Tracing the Progression of Flatpicking in Country Music

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Crafting beautiful melodies while strumming the guitar strings is a common image when it comes to music. One such technique that has fascinated numerous guitar enthusiasts throughout history is flatpicking. This classic country technique involves using a flat pick to pluck individual notes and strum chords on a guitar. With its origins tracing back to the folk and bluegrass music of the Appalachian region, flatpicking has since evolved and been perfected over the years. In this article, we will delve deeper into the evolution of flatpicking, tracing its progression from its early beginnings to its modern-day usage in country and other genres.

What is Flatpicking?

Flatpicking is a classic country technique that has been around for decades, capturing the hearts of many guitar enthusiasts. At its core, flatpicking is the act of playing a stringed instrument (usually a guitar) with a flatpick. This style involves using a pick that is held between the thumb and index finger to pluck and strum the strings.

Flatpicking has become a staple in country music and is often used in conjunction with other country guitar techniques such as hybrid picking, fingerstyle, and chicken pickin’. Though the origins of these techniques are different, they all have played a role in shaping the sound of country music.

Flatpicking started out as a part of folk and bluegrass music, and its popularity grew as musicians began to incorporate the technique into their own playing styles. This led to a wave of country musicians who were proficient in flatpicking, including the legendary Carter Family.

Over time, the style evolved and developed, and the golden age of flatpicking emerged in the mid-twentieth century. One of the key figures in this era was Doc Watson, whose innovative use of the flatpick revolutionized the way the technique was used in country music.

As country music continued to evolve, flatpicking began to fuse with other genres and has become a key component of modern country guitar playing. Today, flatpicking can be heard in a wide range of country music, from traditional ballads to rock-infused anthems.

Looking to the future, it seems that flatpicking will continue to play an important role in shaping the sound of country music. Whether it is used in conjunction with other techniques, or as a standalone style, flatpicking is here to stay.

Flatpicking is a classic country guitar technique that has evolved and grown over time. As a staple in country music, it has shaped the way we hear and play guitar today. To learn more about other country guitar techniques, be sure to check out our articles on hybrid picking, fingerstyle, chicken pickin’, and Telecaster guitar.

The Early Days of Flatpicking

The Early Days Of Flatpicking
When we look back at the origins of flatpicking, we discover a rich history steeped in tradition and cultural significance. Flatpicking has deep roots in folk and bluegrass music, which allowed it to evolve into a classic country technique known and revered by musicians around the world. In fact, many iconic country songs feature flatpicking, from “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to “Wildwood Flower.” As we explore the early days of flatpicking, we’ll discover the legends who paved the way for the technique to become what it is today, and how it continues to be an essential component of country guitar techniques.

Origins in Folk and Bluegrass Music

Flatpicking, a classic country guitar technique, has its origins in the early days of folk and bluegrass music. Its unique sound and style have been influenced by various musical traditions and iconic guitarists over the years.

Folk Music: Flatpicking can trace its roots back to the traditional folk music of the Appalachian region. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, guitarists in this region began using a pick to play melodies and improvisations on their instruments. The use of a pick allowed for greater volume and clarity of sound, making it a popular technique among musicians.

Bluegrass Music: The development of bluegrass music in the 1940s and 1950s saw flatpicking rise to prominence. Legendary guitarist Doc Watson is often credited with pioneering the use of the flatpick in bluegrass. His fast and fluid playing style influenced a whole generation of musicians.

Folk and Bluegrass Influences: Notable Artists:
The use of a pick to play melodies and improvisations – Maybelle Carter
– Doc Watson
– Clarence White
The development of bluegrass music as a genre – Bill Monroe
– Lester Flatt
– Earl Scruggs

The Carter Family, a prominent country music group in the 1920s and 1930s, also played a significant role in the development of flatpicking. Maybelle Carter, the group’s guitarist, developed a distinct style that involved strumming the rhythm with her fingers while using a pick to play melody lines. This hybrid style would become known as the “Carter Scratch” and would influence future generations of country guitarists.

The origins of flatpicking can be traced back to the folk and bluegrass musical traditions of the Appalachian region. The technique has evolved over the years, but its roots in these genres continue to influence modern country guitarists. To learn more about country guitar techniques, check out our guide on country guitar techniques.

The Carter Family Legacy

The Carter Family is often credited as one of the earliest pioneers of flatpicking. A musical family from Virginia, they developed a unique sound that blended elements of traditional folk music with country sensibilities. Here are some noteworthy contributions of the Carter family to the evolution of flatpicking:

  • Creation of “the Carter Scratch”: Maybelle Carter, the matriarch of the family and a talented guitarist, is credited with developing a distinctive flatpicking technique known as “the Carter Scratch.” This involved using her thumb to play the melody while her fingers simultaneously picked out the accompanying chords.
  • Popularization of the Maybelle Style: Maybelle’s technique, which emphasized the melody over the rhythm, became known as the “Maybelle style” of guitar playing. It was widely imitated and helped to establish the guitar as a lead instrument in country music.
  • Impact on future generations: The Carter Family’s influence on country music cannot be overstated. Their simple, heartfelt songs and distinctive guitar playing inspired countless musicians who went on to become stars in their own right, including Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris.

