The 1964 performance by Doc Watson and Clarence White together at the Newport Folk Festival is a stellar demonstration of flatpicking. As heard on a series of duets on the album Treasures Untold, the recording captures both players early in their careers. Watson emerged on the scene beginning in 1960 as part of the folk music revival, and White gained widespread notoriety in early 1964 with his creative leads on the Kentucky Colonels’ Appalachian Swing.
The two guitarists had clearly distinctive styles: Watson applied old-time fiddle music to the guitar, resulting in a sound that was rhythmic, driving, and melodic. White, on the other hand, was influenced by guitarists (most notably including Watson, as well as Joe Maphis and Django Reinhardt) and therefore developed a sound that catered more to the steel-string and its unique voice instead of emulating the fiddle tradition. Even with such different approaches, Watson and White defined the sound of bluegrass guitar.
On Treasures Untold, the duo’s playing is loose, creative, and joyful—though not intended as such, excellent material to be studied as an exemplar of flatpicking technique. The track “Footprints in the Snow” features the interplay of both guitarists’ unique styles over a well-known favorite of the bluegrass repertoire.
To learn the piece, I would suggest first familiarizing yourself with the melody and the basic chord changes. The song follows a simple structure: a 16-bar verse alternating with a chorus of the same length. I’ve notated the melody to the verse and chorus as sung by Watson, which sits nicely in the open position when played on guitar.
Watson’s 16-bar solo, taken on the verse’s chord changes, is a perfect introduction to his improvisational approach. Typical of his style, he sticks close to the song’s melody while also including impressive scalar runs, slides, and short bluesy passages. The consistent eighth- and quarter-note phrasing gives the solo momentum and rhythmic bounce, while also adding a bit of syncopation that keeps things interesting. The solo is full of fun little licks that can quite easily be picked up and used elsewhere, like the G-triad (G B D) move in bar 38, followed by a cool ending phrase in bars 39–40.
Played on the chorus changes, White’s solo begins as Watson’s ends, in bar 48, and serves as a contrast to Watson’s rhythmic chromatic style. White’s approach is highly syncopated; it deviates from the melody and incorporates some colorful chord choices, like the substitution of a Bb triad (Bb D F) for a C7 chord in bars 58–59 and jazzy G7, G9, and C6 voicings in the last several measures.
There are other recordings of White playing this song (on 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals and Muleskinner), and while those versions are equally astounding, none of them are quite like this one. Watson’s emphatic “Yeah, man!” during the solo makes it all the more fun to listen to. Modern flatpickers often blend White’s approach with that of Watson’s, but few can match the magic that was captured on this 1964 live recording.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.