Flatpicking is typically considered flashy and impressive, but the technique comes across as expressive and understated on Courtney Hartman’s rendition of the old-time fiddle tune “Cumberland Gap,” from her 2016 EP Nothing We Say. The guitarist’s recording shows how expert picking, clever open-string harmonies, and a lovely melody can transform basic open-chord shapes into an intricate and stunning solo guitar arrangement.
Hartman is one of the great acoustic guitarists of our time, a stunning flatpicker who often sets her chops aside in favor of personal songwriting, emotive musicianship, and lush soundscapes. She spent seven years recording and touring with the bluegrass powerhouse Della Mae, and amidst that schedule also released Nothing We Say and two duet recordings. Since departing from Della Mae in 2018, she has continued her solo career and released two albums.
“Cumberland Gap” shows off both the depth of Hartman’s technique and her skillful musical sensibilities. Her arrangement is similar to how many contemporary fiddlers play the tune, loosely based on Fred Cockerham and Tommy Jarrell’s version but with some alterations and an additional third section. Hartman plays the form three times, with the first time through the A section being slightly extended. For each subsequent pass through the tune, she further alters and improvises the melody while keeping the underlying structure intact.
In this transcription I provide Hartman’s first time through the form, condensing some of the sections to allow for repeats and readability. There are two important techniques to make this arrangement shine. The first is using consistent picking throughout—downstrokes on the beats and upstrokes on the “ands.” Sticking with this pattern will provide a natural pulse that coincides with the downbeats.
The second technique is to let both open strings and fretted notes ring as long as possible. For example, much of the first bar uses the standard open C chord shape. Even as the pick strikes other strings, keep the fretting fingers down to allow previous notes to ring, and don’t lift them up until you need to reposition. In particular, the first-fret C in measure 1 can be anchored until the open B appears in the middle of measure 3. Use this practice throughout and you may surprise yourself with how letting notes ring can dramatically alter the way a passage sounds.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.