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What is flatpicking?
Flatpicking can be an elusive term. For guitarists or bluegrass fans, the definition is distinct, but the style is still difficult to describe. The variables are as unique as the ethnicities and the persons who developed it.
Let’s get a brief definition.
‘Flatpicking’ is playing style for acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo that uses a plectrum (pick) as opposed to ‘fingerstyle’ or ‘fingerpicking’, best known in bluegrass and classic country.
The meaning is simple enough, but what do we get out of this? Dan Crary, writer from Frets Magazine (June 1985), said this about flatpicking. “The answer seems to be that the plectrum–a simple piece of plastic, or nylon, or tortoiseshell, or whatever material a player holds dear enough to hold in his fingers–is capable of bringing something out of a steel-string guitar that nothing else can.”
Mr. Crary may be spot-on with his definition, but we are still left with some curiosity. Many other styles use a single pick but are not considered ‘flatpicking’. Why is that? What makes flatpicking so distinct?
Early years and Development
During the early years of recording, we find what has been defined as ‘old time’ music (also ‘old-timey’ or ‘mountain music’). Old time music is eclectic as America itself, ranging from Led Belly to Charlie Poole, composed of African, Celtic, and various European roots. The important parts of old time music were the fiddle (Celtic), banjo (Africa), mandolin (Italy originally), and guitar (Europe). The guitar was mainly a rhythm instrument, but during the early melting and melding of traditional American music styles, it took on lead roles, such as early jazz and blues demonstrate.
With flatpicking, we get a style that mimics the old time fiddle leads while playing rhythm. Not exactly jazz, not exactly blues, not exactly folk but something unique. In the Appalachian Mountains region, a mountain valley melting pot, we can pinpoint the better part of flatpicking’s evolution.
Out of this early development we can point to some powerful influences on flatpicking.
Here is Riley Puckett (also blinded as a baby like the beloved Doc Watson). Not only was Riley Puckett an influential guitarist, he was a great banjoist, songster, and the first person to be recorded yodeling.
Note the rhythm and the lead melodies all played with a single plectrum:
On the banjo we get Eddie Peabody, probably the most famous plectrum banjo-players:
Now Don Reno showing off some flatpicking skills:
Here’s the late and great Doc Watson, hands-down the most famous flatpicking guitarist playing Black Mountain Rag. Also, he introduces this song with a great anecdote to the origins of flatpicking:
We shouldn’t forget about crosspicking, a fundamental technique incorporated in flatpicking. Here’s George Shuffler showing us the development of crosspicking as a necessity while playing with the Stanley Brothers:
Flatpicking has evolved over the last hundred years into something that is cherished in the bluegrass world. Not only is a difficult technique that demands a certain respect of musicianship, but it is also a beautiful style that is as various as its primogenitors.
I’d like to wrap this up with a song from two of the best living flatpickers today, Bryan Sutton and Chris Thile playing Decision at Glady Fork: