The Evolution of Fingerpicking Style in Country Music

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Country music has always been known for its distinct guitar styles, ranging from the fast and aggressive flatpicking style to the more intricate fingerpicking style. However, the origins of fingerpicking in country music are shrouded in mystery and controversy. With many different players claiming to have originated the style, it can be challenging to trace the history of fingerpicking in country music. In this article, we will explore the roots of fingerpicking in country music, highlighting key players who helped shape the style, and look at the legacy of fingerpicking guitar in modern country music. So grab your guitar and get ready to dive into the fascinating history of fingerpicking in country music.

The Roots of Fingerpicking in Country Music

The Roots Of Fingerpicking In Country Music
If you’ve ever listened to country music, you’ve probably heard the intricate and captivating sound of fingerpicking style guitar. This technique has a rich history that spans back to the early days of country music, and it’s still celebrated today by some of the genre’s most talented guitarists. The origins of fingerpicking in country music can be traced back to the rise of the guitar, which eventually replaced the banjo as the instrument of choice. In this section of the article, we’ll explore the history of fingerpicking in country music and the key figures who helped bring it to prominence. If you’re interested in learning more about fingerpicking techniques in country songs, or want to train your fingers for speed and accuracy, be sure to check out our other articles for some helpful tips and exercises.

The Banjo Connection

Fingerpicking style has a long and storied history in country music. While it originated from various musical traditions, one of the earliest influences can be traced back to the banjo. As a result, the earliest fingerpicking style was often referred to as “frailing,” which involved striking the strings with the backs of the fingernails or with a pick. However, it wasn’t until the technique became popularized with guitar playing that it took on its signature sound.

The rise of fingerpicking on the guitar in country music was first seen in the early 20th century. Musicians began incorporating fingerpicking techniques with the flatpicking techniques that were already in use. The use of fingerpicking allowed players to create complex bass lines and rhythms while also playing melodies and harmonies with other fingers.

Additionally, the banjo’s popularity in country music lent itself to the fingerpicking style’s adoption. Banjo players, who were primarily white, began shifting their interest from the banjo to the guitar in the 1920s. At this time, rural areas, where country music was dominant, saw an influx of affordable guitars, leading to an increase in guitar players. The musicians who made the transition from banjo to guitar brought the fingerpicking techniques, such as Travis picking or thumbpicking, which had already been part of their musical style, to the guitar.

Despite the banjo’s initial influence, the fingerpicking style soon took on a life of its own within country music. In addition to the traditional techniques, guitar players began to develop their own patterns, leading to the countless variations that we see today.

If you want to master the fingerpicking technique yourself, there are many resources available at your disposal. Check out fingerpicking resources in country music to help improve your skills. You can also find fingerpicking exercises in country songs or fingerpicking exercises for country guitar that can increase your finger dexterity, speed, and accuracy.

The Rise of the Guitar

The guitar as we know it has been around since the 17th century, but it wasn’t widely used in country music until the early 20th century. The first guitars were brought to America by European immigrants, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that manufacturers like Martin and Gibson began producing guitars specifically for country musicians.

One reason for the guitar’s rise in popularity was its portability – unlike the piano, it was easy for musicians to carry around from one gig to another. Additionally, advancements in steel-string technology allowed for a brighter, crisper sound that complemented the twangy sound of country music.

In the early days of country music, most guitarists played using a technique called flatpicking, which involves using a flat pick to strum the strings. However, as country music developed its own unique sound, guitarists began experimenting with fingerpicking, which allows for more intricate melodies and a fuller sound.

Fingerpicking involves using one’s fingers to pluck the strings rather than using a pick. This can be a challenging technique to master, but for many country guitarists, it’s essential for creating the precise and delicate melodies that define the genre’s sound. To improve their fingerpicking skills, many guitarists practice regularly by using exercises that build speed and accuracy.

As more and more guitarists began incorporating fingerpicking into their playing, the technique developed its own distinct flavor within the country genre. Today, there are a variety of different fingerpicking styles that have emerged, from the classic patterns used by artists like Merle Travis to the more complex jazz-influenced playing of Lenny Breau.

