Exploring Fingerpicking Techniques in Country Music

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When it comes to iconic country music, one cannot overlook the soulful twist that fingerpicking brings to the table. From the humble roots of Merle Travis to the legendary Chet Atkins and the renowned Nashville Sound, fingerpicking has cemented its place as a unique and unforgettable aspect of country music. However, with so many variations, it can be tricky to discern which techniques are used in which songs. Fear not, as this article will take you on a journey through the variations of fingerpicking, exploring famous songs and their fingerpicking patterns, and providing tips on how to improve your own technique. So grab your guitar, and let’s dive into the world of fingerpicking in country music.

The Roots of Fingerpicking in Country Music

The Roots Of Fingerpicking In Country Music
When it comes to country music, the fingerpicking technique is one of the defining elements that sets the genre apart from others. The intricate and melodic style of fingerpicking has a rich history that spans back to the early days of country music. It’s said that the first recorded instances of fingerpicking in country music can be traced back to the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that it really gained popularity. In this section, we’ll delve deeper into the roots of fingerpicking in country music and explore some of the iconic figures who helped shape the style. Check out the history of country fingerpicking and learn how this technique has evolved over time.

First Steps with Merle Travis

Merle Travis is regarded as the father of modern country fingerpicking. His unique style involved plucking the bass strings with the thumb while simultaneously picking out melody and harmony with his fingers. Travis’s technique, known as Travis picking, created a full and complex sound that had never been heard before in country music.

Travis picking was inspired by ragtime piano music and involved using the thumb to play the rhythm while the other fingers played the melody. Travis showcased this style on his hit song “Sixteen Tons”. “Sixteen Tons” features an intricate fingerpicking pattern that is still taught and practiced today.

Travis’s style was incredibly influential and helped establish fingerpicking as a legitimate technique in country music. It paved the way for other fingerpicking styles such as the Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style.

If you want to improve your fingerpicking skills, it’s important to study the technique of Merle Travis. There are many resources available online that can help you learn Travis picking, such as fingerpicking exercises for country guitar and tips for building finger speed and accuracy. It’s also helpful to learn about the pros and cons of fingerstyle vs. flatpicking in country music, read about famous country guitarists and their fingerpicking secrets, and practice classic country fingerpicking patterns. With time and practice, you can master fingerpicking in country music like Merle Travis did.

The Evolution of the Style

The evolution of fingerpicking style in country music was a slow and steady process, with various guitarists taking the original technique and adapting it to create their unique sound. This resulted in several variations of the fingerpicking technique over the years. Let’s take a look at some of the most significant developments in this style.

Style Description
Blues Influences Many early country guitarists were influenced by the blues musicians of the 1920s and 30s. They incorporated elements of blues music into their fingerpicking, resulting in a more rhythmic and bluesy sound.
Swing Influences The swing era of the 1930s and 40s had a significant influence on many guitarists, including Merle Travis. Travis took the fingerpicking technique and adapted it to create a swing-infused sound.
Nashville Sound In the 1950s and 60s, Chet Atkins and other Nashville-based guitarists popularized a smoother, more polished sound known as the Nashville Sound. This involved using fingerpicking techniques combined with complex chord progressions and vocal harmonies.
Rock Influences During the late 60s and early 70s, many country guitarists were influenced by the emerging rock scene. This resulted in guitarists incorporating more rock-inspired techniques into their fingerpicking, such as the use of distortion and feedback.

These developments paved the way for new fingerpicking techniques to emerge, such as the alternating bass technique and the three-finger style which were popularized by guitarists like Merle Travis and Earl Scruggs respectively.

If you want to learn more about famous country guitarists and their fingerpicking secrets, check out our article on Famous Country Guitarists’ Fingerpicking Secrets. Or if you’re interested in exploring more about fingerpicking in country music, give our article on Fingerpicking in Country Music a read.

Chet Atkins and the Nashville Sound

Chet Atkins was a legendary guitarist and producer who played a pivotal role in defining the Nashville Sound – a subgenre of country music that emerged in the 1950s and 60s. The Nashville Sound was characterized by a smoother, more polished sound that incorporated elements of pop, jazz, and orchestral arrangements, in contrast to the raw, unvarnished sound of traditional country music.

