Guitar players of all styles can benefit from the technique known as flatpicking—the rapid execution of steady eighth- and 16-notes through alternate picking using a plectrum, the technical term for an actual flatpick that you hold between your thumb and forefinger. In flatpicking, the basic rule is that you pick every note, with downbeats (notes on the top of the beat, or the half-beat if you’re playing 16th notes) played by downstrokes, and offbeats (the upbeats or second and fourth 16ths) played by upstrokes. Whether you’re playing speed metal, bebop, or country rock, working out with flatpicking licks, solos, and passages in a strict alternate-picking approach is the best way to get your right hand in shape and your right and left hands in perfect sync.
Of course, then there is the entire musical genre known as flatpicking, the best of which is exemplified by the likes of Tony Rice, Russ Barenberg, David Grier, Pat Flynn, Steve Kaufmann, and Bryan Sutton. But flatpicking comes up in every style, and there’s no better way to practice it than on an acoustic flattop guitar. Plus, it gives you an excuse to learn some very cool bluegrass and fiddle tunes.
Flatpicking requires physical strength, something you don’t necessarily have to focus on independently with electric guitar playing. On a “flattop” guitar—which is what flatpickers call the guitars made by Martin, Taylor, Collings, Santa Cruz, Gallagher, etc.—you need muscular development in both your fretting and picking hands to play flatpicking songs.
The stronger your fretting hand, the smoother your playing, because that characteristic legato sound is enhanced by your ability to bear down on the fretting fingers for as long as possible. As Bryan Sutton said in a Flatpicking Guitar magazine interview, “The harder you push down, the clearer the tone is going to be. When you get into a solo, that factor might seem small, but as far as the overall sound, it really makes a difference.” The trick is balance all that strength with nimbleness. The best flatpicking doesn’t sound at all forced—it’s fluid and effortless.
To help you develop the strength and acoustic chops you can carry over into any genre, you need to have the right material to learn from. Scott Fore is a championship-winning guitarist who has written the book Flatpicking Solos—12 Contest Winning Arrangements (Cherry Lane Music Co., $19.95, with audio CD). It contains a dozen tunes employing a variety of flatpicking techniques.
At first blush, the book may seem like a nice collection of songs—repertoire for the aspiring flatpicker. And in this role, the book fits the bill admirably: The collection features well-known titles—songs that would be called in any parking lot picking session or open mic night. But the real bonus is that each of these songs highlights some different aspect of flatpicking, and is executed brilliantly by author/performer Fore.
Within these 12 tunes you’ll find just about every technique you’ll need to master to become an accomplished flatpicker. There are crosspicking workouts, blues figures, open tunings, drone techniques, swing and ragtime chord changes, modal and Celtic melody playing, fiddle-tune melody sequences, and much more. The repertoire here is not only varied musically, but serves as a compendium of techniques for the entire flatpicking genre.
For example, “Alabama Jubilee” is a popular country ragtime piece with "cycle changes" (chords that move by resolving fifths, such as A7-D7-G7-C) and swing progressions (F-F#dim-C-A7-D9-G13-C). The song has "extended" ragtime changes (two full bars per chord, also found in “Sweet Georgia Brown”) and features some excellent cross-picking opportunities. Crosspicking is a syncopated way of picking the strings, often in a 3+3+2 note grouping in 4/4, where you might play strings 5-4-3, 5-4-3, 5-3, and then repeat. It’s a fiendishly difficult move, but Fore makes easy work of it here, and throughout the book. Check out his extended, tour-de-force crosspicking romp starting in bar 30 that efficiently outlines the changing chords using voice-leading (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: Starting from the A chord on the top system, the next eight bars are played in crosspicking style (click to enlarge).
To hear the corresponding audio to the notation, click here.
Great examples for other genres exist as well, all couched in fully realized solo pieces. After all, as the book’s name says, these are based on Fore’s contest-winning submissions. Let’s look at some of the highlights.
Angeline the Baker
This is a good study for big, open-chordy rhythm work-out, with bluesy turns amongst Celtic-sounding drones. It’s also a nice respite from the rest of the lickety-split stuff in the book. Fore isn’t just about virtuosic; he’s equally at home with rich-sounding and tasteful.