Despite the rise of fingerpicking, flatpicking is still widely used in country music today. Many guitarists even use both techniques within a single song, switching back and forth for different parts. Whether you prefer fingerpicking or flatpicking, the guitar has become an essential part of the country music sound.

If you’re interested in learning more about classic country fingerpicking patterns, be sure to check out our article on the topic. And if you’re looking for some tips from famous country guitarists on their fingerpicking secrets, check out our guide to the pros.

The First Fingerpicking Phenom: Merle Travis

Merle Travis, born in Kentucky in 1917, was one of the first true fingerpicking legends of country music. His unique style of picking involved using only his thumb and one or two fingers, producing a clear and intricate sound that was instantly recognizable.

Travis’ career began in the 1930s, when he was a radio performer in Cincinnati. He soon became known for his fingerpicking prowess, incorporating intricate melodies and bass lines into his playing style. In the late 1940s, Travis released his signature song, “Sixteen Tons,” which featured his fingerpicking style prominently.

Travis also pioneered the use of alternate bass notes, where the bass line alternates between different notes, adding complexity and depth to his playing. This technique has since become a staple of fingerpicking guitar.

Fun Fact: Merle Travis’ style of playing was so influential that it inspired a new genre of country music, known as Travis picking. Many of the fingerpicking greats who followed in his footsteps, including Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, cited Travis as a major influence.

Travis continued to record and tour until his death in 1983, leaving behind a legacy of innovative fingerpicking techniques that have become a cornerstone of country music.

Today, Travis’ influence can still be heard in the playing of modern fingerstyle guitarists, particularly those who specialize in country music. To learn more about playing country fingerstyle, check out our detailed guide to country fingerpicking and our collection of country chords for fingerpicking.

The Golden Age of Fingerpicking

The Golden Age Of Fingerpicking
When it comes to fingerpicking style in country music, there was a time when it truly shone as a hallmark of the genre. This era, which many refer to as the golden age of fingerpicking, saw a wealth of talented musicians who each brought their own unique flair and innovation to the technique. From the masterful inventiveness of Chet Atkins to the groove and technique of Jerry Reed, the fingerpicking pioneers of this period helped to shape the sound of country music and inspire future generations of musicians. Let’s delve deeper into the golden age of fingerpicking and explore the artists who helped to make it a defining era in the history of country music.

Chet Atkins: A Master Innovator

Chet Atkins is often referred to as the “Father of Fingerstyle Guitar,” and for good reason. He not only popularized and innovated the fingerpicking style in country music, but also had a successful career as a musician, producer, and executive at RCA Records.

Here are a few of the ways that Chet Atkins brought innovation to fingerpicking in country music:

  • The Atkins Style: Chet Atkins developed his own unique fingerpicking style, which is often called the “Atkins Style.” It involved using a thumbpick for the bass notes, while using his fingers to pluck out the melodies and harmonies. Atkins was able to create a full-bodied sound that sounded like more than one guitar was playing, all while doing it with just his fingers.
  • The Nashville Sound: As a producer at RCA Records, Atkins was at the forefront of the “Nashville Sound” of the 1960s, which combined country music with pop and rock elements. He produced records for some of the biggest names in country music, including Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Jim Reeves. Atkins used his innovative fingerpicking style to create a smoother, more polished sound that appealed to a wider audience.
  • Cross-Genre Collaborations: Chet Atkins was willing to collaborate with musicians from all genres, from jazz to rock to classical. He recorded albums with artists such as Les Paul and Mark Knopfler, and even won a Grammy for his collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra. This willingness to incorporate different styles and techniques helped to expand the possibilities of fingerpicking in country music.

These are just a few of the ways that Chet Atkins influenced and innovated within the fingerpicking style of country music. His contributions have been felt by generations of guitarists who continue to be inspired by his inventive and unique sound.

Jerry Reed: Groove and Technique

Jerry Reed, known as the “Guitar Man,” was a iconic fingerpicker in the world of country music, renowned for his groove and technique. He had a unique style that blended influences from a variety of genres, including country, blues, and jazz.