Atkins was known for his elegant fingerpicking style, which was heavily influenced by Merle Travis and other early pioneers of fingerstyle guitar. However, he also developed his own unique approach, incorporating a wider range of techniques and borrowing from other musical genres.

Some of Atkins’ signature moves included using his thumb to play both melody and bass notes simultaneously, as well as incorporating harmonics, bends, and slides into his playing. He also used a variety of fingerpicks (usually a thumb pick and one or two finger picks), which allowed him to play with greater speed and precision.

Atkins’ contributions to the Nashville Sound were not limited to his guitar playing. He also worked as a producer at RCA Records, where he helped develop the careers of numerous country music stars, including Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings. Atkins’ innovations in the studio included the use of string sections, vocal harmonies, and other elements borrowed from pop music.

Chet Atkins helped bridge the gap between traditional country music and the more contemporary styles that would come to define the genre in the decades to come. His influence can be heard in the playing of countless guitarists who followed in his footsteps, and his legacy continues to shape the world of country fingerpicking today.

To learn more about country fingerpicking techniques, check out our articles on country chords and fingerpicking and advanced country fingerpicking.

Common Fingerpicking Techniques

Common Fingerpicking Techniques
As you delve deeper into the world of country music guitar playing, you’ll soon realize that fingerpicking is a crucial component of the genre. Not only does it provide a unique sound, but it allows for intricate melodies and accompaniments that simply can’t be achieved with a pick. But where do you start with fingerpicking? What techniques should you focus on? In this section, we’ll explore some of the most common fingerpicking techniques that you’ll encounter in country music. From the iconic Travis Picking to the Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style, we’ll break down the basics and give you a solid foundation to build upon. So grab your guitar, warm up those fingers, and let’s dive in!

Travis Picking

Travis Picking is a fingerpicking technique that was popularized by the great Merle Travis in the 1940s. It involves playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb while plucking the melody with the fingers. This creates a syncopated, bouncy feel that is a defining characteristic of country music.

The basic Travis Picking pattern looks like this:

Thumb Fingers
1 2
1 2

In this pattern, the thumb plays the root note of the chord on beats 1 and 3, and the fingers play a melody on beats 2 and 4. While this pattern can be applied to any chord progression, it sounds particularly good with chords that have a strong bass note, such as A, E, and D.

To get started with Travis Picking, try practicing this basic pattern on a simple chord progression like A – D – A – E. Start slowly and gradually build up speed as you become more comfortable with the pattern. Once you have the basic pattern down, you can start to incorporate variations and embellishments, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.

Travis Picking is a versatile technique that can be used in many different styles of music, including folk, blues, and bluegrass. It has been used by countless country music legends, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, and Tommy Emmanuel, and it continues to be an essential technique for any aspiring fingerstyle guitarist.

The alternating bass technique

One of the most fundamental fingerpicking techniques in country music is the alternating bass technique. This technique involves playing a steady alternating bass pattern with your thumb while simultaneously picking out melodies or chords with your fingers. It is a technique that has been used in countless country classics and has become a hallmark of the genre.

How to Play the Alternating Bass Technique

The alternating bass technique can be played in a variety of ways, but the most common approach involves using your thumb to alternate between the bass strings (usually the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings) while your fingers pick out melodies or chords on the higher strings. Here is an example of how you might play the alternating bass technique:

Beat Bass Note Chord or Melody
1 6th string Thumb plays the 6th string while fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings
2 4th string Thumb plays the 4th string while fingers pick out a chord on the higher strings
3 6th string Thumb plays the 6th string while fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings
4 4th string Thumb plays the 4th string while fingers pick out a chord on the higher strings

Benefits of the Alternating Bass Technique

One of the main benefits of the alternating bass technique is its versatility. It can be used in a variety of musical settings and can be adapted to fit a wide range of styles and tempos. Additionally, mastering the alternating bass technique can help you develop better fingerpicking control and rhythm.

