Learn the basics of flatpicking on the guitar

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By Alan Barnosky

What is guitar flatpicking? Despite its name, it’s more than just playing with a pick. Flatpicking refers to the style of acoustic guitar, heard primarily in bluegrass and folk idioms, of playing individual notes with a pick to form melodies, solos, and fills. The approach characteristically has a crisp, crisp sound achieved by combining quick picking, open chord voicings, melodic lines, and concise licks.

Fiddle melodies, lead guitar breaks, and crosspicking are all elements of the flatpicking style. Flatpicking can sometimes extend beyond bluegrass; however, straying too far from this sound shifts it into another style. All this to say that flatpicking is more of a stylistic approach to guitar playing than just one specific technique.

Doc Watson, Molly Tuttle and Tony Rice

flatpicking guitar icons

There are plenty of stellar flatpickers out there, and putting together a short list of the best is an impossible task. That said, three players in particular are most credited with developing and improving the style: Doc Watson, Clarence White and Tony Rice. Although not the first to play fiddle tunes on a guitar, Doc Watson brought the approach to the fore in the early 1960s with his humor, humility and cheerful musicality. Watson’s game was clean, rhythmic and driving, and although he was one of the first flatpickers, he remains one of the best. Soon after, Clarence White emerged on the scene with a syncopated, bluesy, carefully arranged style. It is clear that he carefully considered every note and every stroke of the pick.

Starting in the 1970s, Tony Rice redefined the sound of modern flatpicking. His impeccable timing, effortless articulation, and artistry set the bar high for any aspiring player, and his expansions into jazz and new acoustic music introduced flatpicking to genres beyond bluegrass and folk.

Although flatpicking appeared almost 60 years ago, it is more popular than ever. Young modern musicians expand the musical tradition, and Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings and Jake Workman are three such musicians who have all been named Guitarist of the Year by the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards.

How to approach flatpicking on the guitar

Two important concepts contribute to the classic sound of flatpicking: open-position voicings in the left hand and powerful, precise picking in the right hand. Open strings are often used, barre chords largely avoided, the capo is applied regularly, and passages on the neck usually begin and end in an open position.

As for the right hand, the approach requires a high level of control and precision of the pick. Modern flatpickers typically use alternate picking (alternating downstrokes and upstrokes, where the downstrokes always occur on the beat) to play single-note lines. See Example 1 for a fundamental exercise to develop your alternate picking technique. Practice this drill with a metronome at a moderate tempo, focusing on correct pick directions, perfect timing, solid tone, and a relaxed pick hand. Do this for a few minutes each time you practice, and over time the alternate picking will become natural and smooth.

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A characteristic element of the flatpicking sound comes from mixing major and minor keys in a single phrase. Most bluegrass songs are in a major key, but flatpickers will add notes outside of the major scale, such as b3, b5, b6, and b7 (in the key of G major, Bb, Db, Eb, and F, respectively) – to spice things up. Consider the classic G run in Example 2a quintessential bluegrass guitar lick that glides from Bb to Bb, delivering a bluesy effect. Example 3 is a fun ending lick used by Rice, mostly in the major pentatonic scale with a slide from A-flat to A-flat. Finally, Example 4 shows a hot lick incorporating the notes b3, b5 and b7.

flatpicking guide notation with examples 1-4
close up of a 1965 Martin D-18 rosette and pickguard
1965 Martin D-18

What is the best equipment to use for guitar flatpicking?

Flatpickers often play 14-fret dreadnoughts, and when combined with a solid pick and good picking technique, these guitars deliver the volume and tone needed to be heard alongside other bluegrass instruments. The Martin D-18 and D-28 are the most common, but similar options are available from most manufacturers and at a variety of prices. However, not all flatpickers play dreadnoughts. For example, guitar legend and singer-songwriter Norman Blake is known for using both wide 12 fret dreads and small body flattops. Flatpickers typically use stiff, thick picks. BlueChip and Wegen are popular boutique pick brands, but fancy picks aren’t a requirement – Doc Watson preferred a 1mm Dunlop nylon, for example. The truth is that in flatpicking, like in any other style, it’s more about How? ‘Or’ What you only play what you play.

Flatpicking guitar basics book

Learn flatpicking backup styles, melodies and leads from some of the best teachers around. It offers 12 exceptional lessons taught by the master teachers of Acoustic guitar magazine. The basics of the flatpicking guitar includes 12 in-depth lessons and 16 complete songs to play.

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