Reed was not only an accomplished guitarist, but also a songwriter and singer. He wrote hits like “Guitar Man” and “Amos Moses,” which became fan favorites. He was also a session musician for some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.

One of Reed’s standout qualities was his groove. He was known for his ability to create infectious rhythms that would make listeners want to dance. He would often use percussive techniques, like slapping the strings with his picking hand, to create a driving beat.

Reed’s technique was also noteworthy. He used a thumbpick and two fingers to play, which allowed him to play fast and intricate melodies. He was a master of harmonics and would frequently use them to create ringing, bell-like tones.

Another aspect of Reed’s style was his use of unusual chord shapes and creative voicings. He would often use his pinky finger to add extra notes to chords, creating a rich and complex sound.

Jerry Reed’s influence on the world of fingerpicking cannot be overstated. He was a true innovator, pushing the boundaries of what could be done with the guitar. His unique blend of groove and technique continues to inspire guitarists to this day.

Highlights of Jerry Reed’s Fingerpicking Style
Groove: Reed’s infectious rhythms are a hallmark of his style
Technique: With his thumbpick and two fingers, Reed played fast and intricate melodies
Harmonics: Reed frequently used harmonics to create ringing tones
Unusual Chord Shapes: Reed’s creative use of chords added complexity and richness to his music

Tommy Emmanuel: Pushing the Boundaries

Tommy Emmanuel is a fingerpicking virtuoso who has taken the art form to new heights with his innovative playing style. He is known for his fast and complex fingerwork, as well as his ability to seamlessly blend genres like country, jazz, and blues.

Here are some noteworthy highlights of Tommy Emmanuel’s fingerpicking career:

  • “The Mystery”: Emmanuel’s album “The Mystery” showcases his incredible fingerpicking abilities. The title track features complex fingerwork that moves from gentle strumming to rapid-fire guitar licks in seconds.
  • Collaborations and Covers: Emmanuel has worked with a number of well-known artists, including Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, and Olivia Newton-John. He is also known for his covers of iconic songs like “Classical Gas” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which he transforms with his unique fingerpicking style.
  • Fingerstyle Covers and Originals: In addition to his covers, Emmanuel has also written a number of original fingerstyle compositions. These include “Angelina”, “Lewis & Clark”, and “The Tall Fiddler”. Each of these tunes showcases Emmanuel’s innovative and complex fingerstyle technique.
  • Live Performances: Emmanuel is famous for his live performances, where he incorporates elements of showmanship and audience interaction into his fingerpicking virtuosity. His live shows are a testament to his incredible talent and dedication to pushing the boundaries of fingerstyle guitar playing.
  • Influence: Tommy Emmanuel’s fingerpicking skills have influenced a new generation of musicians who are inspired by his unique style. He has become a legend in the fingerstyle guitar world, and his contributions will continue to inspire and influence future generations of musicians.

Tommy Emmanuel is a true fingerpicking pioneer, who has pushed the boundaries of the artform with his innovative playing style. His fingerstyle covers, original compositions, live performances, and collaborations have inspired a new generation of fingerstyle guitar players and made him a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.

Lenny Breau: Jazz and Country Fusion

Lenny Breau was a Canadian guitar virtuoso who seamlessly fused jazz and country styles in his fingerpicking. He is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and technically accomplished guitarists of all time, captivating audiences with his unique approach to the instrument.

Breau drew inspiration from a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, country, flamenco, and classical music. He developed a fingerpicking technique that incorporated complex chord progressions, intricate melody lines, and improvisation, all while maintaining a seamless flow that showcased his incredible technical skill.

What set Breau apart from other fingerstyle guitarists was his use of jazz harmony and technique in his playing. He often incorporated unique chord voicings, complex progressions, and altered scales into his playing, giving his music a distinctly jazzy flavor.

