Improve your flatpicking technique with these exercises inspired by Mother Maybelle Carter
Excerpt from the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Cameron Knowler
Mother Maybelle Carter’s playing beautifully punctuates the legendary Carter family recordings with a richness only revealed by careful study, transcription and analysis. Although his playing is decidedly melodic, both in his bass leads and in his guitar solos on vocal songs, he is not often heard playing strictly melodic numbers.
In this weekly workout, I’ll feature a pair of Carter’s lesser-known cuts as background material for some melodic flatpicking exercises – the instrumental “Cumberland Gap” from his 1963 album Pick and singand his version of the Delmore Brothers song “I’m Leaving You” from Close to Home: Early Music from the Mike Seeger Collection 1952–1967.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises comprised of engaging technique workouts that will challenge your fretting and picking fingers in a variety of ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore fingerboard.
I organized the lesson along two axes: by difficulty and by section. During the first week, you will learn the first of two sections of “Cumberland Gap”, as well as a more difficult version with extended techniques and flourishes. Week 2 will use this same treatment for the second section. During weeks 3 and 4, we will use the same approach to approach “I leave you”. At the end of this weekly workout, you’ll have two playable arrangements designed to develop your technique and understanding of the flatpicking idiom.
First week: presentation of the cross-breeding with “Cumberland Gap”
“Cumberland Gap” has a simple 16-bar structure, with each of its sections containing a four-bar phrase played twice. Let’s start with the first section on the Carter family recording, which places the melody in a higher register. (Note that most versions of “Cumberland Gap” start the opposite way, with a lower melody.)
Example 1 is rather straightforward, as the melody largely falls on open strings at the top end of the open C chord we all know and love. (On the original recording, Carter used a capo at the fourth fret, making the chord sound like E.) That said, however, it’s important to pay close attention to dynamics when rendering this section. Since the high strings have less inherent sonic potential than the low strings, more emphasis will need to be placed on balancing the dynamics between the guitar’s string stops.
A logic that will apply to all of these examples is a strict adherence to picking direction: upbeats become downstrokes and upbeats become upstrokes. The same goes for syncopations – for example, if there is a single eighth note that falls on the “and” of a beat, it will be played with an upstroke to prepare for the use of the next downbeat. .
Example 2 presents distinct challenges, as it integrates cross-selection, strums, and chord adornments to deliver melody in an all-in-one package. Some players use a top-down pick model, although I suggest sticking with an alternate pick model for consistency. As with any tricky passage, it’s best to tackle slower tempos to begin with, bar by bar.
Beginner Tip #1
To get familiar with alternate picking, try playing consistent quarter notes on one string, with downstrokes only. Then play eighth notes at a steady dynamic level, alternating up and down strokes. Note that upward strokes are naturally weaker, requiring special attention when first practicing.
Second week: fine-tuning the details
You will notice that the majority of single notes found in Example 3 fall into the shape of an open C. The trick to getting this passage across convincingly is extra strength in your fidgeting hand. It’s important to remember that in Carter’s playing, open strings often resonate within each other, creating harmonics that are integral to rendering a melody in a fluid way. Another important characteristic is its use of lighter strums on the chords in bars 1 and 4.
In Example 4, you’ll notice that the basic melody is left intact to a large extent. Around this basic framework, a cross selection has been added to flesh out the arrangement in the manner of a banjo. Much like the Week 1 crossover example, take your time to pay equal attention to dynamics, rhythmic accuracy, and tone. Specifically in bar 4, pay particular attention to the precision required by the appoggiatura note at the top of the bar, the strumming pattern in eighth notes, as well as the chromatic course that leads us to the top of the melody.
Beginner Tip #2
For better dynamics control, practice with a metronome, preferably with headphones. Using the metronome volume level as a reference point, try to match all your notes at the same dynamic level for increased balance and to render the melody in a way distinct from the lower notes.
Third week: Delicate dynamic of “I leave you”
This week you’ll be working with “I’m Leaving You”, which incorporates fewer open strings than the previous track, making it harder to play smoothly. It also contains more single-note passages and ideas that provide ample opportunity to practice the use of dynamics. Watch Example 5it is important to render the first four bars with precision and robust tone, before moving on to bars 5 to 8, which require a lighter attack to render the strums concisely.
The intention of Example 6 is to show how one can train in a higher register. Located an octave higher, this example is a note-for-note transposition of the first four bars of Ex. 5.For extra practice, try playing the low and high versions back-to-back with consistent timing, feel, and precision alongside a metronome.
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Beginner Tip #3
Try switching between rhythmic and melodic playing, measure by measure. To do this, play the first two bars of Example 5, followed by two bars of a strummed G chord. Once you’ve mastered this, apply the same philosophy to bars 3 and 4.
Fourth week: choice of single notes in the melodic bass series
Example 7 presents a masterclass in single note picking in the context of melodic bass tracks. For example, the draw of the fretted third string in bar 6 and the dense chromaticism of the final idea in bar 7 are challenging but very rewarding when played with precision. When tackling passages like these, which combine a number of different hand positions, do your best to imagine them before physically learning the ideas. This will not only help you play them with confidence, but also save them for creative use in other settings.
For some extra twists, try Example 8, which uses a higher form for the G chord, an extended chromaticism in bar 3, and an eighth note triplet in the last bar. This treatment gives the solo a more modern bluegrass feel. Additionally, cross-picking is used in the context of rhythm play; it’s a tricky concept because you have fewer black notes to lean on. Instead, you need to be confident in your ability to play fast eighth notes with high rhythmic precision and a robust tone to pick up the slack.
After working through these examples, I encourage you to check out the original Mother Maybelle Carter recordings. While lessons like this may contain detailed transcripts and insights, they simply cannot impart the knowledge that comes from listening closely.
Beginner Tip #4
As an exercise in style and technique, try incorporating the bass run found in bars 7 and 8 of Example 7 into your playing rhythm. As with the other ideas in this lesson, do your best to balance the dynamics between your strums and the single notes evenly.
Take it to the next level with ‘East Virginia Blues’
For an added challenge, try learning this clip from Mother Maybelle’s set to “East Virginia Blues.” I’ve included a good amount of cross picks to reflect and expand upon the setting of the original recording. As with the other examples in this lesson, start slowly, measure by measure, paying particular attention to dynamics and precision.
Cameron Knowlermethod book author Guitars Have Feelings Toois a Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist and educator specializing in jazz, bluegrass and early music.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.