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Flatpicking (or simply picking) is the technique of striking the strings of a guitar with a pick (also called a plectrum) held between the thumb and one or two fingers. It can be contrasted to fingerstyle guitar, which is playing with individual fingers, with or without wearing fingerpicks. While the use of a plectrum is common in many musical traditions, the exact term "flatpicking" is most commonly associated with Appalachian music of the American southeastern highlands, especially bluegrass music, where string bands often feature musicians playing a variety of styles, both fingerpicking and flatpicking. Musicians who use a flat pick in other genres such as rock and jazz are not commonly described as flatpickers or even plectrum guitarists. As the use of a pick in those traditions is commonplace, generally only guitarists who play without a pick are noted by the term "fingerpicking" or "fingerstyle".


Probably starting around 1930, flatpicking in American music was developed when guitarists began arranging old-time American fiddle tunes on the guitar, expanding the instrument's traditional role of rhythm guitar accompaniment with an occasional run on the bass strings. Although early guitarists such as Riley Puckett used a thumb pick to emphasize bass notes, this part of the style was adapted into flatpicking.

The melodic style in bluegrass is often fast and dynamic, with slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, powerful strumming and rapid crosspicking. Bluegrass flatpickers usually prefer guitars with a flat top rather than an arch top, and steel strings rather than nylon.

Early styles

The chief exponents of the early country and bluegrass flatpicking styles included George Shuffler, Alton Delmore, Johnny Bond, Don Reno, and Bill Napier. The lead guitar was sparsely used, and sometimes was considered a novelty. Other instruments may also be used in flatpicking, such as the mandolin. However, banjo styles such as plectrum banjo and tunes played on tenor banjos can be played either by strumming or with a plectrum but they are not commonly known as flatpicking. This style can be typified by players such as Eddie Peabody, and has connections to ragtime and Dixieland music.


The foundation of Puckett, Reno and others were built upon heavily in the 1960s by Doc Watson and Clarence White. Watson and White both legitimized the acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass and old-time country music. White brought guitar flatpicking to the forefront of bluegrass, while Watson brought flatpicking to folk audiences as he played fiddle tunes, blues, country, and gospel songs throughout America.


Building on the contributions of Doc Watson and Clarence White, artists such as Norman Blake, Dan Crary, John Carlini, Mark O'Connor, Russ Barenberg, Larry Sparks, François Vola and Tony Rice further developed the art of flatpicking. Rice likely had the most profound impact on bluegrass guitar playing of anyone since his musical hero, Clarence White. Rice's tone, rhythm, phrasing, and improvisational skills have influenced an entire generation of bluegrass guitarists. Important elements Rice has used in his playing are jazz type chord substitutions, different from the straight major and minor chords common to bluegrass, and the use of the Dorian mode and the minor pentatonic "blues" scale in his lead playing. While there have been several songs using the Dorian mode in Appalachian roots music, Rice made a different statement by using this scale to improvise during songs written in a major key. For instance, he is very well known for playing an F major scale during a song written in G major (the F major scale, when played from G to G, is a G Dorian mode). The use of this technique introduces the flat 3rd (Bb) and the flat 7th (F) over the G chord which has a unique sound popular in bluegrass.


In recent years, players such as David Grier, Bryan Sutton, Beppe Gambetta and Tim Stafford have carried the guitar into the next millennium. Also, current "young guns" like Ethan J Meier, Cody Kilby, John Chapman, Chris Eldridge, Andy Falco, Balls Deep McGilrum, Sean Watkins, Billy "Strings" Apostol, Molly Tuttle and Jordan Tice continue to explore this style of guitar playing. These players are still defining new standards and reaching wider audiences. Pioneers Rice, Blake, Barenberg, and Crary continue to produce music featuring flatpicking as well.

The annual US National Flatpicking Championship is held at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas.

See also

Related Research Articles

The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. The membrane is typically circular, and usually made of plastic, or occasionally animal skin. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by African-Americans in the United States, adapted from African instruments of similar design. The banjo is frequently associated with folk and country music, and has also been used in some rock, pop and Hip-Hop songs. Several rock bands, such as the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and The Allman Brothers, have used the five-string banjo in some of their songs. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African-American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of American styles of music, such as Bluegrass and old-time music. It is also very frequently used in traditional ("trad") jazz.

Doc Watson American guitarist, songwriter and singer

Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was an American guitarist, songwriter, and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and gospel music. Watson won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Watson's fingerstyle and flatpicking skills, as well as his knowledge of traditional American music, were highly regarded. Blind from a young age, he performed publicly both in a dance band and solo, as well as for over 15 years with his son, guitarist Merle Watson, until Merle's death in 1985 in an accident on the family farm.


A plectrum is a small flat tool used to pluck or strum a stringed instrument. For hand-held instruments such as guitars and mandolins, the plectrum is often called a pick and is a separate tool held in the player's hand. In harpsichords, the plectra are attached to the jack mechanism.


Clawhammer, sometimes called frailing, is a distinctive banjo playing style and a common component of American old-time music.