Despite their success, the Carter Family never lost sight of their roots in traditional folk music. With their soulful harmonies and homespun lyrics, they helped to keep the spirit of old-time music alive and inspired a new generation of musicians to carry on their legacy of flatpicking.

The Golden Age of Flatpicking

The Golden Age Of Flatpicking
As country music continued to evolve and gain popularity, a new era of flatpicking emerged. This era, often referred to as the “golden age” of flatpicking, saw a surge in technical ability and innovation among guitarists in the genre. From the influential playing of Doc Watson to the myriad of talented musicians who emerged during this time, the world of flatpicking underwent a significant transformation. Let’s dive in and explore the highlights of this exciting period in the history of country music.

The Influence of Doc Watson

When it comes to the evolution of flatpicking, one influential figure stands out from the crowd – the legendary Doc Watson. Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923 and began playing guitar at the age of 13. With his unique playing style and virtuosic talent, he became a major influence on the genre of flatpicking.

What made Doc Watson such a standout flatpicker was his ability to blend multiple musical styles into his playing. His skills allowed him to incorporate intricate fingerpicking patterns with flatpicking techniques to create a sound that was both complex and highly entertaining. He was also heavily influenced by traditional Appalachian folk music, which he blended into his own unique style.

Doc Watson’s style and skill led to the widespread popularity of flatpicking among bluegrass and country music enthusiasts during the 60s and 70s. He was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album and his contributions to that project introduced him to a broader audience outside of his hometown.

In recognition of his influence on the genre, Watson was the recipient of several prestigious awards including seven Grammy Awards and a National Medal of Arts. \His style and sound goes on to inspire future generations of flatpickers, and his music can still be heard all around the world today.

Doc Watson’s influence on flatpicking cannot be overstated. His mastery of the instrument and ability to blend various styles made him one of the most important flatpickers of all time. He set a high standard for flatpicking that continues to inspire and motivate musicians worldwide.

Notable Flatpickers of the Era

During the golden age of flatpicking, there were numerous notable flatpickers who left their mark on the music industry. These musicians not only helped popularize the technique, but they also shaped the sound of country music for generations to come. Some of the most influential flatpickers of the era include:

  • Clarence White: Known for his lightning-fast runs and impeccable sense of timing, White was a member of the seminal bluegrass group, The Kentucky Colonels. His intricate solos were a major influence on later flatpickers, including Tony Rice.
  • Norman Blake: Equally skilled on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, Blake was an incredibly versatile musician. His flatpicking style was characterized by its fluidity and melodiousness, as well as its intricate use of harmonics.
  • Doc Watson: Already mentioned as a major influence in his own right, Watson was also a groundbreaking flatpicker in his own right. His 1964 album, “The Watson Family,” helped introduce flatpicking to a wider audience and is considered a classic of the genre.
  • Tony Rice: Known for his crisp, precise playing, Rice was one of the most popular and innovative flatpickers of the 1970s and ’80s. He helped popularize the use of alternate tunings in flatpicking and had a major impact on the sound of modern bluegrass and acoustic music.
  • Bryan Sutton: Sutton is a modern flatpicker who has won numerous awards, including several Grammys. His expansive style incorporates elements of jazz and swing and he is considered one of the most technically proficient flatpickers of his generation.

These musicians – among others – helped establish flatpicking as a legitimate and respected guitar technique. Their influence can be heard in countless country and bluegrass recordings, and their legacy lives on in the work of modern flatpickers.

Modern Flatpicking

As country music grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, the techniques of flatpicking continued to evolve. Today, the modern approach to flatpicking is a fusion of traditional techniques with modern styles, producing a unique sound that’s all its own. With new players pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with a guitar and a pick, the future of flatpicking is looking bright. Let’s explore some of the ways this classic country guitar technique has changed over the years in modern times.

Fusion with other Genres

As genres began to blend and crossover throughout the latter half of the 20th century, flatpicking found its way into other styles of music. This fusion has created exciting new sounds and attracted a wider fan base to the technique.

1. Jazz: Although it may seem like an unexpected pairing, jazz and flatpicking have been fused together with great success. Jazz guitarists such as John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola incorporated the flatpicking technique into their playing, creating a unique sound that combined the improvisational nature of jazz with the rhythmic drive of flatpicking.

2. Rock: The fast, intricate picking style of flatpicking has also found a home in rock music. Bands like the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd introduced flatpicking to a whole new audience, while skilled flatpickers like Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton have collaborated with prominent rock musicians.