Here, Fore combines crosspicking with harp-style guitar, where melody notes are played across successive strings, creating an open, ringy sound. The best part is that he harp-styles the A section, which is unusual; most people reserve any cross-string work for the arpeggiated B section. This, along with “Ragtime Annie” (discussed below), is one of the most impressive pieces in the book. Listen to how well Fore integrates open and closed strings (his trademark, really), whether in arpeggios or single-note runs, throughout this song.
This is a fiddle tune with a prominent single-note melody featured throughout, and Fore’s variations are inventive and compelling, especially where he throws in some blues riffs. There’s also a great fast-triplet passage (courtesy of some rippin’ pull-offs) and a section featuring harmonics—all delivered in the context of the melody and at break-neck speed. This one has a bit of everything, so I’m including the tune in its entirety.
This is always a tough tune for guitarists for two reasons: 1) there’s a prominent melodic sequence that must be observed; and 2) the chords change every beat. So it’s unforgiving regarding respecting the melody, and it’s hard to solo over the changes because of their rapid harmonic rhythm. Fore shows several schemes for dealing with this song, including a great harp-style reading of the A section melody.
Cluck Old Hen
A good study for a modal sound (the flat 7 scale note and chord in an otherwise major tonality), "Cluck Old Hen" shows Fore doling out some great blues stuff and some nice harp-style passages as well. The “cluck” effect of the hen—always a crowd pleaser—is rendered with piquant bluesy double-stops. This one’s great for rock guitarists looking to apply their blues boxes in a different context.
This one’s got it all, as far as included techniques, and it’s weaved together seamlessly. I also like the banjo-like arpeggios Fore throws in. On a personal note, this is the tune I heard Fore play at a NAMM show, and it stopped me in my tracks. “Fluid” is the word that comes to mind when I hear Fore’s rendition of this song. Make that "superconductor fluid." Also included here in its entirety. Click here for some audio.
St. Anne’s Reel
Another ringy, chimey open-string, harp-style casting of this beautiful Celtic melody. Fore works the melody in the lower register well, which is not something you hear very often in other arrangements, and it’s a refreshing change.
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Here, Fore takes a mostly straightforward reading of the melody to this popular fiddle tune (better learn this before going to any bluegrass jam!) and plays it both an octave higher and an octave lower. I like the fact that he plays it in the key of D, rather than capoed C, as most guitarists would. It yields some nice harmonic and open-string opportunities, which Fore exploits to the fullest. There’s even a crazy reverse-bend tossed in there, which is a surprise and a delight.
Just listening through the CD and following along with the music allows you to mark passages that you’d like to capture and use in another context. For the most part, the written music matches the CD exactly, but every tune has parts where the CD and music diverge slightly. That’s just part of the ever-evolving process of a creative guitarist constantly changing, but in all cases here, I liked what was played on the CD better. A true note-for-note agreement between printed music and audio CD would have been ideal. As such, the bits that disagree are small, so you could easily transcribe the short passages that you cannot live without.
A play-through of each song, at performance tempo, is featured on the CD, plus two more tracks following—one of just the rhythm part, and then the rhythm part again but slowed down. These subsequent tracks are helpful in learning the solos up to speed. (The rhythm-only tracks are preceded by a count-off.) It's very helpful that the tunes on the CD are in the same order as they appear in the book and further helpful that the songs are in alphabetical order. You can skip around in the book or the CD and always know where you are.
Of course, repertoire alone doesn’t necessarily make for a good instructional aide, as wonderful as these tunes are, both in selection and execution. Flatpicking Solos excels as a learning tool not because of the choice of songs per se, but because of the varied techniques demonstrated therein along with the user-friendly way the book and CD match and complement each other. The most important part, though, is that these techniques are beatifully weaved into well-composed solo showpieces. The songs put music first, and are lesson-fodder second. This is what makes this book such an inspiration to flatpickers—aspiring as well as professional—everywhere.
Jon Chappell is the author of six books in the well-known “For Dummies” series, including Rock Guitar for Dummies and Blues Guitar for Dummies, as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).