“I love flatpicking, but I could never afford a decent guitar,” Scott Fore says. “The only way I was going to get one was to win it.” From humble beginnings—Fore taught himself to play with a library book and picks fashioned “from broken 78 records and plastic milk jugs”—the 57-year-old guitarist has gone on to win multiple competitions, most notably the prestigious National Flatpicking Contest at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, placing second in 2000 and 2014, and winning first place in 2002 and 2015.
Fore teaches the techniques he’s devised, such as “guitar chi,” his fluid, minimalist right-hand picking method derived from his martial-arts training. And he’s published a dozen secrets to his success in 2005’s Flatpicking Solos: 12 Contest-Winning Arrangements (Cherry Lane Music). Speaking by phone from his home in Radford, Virginia, Fore shares tips on picking and winning.
1. Follow the Rules
“So many people don’t read the rules,” Fore says, noting that Winfield’s maximum performance time is five minutes, with two minutes and 30 seconds the preferred mark. “Look at how you’re scored,” he adds, citing Winfield’s criteria: 40 points for arrangement, 40 for execution, 10 for dynamics, and 10 for overall impression. Though execution is key to competing—“sometimes the fastest, loudest guy wins,” Fore says with a chuckle—“more often than not, a good arrangement is what takes the prize.”
2. Make New Arrangements
“Points for arrangement are mostly based on originality. If you play someone else’s arrangement, twist it around and play those runs on a different part of the neck.” To keep arrangements fresh, Fore has devised two training tools: “What if?” and “one note.”
“‘What if?’ is a tool that takes you out of your comfort zone and leads to experimentation. It’s a game,” Fore explains, “I ask myself, how would I play Bill Cheatham if I was the Allman Brothers, playing both Duane’s and Dickey’s parts?” Then Fore plays it to see if it works.
He advocates practicing a “one-note” solo with all possible variations to expand your approach to arrangements. “You take a C note and you put it with an A-minor chord, all of the sudden it’s a minor third. You put it with the F chord, now it’s a fifth. When you play a note in multiple places, it opens up options.”
3. Play a Tune
In competition, “throw in all the techniques you can—crosspicking, harmonics, chords—but also play a song that flows from beginning to end.”
At many contests, the judges don’t hear any back up, just the contestant’s microphone. “Record your arrangement just by itself, and then listen critically. See if you hear holes,” he says. “Don’t forget you’re playing a tune as well as a showcase.”
4. Don’t Hold Back
Winfield has a pool of 40 contestants, Fore explains. “Once you make the Top 5, you go to round two. Your job in round one is to make it to the final round, where you only have four other guys to beat instead of 40.” If you don’t play your best stuff in round one, you may never get to play it at all.
5. Winning Isn’t Everything?
The first year Fore went to Winfield, he placed second and won that decent guitar he wanted. “It was a Collings with the wheat on the headstock,” he recalls. “The only way to get one was to win one, so it’s like a badge of honor.”
Now he has three of them.
“It’s funny. A week after I won that guitar, I was at a stoplight and I realized that’s not why I entered the contest at all. I wanted to be No. 1.”
In 2002, he got his wish.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.