Techniques Description
Harmony Breau’s use of complex chord voicings and progressions drew heavily from the jazz tradition, often incorporating altered scales and extended harmonies.
Improvisation Breau was a master improviser, weaving intricate melodic lines into his playing and pushing the boundaries of what was possible on the guitar.
Percussive techniques Breau often used his guitar as a percussion instrument, tapping and slapping the strings to create intricate rhythms and percussive effects.
Hybrid picking Breau utilized a combination of fingerpicking and pickplaying, allowing for greater speed and control over the instrument.

Breau’s contributions to fingerstyle guitar continue to inspire and influence musicians to this day. His innovative approach and technical virtuosity have cemented his place as one of the true legends of the genre.

Doc Watson: Flatpicking and Fingerpicking Styles

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Doc Watson became one of the most influential guitar players in country music, primarily due to his unique blend of flatpicking and fingerpicking styles. Here are some key highlights from his career:

  • Watson was born in North Carolina in 1923, and lost his sight at a young age. Despite his disability, he was able to learn guitar and banjo from his father, and eventually developed a love for bluegrass and old-time music.
  • He began performing in the early 1950s, and quickly gained a reputation as a masterful flatpicker. His smooth, complex runs and lightning-fast arpeggio patterns set him apart from many other guitarists of the time.
  • However, Watson was also known for his use of fingerpicking techniques, which allowed him to create a much fuller, richer sound. He often incorporated elements of traditional country and folk music into his playing, adding a unique flavor to his sound.
  • In addition to his guitar playing, Watson was also known for his deep, soulful vocals. He often sang old ballads and traditional folk songs, infusing them with his own personal style and flair.
  • Some of Watson’s most famous songs include “Tom Dooley,” “Shady Grove,” and “Black Mountain Rag,” all of which feature his signature blend of flatpicking and fingerpicking techniques.
  • Watson continued to perform and record well into his later years, and was widely regarded as one of the most important figures in country and folk music. His influence can still be heard in the playing of many contemporary guitarists, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Doc Watson’s unique blend of flatpicking and fingerpicking techniques helped to shape the sound of country music in the 20th century. His innovative approach to the guitar, combined with his deep love of traditional music, created a style that was both timeless and groundbreaking.

The Fingerpicking Legacy in Modern Country Music

The evolution of fingerpicking in country music didn’t just end with the legendary guitarists of the past. In fact, the modern era has seen a whole new generation of fingerstyle guitarists who have contributed to the rich legacy of this technique in the genre. From session players to chart-topping artists, the influence of fingerpicking continues to shape and define the sound of country music. Let’s dive into the world of contemporary fingerstyle playing and explore the techniques and players that are keeping this tradition alive.

Brent Mason: Session Guitarist Extraordinaire

Brent Mason is a highly respected session guitarist in the country music industry. He is known for his technical proficiency, versatility, and ability to play a wide range of styles. Mason has played on numerous hit songs and albums by many of country music’s biggest stars, including George Strait, Brooks and Dunn, and Alan Jackson, to name just a few.

Early Years
Mason was born in 1959 in Nashville, Tennessee, and grew up in a musical family. His father was a musician and played in the house band at the famous RCA Studios, where many country music legends recorded.
Playing Style
Mason’s playing style is characterized by his use of hybrid picking, which allows him to play fast, intricate passages with precision and clarity. He is also known for his use of double-stops, harmonics, and other advanced techniques.
Career Highlights
Mason’s career highlights include winning the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year award multiple times, being inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, and playing on some of the biggest hits in country music history.
Notable Collaborations
Mason has collaborated with many of the biggest names in country music, as well as artists from other genres. Some notable collaborations include playing on Sheryl Crow’s hit single “All I Wanna Do,” and working with rock legend Neil Young on his album “Prairie Wind.”
Mason’s innovative playing style and unparalleled technical ability have influenced countless guitarists in the country music world and beyond. He continues to be an in-demand session player and an inspiration to guitarists around the world.

Brent Mason’s contributions to country music as a session guitarist cannot be overstated. His innovative playing style and technical proficiency have made him a sought-after collaborator for some of the biggest names in the industry. Mason’s legacy as a guitar master will continue to inspire and influence future generations of musicians.

