The Changing Role of Fingerpicking in Country Music

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When it comes to country music, the role of fingerpicking has evolved throughout the years. From its origins in the early days of country music to its decline in the face of rock influences, fingerstyle guitar has been both celebrated and disregarded in Nashville. Now, it seems as though we are in the midst of a fingerpicking resurgence in country music. As a music lover, it’s perplexing to see how this dynamic technique continues to shift and change. In this article, we will examine the changing role of fingerpicking in country music, exploring how it has shaped the sound of this genre over time. Join us for a journey through the history of fingerstyle guitar – from its roots to its return in the modern era.

The Origins of Fingerpicking in Country Music

The Origins Of Fingerpicking In Country Music
As far back as the early 20th century, fingerpicking has been a fundamental component of country music. However, the technique has evolved significantly over the years, with various guitar players putting their stamp on it. Understanding the origins of fingerpicking in country music requires a glimpse back into the technique’s history. From the early innovators and techniques to the fingerpicking style’s development and decline, we’ll examine the evolution of this technique over the years. To learn more about other country guitar techniques that have shaped the genre, read about the flatpicking evolution, hybrid picking in country guitar, the birth of chicken pickin’, and the Telecaster’s role in revolutionizing country guitar.

The Early Innovators and Techniques

During the early days of country music, fingerpicking was not the norm. Flatpicking was the most common way to play the guitar, as it was seen as a more direct way to project sound. However, certain innovators began to experiment with fingerpicking techniques and opened up a new world of possibilities for the genre.

One such innovator was Maybelle Carter, who developed the now famous “Carter Scratch” technique. This involved using the thumb to play bass notes on the lower strings, while the fingers in the right hand played the melody on the higher strings. This technique allowed for a more complex and nuanced style of playing that could better complement the vocals.

Another early pioneer of fingerpicking was Merle Travis, who developed the “Travis Picking” style. This involved using the thumb to play a steady bass rhythm on the lower strings, while the index, middle, and ring fingers plucked out complex melodies on the higher strings. Travis was known for his intricate and virtuosic playing, and his style became hugely influential on subsequent generations of guitarists.

As fingerpicking became more popular, other innovators also began to experiment with different techniques. Chet Atkins, for example, developed a “cluster style” of fingerpicking, which allowed for more fluid movement up and down the neck of the guitar. Meanwhile, Jerry Reed pioneered a “clawhammer” style that involved striking the strings with the back of the nail rather than the fingertip.

The early innovators of fingerpicking in country music helped to broaden the musical palette of the genre and set the stage for future generations of guitarists to explore new techniques and styles. The unique rhythms and textures created by fingerpicking would become an integral part of the country music sound.

If you’re interested in learning more about the evolution of guitar playing in country music, check out our article on the evolution of flatpicking.

Fingerpicking in the Nashville Sound

During the 1950s and 60s, the Nashville Sound emerged as a new sub-genre of country music. This style was characterized by lush orchestration and a smoother, more polished sound, in contrast to the more raw and stripped-down sound of earlier country music.

Fingerpicking played a significant role in the Nashville Sound, with artists such as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis pioneering new fingerstyle techniques that became synonymous with the genre. Atkins, in particular, is known for his use of the thumbpick and his hybrid picking style, which involved using both the pick and fingers to play complex melodies and harmonies simultaneously.

Atkins’ influence can be heard in many of the recordings from the Nashville Sound era, such as Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” These songs feature intricate fingerpicked guitar parts that add depth and complexity to the arrangements.

Other notable fingerpickers of the Nashville Sound era include Jerry Reed, who developed a unique style that incorporated elements of rock and roll, and Glen Campbell, who was known for his impeccable technique and ability to play a wide range of styles.

In addition to guitarists, several other session musicians contributed to the Nashville Sound with their fingerpicking skills. For example, Pete Drake was a well-known pedal steel guitarist who played on numerous recordings during this time period.

Fingerpicking played an important role in creating the signature sound of the Nashville Sound era, and the techniques developed by pioneers such as Chet Atkins continue to influence country and other genres of music to this day.