3. Celtic and Folk: Flatpicking has long been a staple in Celtic and folk music, but as these genres have gained popularity in recent years, the fusion has become even more prevalent. The Irish band, The Chieftains, collaborated with American flatpicker Jerry Douglas to create a unique blend of Celtic and bluegrass music. Likewise, Scottish band, The Tannahill Weavers, have incorporated flatpicking into their traditional folk sound.

4. Country-Pop: Perhaps the most visible example of flatpicking’s fusion with other genres is the rise of country-pop. Artists like Taylor Swift and Keith Urban have brought flatpicking into the mainstream, using it to add a sense of nostalgia and authenticity to their music.

Through its fusion with other genres, flatpicking has continued to evolve and thrive in new and exciting ways. As musicians continue to experiment with the technique, we can expect even more unexpected and thrilling collaborations in the future.

The Future of Flatpicking in Country Music

As with any style of music, the future of flatpicking in country music is always shifting. With the rise of new technologies and changing tastes, it’s difficult to predict exactly what lies ahead. However, there are a few trends that seem to be emerging in the flatpicking world that are worth noting.

1. Pushing the Boundaries of Flatpicking

One trend that has been emerging in recent years is an increased interest in pushing the boundaries of flatpicking. This can be seen in the rise of young musicians experimenting with new techniques and incorporating more complex rhythms and chord structures into their playing. Some flatpickers are even starting to implement more modern production techniques, using things like loops and effects pedals to create new and interesting sounds.

2. Eclectic Influences

Another trend that seems to be on the rise is an increased interest in eclectic influences. While traditional bluegrass and country music will always be at the core of flatpicking, more and more artists are beginning to draw inspiration from other genres like jazz, rock, and even hip-hop. This is resulting in a more diverse and dynamic sound that is attracting new fans to the flatpicking world.

3. Continued Innovation

Despite its long history, flatpicking is still a relatively young style of music compared to other traditional genres. As such, there is still plenty of room for innovation and new styles to emerge. With advancements in technology and changes in popular taste, it’s likely that the future of flatpicking will continue to evolve and change in exciting ways.

In short, the future of flatpicking in country music is brimming with promise and possibility. Whether it’s through pushing the boundaries of the style, drawing inspiration from new and eclectic influences, or continuing to innovate and explore new techniques, there is no doubt that the flatpicking tradition will continue to thrive and evolve for generations to come.


After tracing the progression of flatpicking throughout its history, it is clear that this classic country technique has come a long way. From its roots in folk and bluegrass music to its widespread popularity in modern country songs, it has captivated audiences all over the world.

One thing that stands out about flatpicking is its versatility. It has managed to evolve with the times without sacrificing its authenticity, which is a testament to the skill and passion of the musicians that have kept this tradition alive.

Another notable aspect of flatpicking is the way it has influenced other genres. From jazz to rock, there are few guitar styles that haven’t been touched by the innovation and creativity of some of the greatest flatpickers of all time.

But what does the future hold for flatpicking in country music? It’s hard to say for certain, but one thing is clear: as long as there are talented musicians who are passionate about the technique and want to push its boundaries, flatpicking will continue to thrive.

In conclusion, flatpicking has a rich and fascinating history that has left an indelible mark on country music and beyond. Whether you’re an aspiring musician looking to master the technique or a fan who appreciates the beauty and complexity of a well-executed flatpicked melody, it’s clear that this classic country style is here to stay.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between flatpicking and fingerstyle guitar?

Flatpicking involves using a guitar pick to play individual notes, while fingerstyle guitar involves using fingers to pluck strings and create chords.

Who developed the flatpicking technique?

The flatpicking technique has developed over time through the contributions of various musicians, including the Carter Family and Doc Watson.

What kind of guitar is best for flatpicking?

A steel-string acoustic guitar is typically used for flatpicking due to its bright tone and clear projection.

What are some common techniques used in flatpicking?

Some common techniques in flatpicking include crosspicking, alternate picking, and sweep picking.

What is the “Carter Scratch” in flatpicking?

The “Carter Scratch” is a flatpicking technique that involves alternating between bass notes and strumming or picking the higher strings.

Who are some notable current flatpickers in country music?

Some notable current flatpickers in country music include Bryan Sutton, Molly Tuttle, and Billy Strings.

What other genres has flatpicking influenced?

Flatpicking has influenced other genres such as bluegrass, folk, and even rock and roll.

How has technology affected flatpicking?

Technology has made it easier to record and preserve flatpicking performances, as well as share them with a wider audience through the internet.

What makes flatpicking unique compared to other guitar techniques?

Flatpicking emphasizes individual notes and picking patterns, rather than the strumming and chord-based approach of fingerstyle guitar.

Can flatpicking be learned through online resources?

Yes, there are many online resources available for learning flatpicking, including instructional videos, websites, and online guitar lessons.


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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