As the title of Steve Hicks’ Rule of Thumb indicates, the British fingerstylist’s solo showcase of old-time music is tied together by his alternating bass thumb technique—the tunes are “ruled by thumb.” The metronomic pulse and buzzing drone engendered by Hicks’ technique also complements his open tunings, which give each piece complex resonating overtones. 

Hicks’ playing is particularly suited to his selection of turn-of-the-20th-century rags and dance tunes. On “Hyacinth Rag,” the primary melody emerges almost imperceptibly from a deft weave of exploratory countermelodies and ping-ponging rhythms. Similarly, the syncopated one-step “From Soup to Nuts” slips indiscernibly from strummed Baroque flourishes to cartwheeling ragtime. 


Elsewhere, Hicks’ picking spirals upwards in 3/4 time on “Three Quarter Blues,” a lilting, little-known Gershwin ballad boasting atonal highlights. “East Tennessee Blues” transposes a scampering fiddle tune to guitar. As crab-walking melody lines coalesce in a tangle of picking, Hicks takes an abrupt bent-note detour into an original blues in the style of Lonnie Johnson. “Down by the Sally Gardens,” a DADGAD arrangement of an Irish low-whistle tune, entwines virtuosic picking with nostalgic atmosphere. 

In contrast, Hicks adopts a straightforward approach on a pair of Stephen Foster tunes, “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” and “Hard Times Come Again No More,” bringing this lively selection of revitalized rags, reels, blues, and fiddle tunes to a graceful and stately close.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.