Famous Songs that Use the Alternating Bass Technique

One of the most famous examples of the alternating bass technique in country music is “Deep River Blues” by Doc Watson. This song features a driving alternating bass pattern that underpins the melody and chord progressions. Other classic country songs that use the alternating bass technique include “King of the Road” by Roger Miller and “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.

Getting Started with Alternating Bass Technique

If you’re new to fingerpicking and want to learn the alternating bass technique, start by practicing simple patterns using basic chord progressions. Make sure to focus on keeping a steady rhythm with your thumb while your fingers pick out the melodies or chords. With practice, you’ll be able to develop the speed and dexterity needed to play more advanced patterns and songs.

The Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style

The Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style are two of the most iconic fingerpicking techniques in the history of country music.

The Carter Scratch was developed by Maybelle Carter of The Carter Family. It involves using the thumb to play a bass note on the lower strings while the fingers pluck the higher strings in a rhythmic pattern. This creates a distinctive sound that is often associated with old-time country music. The Carter Scratch can be used to play both melodies and accompaniment, making it a versatile technique.

The Three-Finger Style, also known as Scruggs Style, was popularized by Earl Scruggs, a bluegrass banjo player. It involves using the thumb, index, and middle fingers to pick the strings in a rolling pattern. This technique is characterized by its speed and precision, and is often used in fast-paced bluegrass songs. The Three-Finger Style has been adapted for guitar playing as well, and is commonly used in modern country music.

Although The Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style are distinct techniques, they can be combined to create a unique sound. This is often referred to as Carter-Scruggs Style or Three-Finger Carter Scratch. It involves using the thumb for a bass note and the index and middle fingers for plucking strings in a rolling pattern. The combination of these two techniques creates a smooth and flowing sound that is widely used in country and bluegrass music.

Learning The Carter Scratch and Three-Finger Style takes time and practice, but the effort is worth it for the unique sound it creates. These techniques require coordination and finger strength, so beginners may find them challenging at first. However, with patience and repetition, anyone can master these techniques and use them to create beautiful music.

Famous Songs and Their Fingerpicking Patterns

Famous Songs And Their Fingerpicking Patterns
As we dive deeper into the world of fingerpicking in country music, it’s important to examine some of the most iconic songs that utilize this technique. These songs have stood the test of time and are still being played and covered by musicians today. From the intricate patterns of “The Claw” by Jerry Reed to the classic simplicity of “Wildwood Flower” by The Carter Family, each song has its own unique fingerpicking style that has left a mark on the genre. Let’s explore the variations of fingerpicking techniques in these famous country songs, and see how you can incorporate them into your own playing.

Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten

One of the most famous fingerpicking songs is “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten, a song that has inspired countless musicians and has been covered in various genres. This song features a unique fingerpicking pattern that is deceptively simple to play but has a subtle complexity to it that makes it a joy to listen and play.

The “Freight Train” fingerpicking pattern is played with the thumb and three fingers, and it involves picking the bass note with the thumb while the fingers play a melody on the high strings. Here is the fingerpicking pattern in tablature:

Measure G Chord
1 G
2 3rd Fret 1st String, B, 2nd Fret 2nd String, B, 3rd String open
3 2nd Fret 1st String, A, 2nd Fret 3rd String, C, 4th String open
4 3rd Fret 1st String, B, 2nd Fret 2nd String, B, 3rd String open

The pattern is repeated throughout the song, with slight variations to add nuance and dynamics to the melody.

In addition to the fingerpicking pattern, “Freight Train” also showcases Elizabeth Cotten’s unique playing style, characterized by her use of unconventional guitar tunings and her left-handed playing on a right-handed guitar.

To play “Freight Train” like Elizabeth Cotten, it’s important to take the time to study her playing style and to practice the fingerpicking pattern until it becomes second nature. As with any fingerpicking song, it’s important to start slow and gradually increase the tempo as you become more comfortable with the pattern.

Overall, “Freight Train” is a timeless classic that is beloved by fingerstyle guitarists worldwide, and its fingerpicking pattern is a great example of the unique techniques that have shaped the genre of country music.