A fingerpick, also known as a thumbpick, is a type of plectrum used most commonly for playing bluegrass style banjo music. Most fingerpicks are composed of metal or plastic. Unlike flat guitar picks, which are held between the thumb and finger and used one at a time, fingerpicks clip onto or wrap around the end of the fingers and thumb; thus one hand can pick several strings at once. Generally three are used: one for the thumb, and one each for the middle and index fingers. Fingerpicks worn on the thumb are generally called "thumbpicks". Most players use a plastic thumbpick while using metal fingerpicks. Fingerpicks come in a variety of thicknesses to accommodate different musicians' styles of playing. Thin picks produce a quieter, more delicate sound, while thick picks produce a heavier sound. But as with standard plectrums, thumbpicks come in different styles and employ different materials.

Fingerstyle guitar

Fingerstyle guitar is the technique of playing the guitar or bass guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking. The term "fingerstyle" is something of a misnomer, since it is present in several different genres and styles of music—but mostly, because it involves a completely different technique, not just a "style" of playing, especially for the guitarist's picking/plucking hand. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking except in classical guitar circles, although fingerpicking can also refer to a specific tradition of folk, blues and country guitar playing in the US. The terms "fingerstyle" and "fingerpicking" also applied to similar string instruments such as the banjo.


In music, strumming is a way of playing a stringed instrument such as a guitar, ukulele, or mandolin. A strum or stroke is a sweeping action where a finger or plectrum brushes over several strings to generate sound. On most stringed instruments, strums are typically executed by a musician's designated strum hand, while the remaining hand often supports the strum hand by altering the tones and pitches of any given strum.

Tenor guitar Four-stringed guitar

The tenor guitar or four-string guitar is a slightly smaller, four-string relative of the steel-string acoustic guitar or electric guitar. The instrument was initially developed in its acoustic form by Gibson and C.F. Martin so that players of the four-string tenor banjo could double on guitar.

Don Reno Musical artist

Donald Wesley Reno was an American bluegrass and country musician best known as a pioneering banjo and guitar player who partnered with Red Smiley, and later with guitarist Bill Harrell.

Hybrid picking

Hybrid picking is a guitar-playing technique that involves picking with a pick (plectrum) and one or more fingers alternately or simultaneously. Hybrid picking allows guitar players who use a pick to perform music which would normally require fingerstyle playing. It also facilitates wide string leaps which might otherwise be quite difficult. The technique is not widespread in most genres of guitar playing, but is most often employed in "chicken pickin'"; rockabilly, country, honky-tonk, and bluegrass flatpicking styles who play music which occasionally demands fingerstyle passages.

Hybrid picking involves playing with the pick and the right hand m and/or a fingers...at the same time. The pick is held in the usual way...and the fingers execute free strokes in the typical fingerstyle manner...Hybrid picking allows fingerstyle-like passages to be freely interspersed with flatpicked passages...without any delay.

Crosspicking is a technique for playing the mandolin or guitar using a plectrum or flatpick in a rolling, syncopated style across three strings. This style is probably best known as one element of the flatpicking style in bluegrass music, and it closely resembles a banjo roll, the main difference being that the banjo roll is fingerpicked rather than flatpicked.

Dan Crary Musical artist

Dan Crary(aka Deacon Dan Crary) was born September 29, 1939 in Kansas City, Kansas and is an American bluegrass guitarist. He helped re-establish flatpicked guitar as a prominent soloing bluegrass instrument. Crary is an innovator of the flatpicking style of guitar playing. He is also a Speech communications Professor at California State University, Fullerton. Crary categorizes himself as a "solo flatpicker" and has recorded several projects that feature him along with guests, usually other innovators of the guitar in all styles.

<i>The Great Dobro Sessions</i> 1994 studio album by various artists

The Great Dobro Sessions is a 1994 country music and bluegrass album featuring an all-star line-up of 10 American resonator guitar players, produced by dobro players Jerry Douglas and Tut Taylor.

Russ Barenberg American bluegrass musician

Russ Barenberg is an American bluegrass musician.

Beppe Gambetta Italian acoustic guitarist and singer (born 1955)

Beppe Gambetta is an Italian acoustic guitarist and singer. A native of Genoa, he is a composer, teacher, author, and researcher of traditional music and instruments.

Carter Family picking

Carter Family picking, also known as the thumb brush, the Carter lick, the church lick, or the Carter scratch, is a style of fingerstyle guitar named after Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family's distinctive style of rhythm guitar in which the melody is played on the bass strings, usually low E, A, and D while rhythm strumming continues above, on the treble strings, G, B, and high E. This often occurs during the break. The style bears similarity to the frailing style of banjo playing and is the rhythm Bill Monroe adapted for bluegrass music two decades later.

Guitar picking

Guitar picking is a group of hand and finger techniques a guitarist uses to set guitar strings in motion to produce audible notes. These techniques involve plucking, strumming, brushing, etc. Picking can be done with:

George Shuffler was an American bluegrass guitar player and an early practitioner of the crosspicking style. During his career Shuffler played with The Bailey Brothers, The Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. He was a 2007 recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award and in 2011 was elected to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Roberto Dalla Vecchia Italian guitarist, composer, and singer

Roberto Dalla Vecchia is an Italian guitarist, composer, and singer. He is known for his expressive melodies and songs which include many references to traditional American music and bluegrass.

Rebecca Frazier Musical artist

Rebecca Frazier is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, bluegrass musician and educator from Virginia. A recognized flatpicking guitarist, Frazier was the first woman to be featured on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. A founding member of award-winning bluegrass group, Hit and Run, formerly based in Colorado, Frazier currently tours out of Nashville, Tennessee, and records under her own name. When We Fall is Frazier's most recent studio album.