Nick Lucas, né Dominic Nicholas Antonio Lucanese, was the first 20th-century guitar hero native to the United States. Born to Italian immigrants on August 22, 1897, in Newark, New Jersey, Lucas enjoyed a remarkable level of success throughout the 1920s and ’30s. He was known as the “Crooning Troubadour” for his smooth, microphone-delivered vocals, backed by his guitar accompaniments, as heard on radio broadcasts, hit records, live performances, and film appearances. By the time of his peak popularity, at the onset of the Great Depression, his name was on everything from guitar method books to celluloid picks. Gibson even produced a Nick Lucas Special, with the guitarist’s specifications of a wide fretboard and extra-deep body. Decades after, players as diverse as Merle Travis and Barney Kessel named him as a seminal influence.
Lucanese began by studying solfeggio with a neighborhood Sicilian teacher. At the urging of his older brother, an accordionist, he learned the mandolin and eventually adopted a more modern banjo-based American variant, the banjolin. Cutting his teeth on streetcars and at social functions, he added the guitar and tenor banjo to his arsenal.
In 1912, a teenaged Lucanese made his recording debut: a private sound reproduction experiment for none other than Thomas Edison, the great American inventor. Soon after that, the guitarist began performing on vaudeville stages, before working with bandleaders like Vincent Lopez, Ted Fio Rito, and Sam Lanin in hotel dance orchestras and cabaret combos using his adopted stage name, Nick Lucas. As ragtime transitioned to early jazz, Lucas absorbed elements of syncopated and improvised African-American music into his more traditional Italian-American string approach.
Shortly before he began recording the vocal records for Brunswick that spurred on his commercial success, Lucas cut two guitar instrumentals in 1922 for Pathé Records in New York. “Teasin’ the Frets,” backed with “Picking the Guitar,” ably demonstrated the modernistic style Lucas had developed. By that time, he had acquired as his main instrument a ladder-braced flattop Ciani guitar made in New York by Galiano. The instrument can be heard to great effect on both of these original recordings, as well as a 1923 rerecording for Brunswick. This time around, “Picking the Guitar” was placed on the A side of the single, which suggests its popularity.
Lucas returned to “Picking the Guitar” two more times in his career: another session for Brunswick in 1932 (captured for the first time via the then recently established electrical recording process) and in 1937 as part of a radio-only transcription disc session in Hollywood. These later recordings feature Lucas possibly playing an archtop, but he just as likely used one of his signature Gibsons. The steel-string that bore his name eventually became the only instrument he performed with, and “Picking the Guitar” stayed in his repertoire for decades.
A Bird’s-Eye View
The 1932 Brunswick recording of “Picking the Guitar” is possibly the most well-known, having been featured on numerous compilations. By the early 1930s, the composition had shed some of its more ragged edges, while allowing Lucas room for improvisation on in its fixed structure and melody. The form is one familiar in both the ragtime and Italian traditions, consisting of three strains: a main theme, notated here as the A section in the key of C and revisited throughout the piece; a second section in the relative key of A minor, indicated as section B; and section C, in F major. Before jumping into a work such as this, it can be helpful to map out the song in its entirety, either mentally or on paper. While you get acquainted with the piece, feel free to treat Fills 1–3 as optional, as they reflect the liberties Lucas had begun taking by the early 1930s.
Overall, the rhythm of “Picking the Guitar” lies somewhere between ragtime of the early 1900s and the hot music of the 1920s. Guitar rag, a subgenre with which the tune shares some similarities, often recycled both popular and obscure themes long after they fell from favor with piano players. This piece covers such ground. The syncopation might be less obvious on paper than on the recording, but it is certainly an important facet of the music. That said, there is also a stiffness to the rhythm as originally played by Lucas, one which separates the music from much of 1920s jazz.
Chord Shapes and Downstrokes
Lucas’s instrumental technique very much informs “Picking the Guitar.” As seen in extant film and television performances, the guitarist favored full chord forms even when picking individual notes, often using unorthodox fingerings. Scan through the piece for single-note lines that belong to chord shapes, working through which notes are played. Having the full chord shapes at one’s disposal allows for a broader palette when desired. It also helps manage unwanted ringing strings, beyond diligent muting with the picking hand’s palm. Note, too, that there is piano accompaniment on the original recording. As this arrangement is for solo guitar, it can be helpful to have fuller chords at your disposal.
Lucas, like most players in the Italian string virtuoso world, relied heavily on downstrokes. Doing the same will go a long way towards copping his distinctive sound, as this picking approach also affects rhythm and articulation. While contemporary guitarists tend to find alternating pick strokes helpful in playing more intricate lines at greater speed, I highly recommend that you use as many downstrokes as possible here. Start slowly, aiming for an even articulation of every note, particularly in arpeggios, such as those introduced in bars 5–6 and 41–43.
When it comes time to tackle the piece as a whole, again, start slowly and build up speed. Take solace that the piece works well at both moderate and brisk tempos, providing the individual player some headroom for development. Although not notated, rubato (expressively disregarding a strict tempo) can be used throughout, particularly at the end of a given section, just before launching back into the main theme of section A. Lucas altered his tempos over the years, with varying degrees of rubato from version to version.
Once you’re comfortable with the entire piece at a moderate to bright tempo, you might explore the dynamics of the music and the Lucas style. In addition to working in the optional fills and rubato sections previously mentioned, experiment with alternating between letting full chords ring and emphasizing single notes, using your own discretion and taste. And be sure to look out for a couple of fleeting but effective uses of vibrato, very common among Italian string players; the goal here is even and subtle, with just a slight change of pitch.
It should be noted that Lucas tended to play his lead lines closer to the guitar’s bridge, which imparted the snappy attack heard on his recordings. Depending on the tone and timbre of your own instrument, picking about two to three inches in front of the bridge can yield some pleasing results that add a Lucas-approved quality to your performance.
Most important, you should enjoy the guitaristics of this piece. This is music written on guitar to be played on a guitar. The existing recordings hint at Lucas exploiting the instrument’s strengths and attributes. One can easily imagine the legendary musician, who died in 1982 at the age of 84, continuing to play this piece late in life for friends.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.