Keith Urban: Bringing Fingerpicking Back to the Mainstream

Keith Urban is a modern country music superstar who has made a significant impact by bringing fingerpicking back to the mainstream. With his impressive guitar skills, he has become an inspiration and role model for aspiring guitarists all over the world.

Here are some of the reasons why Keith Urban deserves a mention in the history of fingerpicking in country music:

  • Innovative playing style: Keith Urban is known for his innovative fingerpicking techniques, incorporating elements of rock, pop, and blues into country music. He has a unique way of blending different genres and creating his signature sound.
  • Hit songs: Over the years, Keith Urban has produced numerous hit songs that feature his fingerpicking skills. Some of his most famous tunes include “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” and “Stupid Boy.” His music has helped bring the fingerpicking style to the mainstream and made it more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Teaching others: Keith Urban is committed to teaching others about fingerpicking and his techniques. He has released instructional DVDs, written books, and given masterclasses to help aspiring guitarists improve their skills. His dedication to teaching has helped to keep the fingerpicking style alive and growing in popularity.
  • Collaborations with other fingerpicking legends: Keith Urban has collaborated with other fingerpicking legends like Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins. These collaborations have helped to showcase the unique abilities and styles of each artist, as well as fostered an appreciation for fingerpicking within the country music community.
  • Live performances: Keith Urban is an incredible performer, and his live shows are a testament to his fingerpicking skills. He often performs live solos and improvises during his shows, highlighting his mastery of the technique. His live performances have inspired audiences around the world to appreciate the fingerpicking style of country music.

Keith Urban has made a significant impact on the fingerpicking style in country music. Through his unique blend of different genres, hit songs, dedication to teaching, collaborations with other legends, and live performances, he has brought fingerpicking back to the mainstream and inspired a new generation of guitarists.

Brad Paisley: Fusing Tradition with Innovation

Country music has always been about tradition, but Brad Paisley brings something fresh and innovative to the mix. He’s expanded the boundaries of fingerpicking while still paying homage to the genre’s rich history.

| Traditions in Brad Paisley’s Fingerpicking | Innovations in Brad Paisley’s Fingerpicking |
| — | — |
| Using thumb and two finger technique | Incorporating hybrid picking |
| Incorporating bluegrass-influenced flatpicking | Experimenting with alternate tunings |
| Playing melodic solos with harmonies | Adding modern effects like distortion and delay |
| Using open-string drone notes | Incorporating chicken picking techniques |

Paisley’s fingerpicking style is built on a foundation of tradition. He uses a thumb and two finger technique that has been a staple of country music for generations. However, he also incorporates innovative techniques like hybrid picking, which involves using a pick and fingers together to play intricate patterns.

In addition to his unique picking style, Paisley experiments with alternate tunings to create fresh and interesting sounds. He also incorporates modern effects like distortion and delay, adding a touch of rock and roll to his otherwise traditional sound.

Another hallmark of Paisley’s style is the use of chicken picking, which involves playing short, staccato notes with the fingers for a percussive effect. This technique, combined with Paisley’s melodic solos and open-string drones, creates a sound that is both innovative and deeply rooted in country music tradition.

Brad Paisley’s fingerpicking style is a testament to the versatility of the genre. By fusing tradition with innovation, he has become one of the most exciting and influential fingerpickers in modern country music.

Country Fingerstyle Today: Rising Stars and Regional Styles

Today, fingerstyle guitar has experienced renewed popularity in the country music scene. New rising stars are emerging with their own unique styles and techniques. Additionally, there are distinct regional styles that have developed across the United States.

Here are some of the rising stars and regional styles of country fingerstyle guitar:

  • Rob Ickes – Ickes is a Dobro player who has been recognized with numerous awards for his skill in bluegrass and country music.
  • Molly Tuttle – Tuttle is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who incorporates fingerstyle guitar into her folk and bluegrass-influenced music.
  • Michael Cleveland – Cleveland is an acclaimed fiddle player who also incorporates fingerstyle guitar into his country and bluegrass performances.
  • California fingerstyle guitar – This regional style, often associated with names like Peppino D’Agostino and Laurence Juber, emphasizes intricate fingerpicking and the use of alternate tunings.
  • Mississippi Hill Country blues – This regional style, popularized by RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, incorporates fingerstyle guitar techniques with heavy rhythmic and percussive elements.
  • Texas fingerstyle guitar – This regional style, pioneered by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins, emphasizes blues and ragtime-influenced fingerpicking.

