield played a thumbpick style which was readily adapted to the flatpicking technique.

During the 1960s and 70s the flatpicking technique became more widespread as lead guitar became more prominent in bluegrass, folk, and traditional music. The most well know of the flatpickers from this era are such guitar greats as Doc Watson, Dan Crary, Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Larry Sparks, Charles Sawtelle, and Russ Barenberg.

Rice and Barenberg were also influential flatpickers outside of the bluegrass genre. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, they, along with Mark O'Connor, Pat Flynn, David Bromberg, and others began exploring the flatpicking boundaries and included "new acoustic music" and jazz in their repertoires. This early experimentation with the parameters that had previously defined flatpicking as a country or bluegrass style has led the way for a new generation of flatpickers, such as David Grier, Scott Nygaard, Bryan Sutton, and Kenny Smith to name a few, who continue to take the art of flatpicking the acoustic steel-string guitar in new and innovative directions.

What began as a technique to play fiddle tunes in old-time and bluegrass music has now blossomed into a technique of wide and varied musical proportions.

Last updated by Dan Miller May 11, 2008.

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