This guitar solo, from the ever-popular song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” comes from Bill Napier, one of the great and underrated musicians of early bluegrass music. He was a stellar mandolin player, performed often on banjo, and flatpicked spectacular guitar leads long before the instrument was considered more than a rhythm machine in bluegrass. Raised in Virginia, he relocated to Michigan for work before joining the Stanley Brothers in 1957 at age 22. A few years later he teamed up with vocalist Charlie Moore, and the two performed and recorded together until the late 1960s. At that point Napier moved back to Michigan and stopped working as a full-time musician, but he remained musically active until his death in 2000.
Napier’s guitar playing was clean, driving, and clever. Compared to later flatpickers who incorporated blues and jazz elements for a slick and syncopated sound, Napier was punchy and direct. Listen to Moore and Napier and the Dixie Boys’ first record, Folk ’n Hill (now out of print), for some perfect examples of his fiery guitar style. It’s one of my favorite bluegrass albums. The music is fun, the vocal harmonies ring, and I can’t help but think the album title itself was a cheeky pun that somehow snuck past the record label.
Another fantastic release from Moore and Napier was 1967’s Bluegrass Gospel and Sacred Songs, which includes “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” While the song content is more somber than on their previous records, Napier’s playing remains joyful and fresh. One notable element of his style was cross-picking: playing across three or more strings in succession. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” showcases the sweeter side of his approach. Modern guitarists often use cross-picking as a flashy showpiece to wow audiences or win contest prizes, but the early flatpickers did it on slower selections to create charming and captivating solos. Playing in this way is a fundamental and necessary skill for the advancing flatpicker.
Napier plays “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in the key of D major, and his first solo is presented here. He cross-picks over the open D chord (bars 1, 7, 9, and 15), and in bar 5 he uses the same approach on the G chord (the open D, G, and B strings). Notice the passage in bar 15 is cross-picked in reverse, going from the first string to the third string. In between these sections Napier picks out the melody in deliberate quarter and half notes, with a few hammer-ons.
As you work on learning the solo, focus on fingerings and pick direction. For the fretting hand, take care to hold down the D chord while cross-picking, allowing the notes ring out and blend with each other. Maintain alternating picking throughout so that downstrokes land on the beats, as shown in the notation. While I am unable to confirm that Napier used alternate picking, I find it is the best way to develop control and precision.
Keep in mind the bigger picture as well. This solo has little flash—it’s a tasteful interpretation that respects a well-loved spiritual song long associated with nostalgia and faith.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!