Dust in the Wind by Kansas

One of the most recognizable and beautiful songs in the fingerpicking genre is “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. The song, released in 1977, quickly became a classic and has inspired countless guitar players to learn the intricate fingerpicking pattern.

The Fingerpicking Pattern

The fingerpicking pattern of “Dust in the Wind” is deceptively simple, yet highly expressive. It consists of six notes played together in pairs, with the thumb alternating between two bass strings. Here is the fingerpicking pattern in detail:

String Fret Finger
1st 7th Ring
2nd 8th Middle
3rd 9th Index
4th 9th Thumb
5th 7th Ring
6th 5th Thumb

The Chords Used in the Song

“Dust in the Wind” employs a simple chord progression: Am, Gmaj7, Cmaj7 and Dsus2. The use of the open chords and the fingerpicking pattern creates a beautiful harmonic atmosphere and reinforces the song’s introspective and melancholic mood.

The Importance of Dynamics and Timing

The beauty of fingerpicking is not only in the notes themselves but also in the way they are played. To truly capture the essence of “Dust in the Wind”, you need to pay attention to the dynamics and timing of the song. The song requires a delicate touch, with the notes ringing clearly and evenly. It’s important to play with purpose and intention, almost as if each note is a drop of water falling in a still pond.

The Legacy of “Dust in the Wind”

“Dust in the Wind” has become a classic not only in the fingerpicking genre but in popular music as well. Its timeless melody and introspective lyrics have made it a favorite among fans and musicians alike. Its fingerpicking pattern has inspired countless players to pick up the guitar and learn this beautiful technique. To this day, “Dust in the Wind” remains a testament to the beauty and power of fingerpicking in country music.

The Claw by Jerry Reed

“The Claw” is a popular instrumental song by the legendary country guitarist Jerry Reed. This tune showcases Reed’s fingerpicking skills and features a unique picking pattern that has fascinated guitar players for decades.

The picking pattern used in “The Claw” is a variation of Travis picking technique. It entails playing a pattern of bass notes with your thumb while simultaneously picking out melodies using your other fingers. But what makes “The Claw” exceptional is its distinct melody and the way it is played.

To break down the pattern used in “The Claw,” let’s use an HTML table:

Measure 1 D
Measure 2 G C
Measure 3 A D G
Measure 4 C E A

In this pattern, the thumb is used to strike the bass notes while the other fingers pick out the melody. You can see some chords written above each measure, but they are not necessarily strummed; only certain notes from each chord are played. You can listen to the song and try to pluck out the pattern yourself, or find tabs online for a more detailed breakdown of the notes to play.

To master this technique, it’s important to start slow and practice each section of the song separately before putting it all together. “The Claw” is a challenging piece, but it’s a great way to improve your fingerpicking skills and add some flair to your playing.

Black Mountain Rag by Doc Watson

“Black Mountain Rag” is a well-known instrumental track that has been covered by numerous country musicians such as Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis. The song has a fast-paced melody that is perfect for showcasing advanced fingerpicking techniques. Here are some of the fingerpicking techniques that you can find in Doc Watson’s version of “Black Mountain Rag”:

  • Alternate thumb and finger picking: Doc Watson uses this technique throughout the song to create an alternating bass line. He picks the bass strings with his thumb while picking the melody with his fingers.
  • Hammer-ons and pull-offs: These techniques are used to add ornamentation to the melody. Doc Watson performs several hammer-ons and pull-offs throughout the song, which adds a lot of character to the track.
  • Double stops: Doc Watson uses double stops to create a harmonized effect in the melody. This technique involves playing two notes simultaneously, which creates a fuller sound.
  • Tremolo picking: This technique involves rapidly picking the same note or series of notes to create a sustained sound. Doc Watson uses tremolo picking in several sections of the song to add depth and texture to the melody.

Overall, “Black Mountain Rag” is a great example of how advanced fingerpicking techniques can be used to create an impressive and intricate melody. If you’re a fingerpicker looking to take your skills to the next level, studying the techniques used in this song is a great place to start.

