In the early 1960s, during the American folk revival, the blind North Carolinian guitarist Doc Watson stunned audiences with his virtuosic flatpicking, which was virtually without precedent. Watson did much to elevate the status of the steel-string acoustic guitar from a secondary instrument to a rapid-fire soloing voice. But before he rose to prominence, Watson in fact used a solidbody electric guitar. In the 1950s, he played rockabilly and Western swing tunes on his Gibson Les Paul, and out of necessity—he often performed at country dances without the expected fiddler—he taught himself fiddle tunes on that axe.
Master flatpicker, songwriter, and producer Bob Minner suspects that the time Watson spent on the Les Paul is what allowed him to develop his prodigious command of the acoustic guitar. “I have no way to prove this, but I believe that Doc developed certain attributes on the electric, like speed and dexterity, that he transferred easily to the acoustic guitar to become the Doc we all know and love,” he says.
Watson’s 1963 recording of “Black Mountain Rag” (from The Vanguard Years) is a prime example of the guitarist’s exciting treatment of a traditional fiddle tune. For this particular version, a duet with guitarist John Herald, Watson plays the piece in the key of C major, with a capo at the second fret causing it to sound in D. While Herald, whose part is not shown here in notation (save for the lick in the first two bars), lays down a chugging rhythmic accompaniment, Watson plays singing leads. “I’m not sure exactly how he did it,” Minner says. “But I think that because Doc was blind, he was able to concentrate on nuances that escape us mere mortals with sight.”
Minner thinks that, unlike the typical bluegrass choice of a thick, heavy plectrum, Watson used a medium flatpick. In learning “Black Mountain Rag,” go with whatever pick suits you best, and remember to use alternate picking on the eighth notes—down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats. In order to achieve Watson’s effortless-sounding feel at the brisk tempo of 122 half notes per minute, paying close attention to your muscular tension. Minner says, “For playing this—or any barnburner—you’re really going to have to learn to relax and avoid the natural tendency to tense up on your picking hand and wrist, as well as your forearm and shoulder.”
As with learning any fast fiddle tune, it would certainly pay to use a metronome. Start at the slowest tempo you can play a given phrase or section cleanly, and then work your way up to speed. It might be helpful to feel the pulse in quarter notes rather than halves, and if you go that route, remember that your target tempo is 244 bpm. And once you’ve polished off “Black Mountain Rag,” give yourself a hearty congratulations, as the piece makes an excellent foundation for flatpicking technique in general. “The genesis really starts with Doc Watson,” Minner says.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.