Nashville Sound Fingerpickers Notable Contributions
Chet Atkins Pioneered thumbpick and hybrid picking techniques
Merle Travis Developed Travis picking style
Jerry Reed Integrated rock and roll elements into fingerstyle playing
Glen Campbell Known for impeccable technique and versatility

Fingerpicking in the Golden Age of Country Music

Fingerpicking In The Golden Age Of Country Music
As country music continued to evolve throughout the 1950s and 1960s, fingerpicking remained a crucial element of the genre’s sound. During this “Golden Age” of country music, the influence of early innovators like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins could still be felt, even as emerging solo performers began to make their mark on the world of country music. In this section, we will explore the important role that fingerpicking played during this era, both on stage and in the studio. From the rise of the solo performer to the continued importance of session work, the use of fingerpicking in country music was in a state of flux, adapting to new trends and techniques while remaining grounded in its rich history.

The Rise of the Solo Performer

In the early 20th century, country music was primarily performed by groups and bands. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of the solo performer became a dominant force in country music. The solo performer was able to command an audience’s attention with just their voice and a guitar, making fingerpicking an increasingly important skill for country musicians.

Merle Travis was one of the earliest and most influential solo performers of this era. He developed a unique fingerpicking style that utilized his thumb to play bass lines while his fingers picked out intricate melodies. Another legendary musician of this era was Chet Atkins, who was known for his unparalleled technique and ability to seamlessly blend various styles of music into his fingerpicking.

As the popularity of the solo performer grew, so did the importance of fingerpicking in country music. Performers were no longer just strumming chords but also picking intricate melodies that added depth and emotion to their performances. Fingerpicking also allowed solo performers to create a full sound that rivaled that of a full band.

The rise of the solo performer also led to a greater emphasis on songwriting. Solo performers needed to have a vast repertoire of original songs to keep their audiences engaged, making fingerpicking a crucial part of the songwriting process.

The rise of the solo performer marked a turning point in country music history. Fingerpicking became a crucial skill for country musicians as it allowed them to create a unique, full sound that captured the hearts of audiences worldwide.

The Importance of Fingerpicking in Session Work

Session work refers to the practice of hiring musicians to perform on specific recordings or live shows rather than having a fixed band. In the golden age of country music, session work was a crucial part of the music industry. Musicians were hired not only for their instrumental prowess but also for their ability to adapt to various styles of music.

The Role of Fingerpicking in Session Work

Fingerpicking was an important technique in session work because it allowed the guitar to mimic other instruments, such as the banjo, mandolin, or fiddle. This made fingerpicking guitarists particularly valuable in the studio. They were able to provide a range of sounds and textures to the recordings, giving them a unique character. Session guitarists were often required to read sheet music, which required a high degree of technical proficiency.

Famous Session Musicians

Some of the most famous session guitarists of the golden age of country music were Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Jerry Reed. These guitarists were known not only for their fingerpicking abilities but also for their versatility in adapting to different styles of music. They were hired to play on recordings by some of the biggest names in country music, including Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash.

Session Guitarist Notable Recordings
Chet Atkins “Yakety Axe” by Chet Atkins, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline
Merle Travis “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Dark as a Dungeon” by Merle Travis
Jerry Reed “Guitar Man” by Jerry Reed, “You and Me Against the World” by Gladys Knight and the Pips

The Legacy of Session Work in Country Music

The decline of session work in country music meant that the role of the session musician became less prominent. However, the legacy of the golden age of session work lives on. Many of the techniques and styles developed by session musicians of the past continue to influence contemporary fingerstyle guitarists. Fingerpicking remains an important technique in contemporary country music, with many artists seeking to emulate the sound of their predecessors.

The Decline of Fingerpicking in Country Music

The Decline Of Fingerpicking In Country Music
As the country music industry continued to evolve in the mid-20th century, so too did the role of fingerpicking in the genre. While fingerstyle guitar had been a signature part of country music since its early days, the rise of electric guitar and rock and roll influences led to a decline in the use of fingerpicking. The decrease in session work and a shift in focus toward individual artists also contributed to this trend. In this section, we’ll examine the perplexing decline of fingerpicking in country music and the factors that played a role in its diminished presence.

The Advent of Electric Guitar and the Rise of Rock Influences

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, a drastic change was occurring in the world of music: the rise of rock and roll. As this new genre exploded in popularity, it began to infiltrate and influence other styles of music, particularly country. With rock and roll came the advent of electric guitar, which quickly became the instrument of choice for many country musicians. The popularity of this new sound, characterized by strong drum beats and high energy, meant that many country music performers began to shift away from traditional fingerpicking and towards a more electrified sound.

