Billy Strings’ November 2022 release, Me/And/Dad, has had remarkable chart-topping success, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums Chart, No. 7 on the Top Country Albums Chart, and even No. 37 on the Billboard Top 200. It’s even more notable considering this is his most traditional bluegrass record to date, a collection of 14 classic songs performed with his stepfather and musical mentor, Terry Barber. The popularity of this record in particular and Strings’ career in general is a boon both for bluegrass and flatpicking guitar.
Throughout the album, Strings and Barber are accompanied by bluegrass veterans Michael Cleveland (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Rob McCoury (banjo), Mike Bub (bass), Jerry Douglas (dobro), and Jason Carter (fiddle). The instrumental performances are exceptional, but the focal point of the record is on Strings and Barber, who take turns leading vocal songs and backing each other up with harmonies. As with any Strings record, the guitarist’s flatpicking prowess also lies front and center.
“Way Downtown” is a traditional song with a straightforward chord progression and melody, popularized by Doc Watson, who played it at a blistering tempo. Strings captures Watson’s joyful and lighthearted spirit by kicking off the track at a feisty 135 half notes per minute, adding some fun off-the-cuff commentary (like “Yeah, dude” at 1:31 in reaction to Cleveland’s fiddle lick), and blasting out two fantastic 16-bar solos that quote some signature Watson licks. Strings plays the song out of the C position, with a capo at the fourth fret causing it to sound a major third higher, in the key of E major.
Example 1 shows the solo that leads off the song. The first half (bars 1–8) uses mostly longer note values following the song’s melody with some hammer-ons and a pull-off for syncopation. The second half incorporates two Watson-inspired eighth-note licks (bars 10–11 and 13–14), both of which are well worth learning for those looking to build their flatpicking vocabulary.
The second solo, beginning at 1:51 on the recording, is notated in Example 2. It follows a similar pattern, but with more syncopation in the first half and some new lick ideas in the second part. Strings finishes with a move similar to the one he used to end the first solo—a nice touch that adds familiarity and grounds a speedy break that otherwise seems to fly by in a flurry of notes.
When working through these solos, focus on using alternating picking throughout (downstrokes on the beats and upstrokes on the “ands”). For your convenience, I’ve included pick directions between the standard and tablature lines. Both Watson and Strings consistently play this way, and the approach gives a natural pulse to their leads. If you are new to this method, it might take a while to master, but eventually it will become a default for playing flatpicking leads.
It’s worth mentioning that Strings can play at tempos unattainable to most guitarists, professional or otherwise. But work on memorizing the solos, playing them cleanly and in time, and in the long run your speed will improve as well.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.