It’s exciting to see new artists and styles emerging within the fingerstyle country music genre, and it’s clear that this tradition has a bright future ahead.


After exploring the history of fingerpicking style in country music, one thing becomes clear: this style of playing is deeply embedded in the DNA of the genre. From the banjo to the guitar, from Merle Travis to Keith Urban, fingerpicking has been a constant presence in country music.

Despite the many changes that country music has undergone over the years, fingerpicking remains a vital and vibrant part of the genre. As we’ve seen, the style has evolved and adapted over time, with artists like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed pushing the boundaries and expanding the possibilities of what could be done with just a guitar and a set of fingers. And yet, even as these musicians introduced new techniques and approaches, they did so while remaining firmly grounded in the traditions of country music.

Today, the fingerpicking legacy lives on in countless artists and performers around the world. From session guitarists like Brent Mason to rising stars in regional scenes, fingerstyle guitar continues to find new forms of expression and inspiration. And while many of these artists may not be household names, their impact on country music cannot be denied.

Ultimately, what makes fingerpicking style so special is its ability to convey emotion and tell a story in a way that no other style of playing can. Whether it’s the heart-wrenching sorrow of a classic ballad or the joyful exuberance of an up-tempo tune, fingerpicking has a way of rendering every note with precision and feeling. It’s no wonder that this style of playing has endured for so long, and that it continues to inspire musicians and audiences alike around the world.

In the end, the history of fingerpicking in country music is a testament to the creativity, passion, and innovation of the musicians who have devoted their lives to this timeless genre. As long as there are guitars and pickup trucks, dusty dirt roads and heartache, the tradition of fingerpicking will continue to thrive and evolve, carrying with it the spirit and soul of country music for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is fingerpicking?

Fingerpicking is a technique for playing a guitar or other stringed instrument where the individual strings are plucked with the fingers instead of using a pick or plectrum.

When did fingerpicking style emerge in country music?

The fingerpicking style in country music emerged in the early 20th century as guitarists began to incorporate the technique into their playing.

Who was Merle Travis?

Merle Travis was a legendary fingerstyle guitarist and songwriter who is widely recognized for pioneering the thumb-picking technique in country music.

What is the thumb-picking technique?

The thumb-picking technique, also known as Travis picking, involves using the thumb to play alternating bass notes while simultaneously playing melody and rhythm on the other strings with the fingers.

Who is Chet Atkins?

Chet Atkins was a highly influential fingerstyle guitarist and producer who is widely regarded as one of the greatest innovators of the fingerpicking technique. He helped to popularize the style in the mainstream and mentored several prominent guitarists.

What is flatpicking?

Flatpicking is another style of guitar playing that involves holding a pick or plectrum between the thumb and index finger and striking the strings with downward or upward strokes.

Who is Brent Mason?

Brent Mason is a highly respected session guitarist who is known for his exceptional fingerpicking technique and versatility as a musician. He has played on numerous hit recordings in a variety of genres, including country music.

Who is Keith Urban?

Keith Urban is a popular country singer-songwriter and guitarist who has helped to bring fingerpicking back into the mainstream. He is known for his virtuosic playing and has won numerous awards for his contributions to country music.

What is Brad Paisley known for?

Brad Paisley is a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist who has gained widespread recognition for his innovative approach to blending traditional country sounds with modern elements. He is also known for his impressive fingerpicking skills.

Who are some rising stars of country fingerstyle?

Some rising stars in the world of country fingerstyle include Tommy Emmanuel protege Steve Hicks, Kentucky-based guitarist David Quick, and Austin-based multi-instrumentalist Adam Gardino.


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!

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