This trend was especially evident in the Nashville Sound, which emerged in the late 1950s as a slick, polished brand of country music that aimed for a more commercial sound. The Nashville Sound relied heavily on string orchestras, backing vocals, and electric guitars, and in the process, marginalized the use of fingerpicking. While some fingerpicking guitarists did continue to play in this style, it was clear that the Nashville Sound represented a shift away from traditional country music and towards a more mainstream, commercial sound.


Time period Event Consequence
1940s – 1950s The rise of rock and roll Rock and roll begins to infiltrate and influence other styles of music.
1940s – 1950s The advent of electric guitar Electric guitar becomes the instrument of choice for many musicians.
1950s – 1960s The Nashville Sound emerges The Nashville Sound relies heavily on electric guitars and backing vocals and marginalizes the use of fingerpicking.

The advent of electric guitar and the rise of rock and roll had a major impact on the role of fingerpicking in country music. While some artists continued to play in a more traditional style, the overall trend was towards a more electrified sound that focused on other techniques rather than fingerpicking. This shift was most evident in the Nashville Sound, which came to represent a more mainstream, commercial style of country music that eschewed fingerpicking in favor of a more polished and polished sound.

The Decreased Focus on Session Work

During the 1980s and 1990s, the country music industry underwent significant changes in how music was recorded and produced. In particular, there was a noticeable decrease in the focus on session work, which had previously been an integral part of the genre’s sound.

1. The Rise of Studio Musicians
One factor contributing to this shift was the rise of studio musicians, who were able to create highly polished and consistent recordings without the need for session players. These musicians were often highly skilled and able to create complex arrangements without requiring input from other musicians.

2. The Emphasis on Production Values
Another factor was the industry’s increasing emphasis on production values, with producers and record labels striving to create highly produced and polished recordings to appeal to a wider audience. This often meant that session players were less necessary, as everything from the instrumentation to the vocal delivery could be carefully crafted by the production team.

3. The Use of Computerized Instruments and Sampling
Advances in technology also played a role, with computerized instruments and sampling becoming more prevalent in the studio. This allowed musicians and producers to create highly realistic instrumental tracks without the need for live session players.

4. The Changing Nature of Country Music
There was also a sense that the nature of country music was changing, with a greater emphasis on radio-friendly hits and crossover appeal. This often meant that the rough edges and authenticity that had been the hallmark of the genre were smoothed out in favor of a more polished sound.

These changes had a profound impact on the role of fingerpicking in country music, with many studio musicians eschewing the more traditional techniques in favor of newer, more modern approaches to instrumentation and recording. However, despite this decrease in focus on session work, fingerpicking techniques have continued to play an important role in the genre, with many modern artists incorporating the style into their sound.

The Return of Fingerpicking in Modern Country Music

As country music continues to evolve, so too does the role of fingerpicking within the genre. In recent years, there has been a noticeable resurgence in the use of fingerstyle guitar techniques among modern country artists. This shift towards a more traditional sound has left many wondering what has sparked this renewed interest in fingerpicking. Could it be the rising influence of contemporary folk and Americana music? Or perhaps a renewed focus on the importance of session work in Nashville? As we delve deeper into the changing role of fingerpicking in modern country music, the answers become increasingly complex and intriguing.

The Influence of Contemporary Folk and Americana Music

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of fingerpicking in country music, and this can be largely attributed to the influence of contemporary folk and Americana music. These genres place a strong emphasis on acoustic instrumentation and often incorporate fingerpicking into their musical arrangements.

One of the main reasons for this influence is the renewed interest in the traditional, roots-oriented sound of country music. Many artists prefer to use fingerpicking as a way to pay homage to the early pioneers of the genre, who relied heavily on this technique.

Additionally, the popularity of singer-songwriters in the folk and Americana scenes has also encouraged this trend. Fingerpicking is often used as a means to accompany solo performers, allowing them to create a fuller sound without the need for a band. This use of fingerpicking has helped to reinforce its relevance in modern music, as it is seen as a versatile and important technique for any musician to master.

Another factor that has contributed to the resurgence of fingerpicking in country music is the popularity of acoustic guitar in mainstream culture. This has encouraged a new generation of musicians to adopt fingerpicking as their preferred playing style. Many country artists have also found that fingerpicking can help them stand out from the crowd and create a unique sound that sets them apart from other artists in the genre.