Wildwood Flower by The Carter Family

“Wildwood Flower” is a classic country song with a beautiful fingerpicking pattern that is still popular today. The song was originally recorded by the Carter Family, a legendary group that has been called the first family of country music.

To play the fingerpicking pattern for “Wildwood Flower”, start with an alternating bass pattern on the root and fifth notes of the chord progression. Then, use your thumb to play the melody notes on the higher strings. This creates a beautiful, flowing sound that perfectly complements the song’s lyrics.

To break it down further, here is the fingerpicking pattern for “Wildwood Flower” in tablature:





The song’s lyrics describe the beauty of the wildwood flower and the simplicity of life in the countryside. The fingerpicking pattern perfectly complements this theme, creating a nostalgic and peaceful atmosphere that captures the essence of country music.

Overall, “Wildwood Flower” is a great example of the beautiful fingerpicking patterns that have made country music so popular throughout the years. If you’re looking to improve your fingerpicking technique, this song is a must-learn for any aspiring country guitarist.

How to improve your fingerpicking technique

If you’re an aspiring country guitarist looking to hone your fingerpicking skills, you’re in the right place! A great fingerpicking technique takes years of practice, effort, and patience. It also requires an understanding of the styles and patterns used in famous country songs, as well as the right guitar and the right technique. Here, we’ll discuss how to achieve all of this through a few tips and tricks that are sure to help you improve your fingerpicking skills. Let’s get started!

Choosing the right guitar

Choosing the perfect guitar for fingerpicking can be a daunting task. When it comes to this technique, you should opt for a guitar that can produce a clear and resonant tone with great sustain. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a guitar:

Factor Explanation
Body Shape The body shape of the guitar affects the sound produced. Dreadnought, OM, and Grand Auditorium guitars are popular choices among fingerpickers for their balanced tonal characteristics and strong midrange.
Top Wood Top wood contributes to sound quality. Cedar and spruce are popular options for fingerpicking as they produce a warm and responsive tone with focused projection.
Neck Width and Shape The neck should feel comfortable in your hands, neither too wide nor too narrow. Choose a neck shape that suits your playing style and preferences. C-shaped necks are a popular choice for its versatility and ease of playing.
Fingerboard Material The fingerboard material can impact the tonal quality and playability of the guitar. Ebony, rosewood, and maple are commonly used materials, with ebony being the most popular among fingerpickers.
Action and String Gauge Low action and light string gauges allow for easier fingerpicking. Higher action requires more finger pressure and may cause finger fatigue that can hinder your playing experience.

By considering these factors, you can find a guitar that suits your fingerpicking style and provides comfort and enjoyment. Remember to try different guitars before making a purchase, and don’t be afraid to seek advice from experienced fingerpickers.

Practicing scales and patterns

One effective way to improve your fingerpicking technique is by practicing scales and patterns. These exercises will help you develop muscle memory and enhance your finger dexterity. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Start slow: When practicing scales or patterns, it’s essential to start at a slow tempo. This will allow you to focus on the correct execution of each note and build a strong foundation for faster playing in the future.
  • Master one pattern at a time: It’s tempting to move on to the next pattern once you feel comfortable with the current one. However, to truly master a fingerpicking pattern, you should practice it repeatedly until it becomes second nature.
  • Use a metronome: A metronome can help you maintain a consistent tempo and develop your rhythm skills. Start at a slower tempo and gradually increase the speed as you improve.
  • Practice both up and down picking: To improve your fingerpicking speed and accuracy, practice both up and down picking techniques. This will help you develop a well-rounded fingerpicking style.
  • Experiment with different patterns: Don’t be afraid to explore different fingerpicking patterns and styles. Try combining different patterns together or altering them in your own unique way.
  • Stay relaxed: Tension in your hands can hinder your fingerpicking speed and precision. So, it’s crucial to keep your hands and fingers relaxed while practicing.

By incorporating these tips into your practice routine, you’ll be on your way to improving your fingerpicking technique and mastering the variations of fingerpicking techniques in famous country songs.

