What is flatpicking on guitar? Despite the name, it’s more than simply playing with a pick. Flatpicking refers to the acoustic guitar style, heard primarily in the bluegrass and folk idioms, of playing individual notes with a pick to form melodies, solos, and fills. The approach characteristically has a crisp and snappy sound achieved by combining quick picking, open chord voicings, melodic lines, and concise licks.
Fiddle tune melodies, lead guitar breaks, and crosspicking are all elements of the flatpicking style. Flatpicking can sometimes branch out beyond bluegrass; however, straying too far from that sound moves it into some other style. This is all to say that flatpicking is more of a stylistic approach to guitar playing rather than a single specific technique.
The Icons of Flatpicking Guitar
There are multitudes of stellar flatpickers, and creating a short list of the best ones is an impossible task. That said, three players in particular are most credited with developing and enhancing the style: Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice. While not the first to play fiddle tunes on a guitar, Doc Watson brought the approach to the forefront in the early 1960s with his humor, humility, and joyful musicianship. Watson’s playing was clean, rhythmic, and driving, and while he was one of the earliest flatpickers, he remains one of the best. Soon after, Clarence White emerged on the scene with a style that was syncopated, bluesy, and thoughtfully arranged. It is clear he carefully considered each note and pick stroke.
Beginning in the 1970s, Tony Rice redefined the sound of modern flatpicking. His impeccable timing, effortless articulation, and creative artistry set a high bar for any aspiring player, and his expansions into jazz and new acoustic music introduced flatpicking to genres outside bluegrass and folk.
Though flatpicking came about nearly 60 years ago, it is more popular than ever. Modern young players are expanding the musical tradition, and Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, and Jake Workman are three such musicians that have all been awarded Guitar Player of the Year by the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards.
How to Approach Flatpicking on Guitar
Two important concepts contribute to the classic flatpicking sound: open-position voicings in the left hand and powerfully precise picking in the right hand. Open strings are used often, barre chords largely avoided, the capo is applied regularly, and up-the-neck passages typically start and end in the open position.
As for the right hand, the approach requires a high level of pick control and accuracy. Modern flatpickers usually use alternate picking (alternating down- and upstrokes, where downstrokes always happen on the beat) for playing single-note lines. See Example 1 for a fundamental exercise to develop your alternate picking technique. Practice this exercise with a metronome at a moderate tempo, focusing on correct pick directions, perfect timing, solid tone, and a relaxed picking hand. Do it for a few minutes whenever you practice, and over time alternate picking will become natural and fluid.
A signature element of the flatpicking sound comes from mixing major and minor scale tones in a single phrase. Most bluegrass songs are in a major key, but flatpickers will add in notes outside of the major scale—like the b3, b5, b6, and b7 (in the key of G major, Bb, Db, Eb, and F, respectively)—to spice things up. Consider the classic G run in Example 2, a quintessential bluegrass guitar lick that slides from a Bb to B, offering a bluesy effect. Example 3 is a fun ending lick Rice used, primarily in the major pentatonic scale with a slide from a Bb to an A. Finally, Example 4 demonstrates a hot lick incorporating the b3, b5, and b7 notes.
What’s the Best Gear to Use for Flatpicking on Guitar?
Flatpickers often play 14-fret dreadnoughts, and when combined with a stout pick and good picking technique these guitars offer the volume and tone needed to be heard alongside other bluegrass instruments. Martin D-18s and D-28s are the most common, but similar options are available from most makers and across a variety of price points. Not every flatpicker plays dreadnoughts, though. For example, guitar legend and singer-songwriter Norman Blake is known for using both large body 12-fret dreads and small-body flattops. Flatpickers typically use stiff, thick picks. BlueChip and Wegen are popular boutique pick brands, but fancy picks are not a requirement—Doc Watson preferred a 1mm nylon Dunlop, for instance. The truth is, in flatpicking, as in any other style, it’s more about how you play than what you play.
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