In conclusion, the influence of contemporary folk and Americana music has played a significant role in the return of fingerpicking to country music. Its continued relevance in these genres has helped to establish fingerpicking as an important skill for any musician, and has encouraged a new wave of players and fans to embrace this traditional playing style. As country music continues to evolve and change, it is likely that fingerpicking will remain an integral part of its sound and heritage.

  • Examples of fingerpicking in contemporary folk and Americana music:
  • Iron & Wine – “Naked as We Came”
  • Gillian Welch – “I Dream a Highway”
  • Jason Isbell – “Elephant”
  • The Avett Brothers – “Salvation Song”
  • Bon Iver – “Blood Bank”

The Re-emergence of Session Work in Nashville

Session work has been an integral part of recording music since the early days of the music industry. In Nashville, session musicians were once in high demand for their fingerpicking skills and ability to adapt to any style of music. However, as the music industry evolved, the demand for session work declined, leaving many musicians without work.

But now, the tides are turning in Nashville. Session work is once again becoming a valued commodity in the city’s music scene, and fingerpicking is a big reason for this resurgence. Musicians who can play a wide range of instruments and styles are once again being sought out by both established and up-and-coming artists.

The re-emergence of session work is partly due to a backlash against over-produced, computer-generated music. Many artists are returning to more traditional recording techniques, which rely heavily on live instrumentation and musical skill. This has created a demand for musicians who can bring a human touch to recordings and live performances.

The increasing popularity of independent, Americana-style music has opened up new opportunities for session musicians. These artists prioritize authenticity and musicianship over commercial appeal, making fingerpicking skills more important than ever. As a result, many session players are finding work with independent artists who want to create a unique, heartfelt sound.

The re-emergence of session work in Nashville is great news for fingerstyle guitarists. Musicians with strong fingerpicking skills have a real chance to make a name for themselves in the city’s vibrant music scene. Whether it’s playing on hit records or touring the country with indie artists, the demand for skilled session musicians is definitely on the rise.


As we examine the changing role of fingerpicking in country music, it becomes clear that this technique has had a rich and varied history. Once a cornerstone of the genre, fingerpicking declined in popularity with the rise of electric guitar and rock influences.

However, in recent years, we have witnessed a re-emergence of fingerpicking in modern country music. This is due in part to the influence of contemporary folk and Americana music, which has brought fingerpicking back into the spotlight as a beloved and essential technique.

Moreover, the revival of session work in Nashville has also contributed to the return of fingerpicking to the forefront of country music. As more musicians get back into traditional recording practices, they are appreciating the value of fingerpicking as an essential skill for any successful session player.

Despite the decline of fingerpicking in country music, the return of this technique demonstrates that the genre is still in flux and continues to evolve over time. As we look to the future, we can expect that fingerpicking will remain an important part of the country music tradition, showcasing the skill and creativity of talented players and continuing to captivate audiences for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is fingerstyle guitar?

Fingerstyle guitar is a playing technique in which the guitarist uses their fingers to pluck the strings of the guitar instead of a pick.

Who are some famous fingerstyle guitarists in country music?

Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Tommy Emmanuel are all well-known fingerstyle guitarists in country music.

Is fingerpicking still relevant in modern country music?

Absolutely! Many modern country guitarists incorporate fingerpicking into their playing, and it continues to be an important technique in the genre.

When did fingerpicking become popular in country music?

Fingerpicking has been a part of country music since its early days, but it became especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of the “Nashville Sound.”

What is the “Nashville Sound”?

The “Nashville Sound” is a subgenre of country music that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. It was characterized by orchestral arrangements and smoother, more polished vocals.

Why did fingerpicking decline in popularity in country music?

Fingerpicking declined in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of rock influences in country music and the decreased focus on session work.

What is session work?

Session work is when a musician is hired to play on a recording by someone else. In Nashville, session musicians were highly sought-after in the 1950s and 1960s, but this practice decreased in the following decades.

How has fingerpicking made a comeback in modern country music?

Fingerpicking has made a comeback in modern country music partly due to the influence of contemporary folk and Americana music, as well as the re-emergence of session work in Nashville.

What are some common fingerpicking patterns in country music?

The Travis picking pattern, which involves alternating bass notes and a melody played with the top strings, is a common fingerpicking pattern in country music. The Carter Family picking pattern, which involves playing a bass note followed by a strummed chord, is another well-known pattern.

Can I learn fingerpicking on my own?

While it’s certainly possible to learn fingerpicking on your own, it can be helpful to take lessons or watch instructional videos to learn proper technique and get started with some common patterns.


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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