Exploring the Birth and Origins of Chicken Pickin: A Country Guitar Style

Photo of author

Chicken pickin’ is a unique and distinctive style of playing the guitar, predominantly associated with country music. This technique is known for its swift, precise, and intricate notes, which resemble the sound of a chicken clucking – hence, the name ‘chicken pickin”. In this blog post, we will explore the origins of this fascinating guitar style and the artists who contributed to its development.

The Emergence of Chicken Pickin’

To trace the roots of chicken pickin’, we need to go back to the 1940s and 1950s, when electric instruments began to gain popularity in country music. Artists like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins were at the forefront of this movement, incorporating a fingerstyle technique that blended elements of blues, jazz, and folk music. This approach laid the foundation for what would later become chicken pickin’.

Merle Travis and Chet Atkins: The Pioneers

Merle Travis and Chet Atkins were two of the most influential guitarists in the development of the chicken pickin’ style. Travis’ unique fingerstyle technique, which involved plucking strings with his thumb and index finger, created a percussive and rhythmic sound that would become a hallmark of the chicken pickin’ style. Atkins, on the other hand, was known for his smooth and polished technique, which emphasized clarity and precision. Both artists’ contributions would pave the way for the development of chicken pickin’.

The Evolution of Chicken Pickin’: The Bakersfield Sound

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new style of country music emerged from Bakersfield, California. Known as the Bakersfield Sound, this style was characterized by its raw, gritty, and honky-tonk-influenced sound. Guitarists like Buck Owens and Don Rich were instrumental in popularizing the chicken pickin’ technique within the Bakersfield Sound. Their fast and intricate playing, combined with a heavy use of tremolo and reverb, created a distinctive sound that would become synonymous with the Bakersfield Sound and chicken pickin’.

Buck Owens and Don Rich: The Dynamic Duo

Buck Owens and Don Rich were one of the most successful and influential partnerships in country music history. Owens, a singer-songwriter and bandleader, and Rich, his lead guitarist and fiddler, created a unique and dynamic sound that combined the traditional elements of country music with the energy and excitement of rock ‘n’ roll. Rich’s chicken pickin’ technique, which he developed under the influence of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, was a key component of the Bakersfield Sound and would become a benchmark for future generations of chicken pickin’ guitarists.

The Heyday of Chicken Pickin’: The Outlaw Movement

The 1970s saw the emergence of the Outlaw Movement, a reaction against the slick and polished production values of mainstream country music. Artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Reed embraced the chicken pickin’ style, incorporating it into their music and elevating it to new heights of popularity.

Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed: The Rebels

Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed were two of the most prominent figures in the Outlaw Movement and the chicken pickin’ style. Jennings, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, was known for his gritty, raw, and unpolished sound, which he attributed to his Texas upbringing and his love for rock ‘n’ roll. Reed, a singer-songwriter, guitarist, and actor, was known for his lightning-fast chicken pickin’ technique, which he demonstrated in numerous film and television appearances. Both Jennings and Reed helped to popularize chicken pickin’ and bring it to a wider audience.

Modern Chicken Pickin’: The Influence of Bluegrass and Jazz

In recent years, chicken pickin’ has continued to evolve, incorporating elements of bluegrass and jazz into its sound. Guitarists like Tony Rice, Béla Fleck, and Tommy Emmanuel have pushed the boundaries of the chicken pickin’ style, creating a unique and diverse sound that continues to captivate audiences.

Tony Rice and Béla Fleck: The Innovators

Tony Rice and Béla Fleck are two of the most innovative and influential guitarists in the world of bluegrass and chicken pickin’. Rice, a flatpicker and singer-songwriter, is known for his intricate and expressive playing, which combines elements of bluegrass, jazz, and classical music. Fleck, a banjoist and composer, is known for his virtuosic and adventurous approach to the banjo, which has led him to explore a wide range of musical styles, including chicken pickin’. Both Rice and Fleck have helped to expand the horizons of the chicken pickin’ style and inspire future generations of guitarists.

Interested in learning more about the history of chicken picking in country music? Check out our articles on sustainability of wood in country music guitars, classic chicken picking country songs, hybrid picking in country guitar, and social context of country music guitar in the US for a deeper dive into the roots and evolution of this iconic guitar style!


Chicken pickin’ is a unique and fascinating guitar style that has evolved and transformed over the decades. From its origins in the fingerstyle technique of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins to its incorporation into the Bakersfield Sound, the Outlaw Movement, and beyond, chicken pickin’ has remained a vital and dynamic force in country music. Today, chicken pickin’ continues to inspire and captivate audiences, thanks to the contributions of artists like Tony Rice, Béla Fleck, and Tommy Emmanuel. As we look to the future, it is clear that the legacy of chicken pickin’ will continue to live on and evolve, ensuring its place as one of the most enduring and beloved styles of country guitar.

About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

Leave a Comment