Learning from Country Music legends

There’s no doubt that learning from the legends of country music can greatly improve your fingerpicking technique. These famous musicians have not only mastered the technique but also innovated it, pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a guitar. Here are a few tips for learning from country music legends:

  • Listen to recordings: The first step in learning from country music legends is to listen to their recordings. Pay attention to their fingerpicking patterns, the melody, and the rhythm. Choose a song that you like and listen to it multiple times until you can identify the different fingerpicking techniques used.
  • Watch tutorial videos: In addition to listening to recordings, watching videos can be a great way to learn from the legends. Many famous fingerpickers have tutorial videos explaining their techniques in detail. Watching these videos can give you insight into the way they approach their playing and help you identify areas of your own technique that could use improvement.
  • Attend live performances: Seeing a country music legend perform live can be a great way to learn from them. Pay attention to their hand position, their fingerpicking patterns, and their overall technique. Try to emulate what you see as much as possible while watching the performance.
  • Take lessons: If you’re serious about improving your fingerpicking technique, consider taking lessons from a professional fingerpicker. A good teacher can guide you through the learning process and provide feedback on your technique. They can also tailor their instruction to your specific needs and goals.

Learning from country music legends can take time and effort. However, with patience and persistence, you can improve your technique and become a skilled fingerpicker yourself.


In conclusion, fingerpicking is an essential part of country music and has influenced generations of guitar players. The techniques used in famous country songs have become staples in the genre, and players continue to build upon them.

If you’re looking to improve your fingerpicking skills, remember to start with the basic techniques, such as Travis picking and alternating bass, before progressing to more complex patterns. Choosing the right guitar and practicing scales and patterns regularly will help you develop speed and accuracy.

Moreover, studying the styles of country legends, like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed, can give you valuable insights into the history and evolution of fingerpicking in country music. Additionally, studying famous fingerpicking songs like “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten and “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas could help you improve your skills.

Overall, mastering the variations of fingerpicking techniques in famous country songs can take time, effort, and patience, but the rewards are worth it. With consistent practice and dedication, you can become a skilled fingerpicker and create your unique style that will set you apart from the rest. So, keep practicing, learning, and most importantly, have fun while playing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is fingerpicking?

Fingerpicking is a technique used in guitar playing where the player uses their fingers instead of a pick to pluck the strings.

What are the benefits of fingerpicking?

Fingerpicking allows for more complex patterns and rhythms than strumming with a pick. It also produces a warmer tone and allows for greater control over the notes being played.

Who are some famous fingerpickers in country music?

Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson are all famous fingerpickers in country music.

What is Travis picking?

Travis picking is a fingerpicking technique where the thumb alternates between plucking the bass strings and the other fingers play melody or chords on the higher strings. It is named after Merle Travis.

What is the Carter Scratch?

The Carter Scratch is a fingerpicking technique used by the Carter Family. It involves playing the bass line with the thumb while the index finger plays melody notes and the middle finger adds rhythm on the high strings.

What is the Three-Finger Style?

The Three-Finger Style is a fingerpicking technique used in bluegrass music. It involves using the thumb, index finger, and middle finger to play rapid-fire melodies and solos.

What is the Nashville Sound?

The Nashville Sound is a style of country music that originated in the 1950s and 60s in Nashville, Tennessee. It is characterized by sophisticated arrangements, layered instrumentation, and the use of the electric guitar.

What are some tips for improving fingerpicking technique?

Try practicing with a metronome, start slowly and gradually increase speed, use proper hand and finger positioning, learn from others by watching and listening to performances, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different fingerpicking patterns.

What types of guitars are best for fingerpicking?

Guitars with a wider neck and a flatter fingerboard are generally better for fingerpicking, as they allow more room for finger movement and make it easier to play complex patterns. Acoustic guitars with a smaller body size, such as parlor or concert guitars, can also be easier to play for fingerpicking.

What are some benefits of learning fingerpicking techniques?

Learning fingerpicking techniques can improve overall guitar playing ability, provide more options for creativity and musical expression, and allow you to play a wider range of music styles and genres.


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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