Flatpicking in Country Music: A Brief History

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As soon as one hears the sound of flatpicking in country music, they are struck by its iconic and distinct style. The sound of a guitar strummed with fingers or a pick evokes images of dusty boots, open fields, and simple living. But where did this style originate, and how has it evolved over time? The answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted, with deep roots in both African and European musical traditions. In this article, we’ll explore the history and evolution of flatpicking in country music, from its early origins to its modern interpretations, and discuss the future of this timeless sound. So, let’s pick our way through the history books and discover just what makes flatpicking so unique and beloved.

Early Origins of Flatpicking

Early Origins Of Flatpicking
When we think of country music, one of the first things that may come to mind is the iconic sound of a guitar being played. One of the most significant guitar techniques in country music is flatpicking, which involves using a flat pick to pluck the strings of the guitar. Flatpicking has a long and fascinating history, with influences from both African American and European music traditions. Understanding the early origins of flatpicking is crucial to appreciating how it has evolved and become an essential part of country music. Let’s take a deep dive into the roots of flatpicking and how it shaped the genre we know today. For more information on learning flatpicking, check out this useful guide.

The African American Influence

The African American influence on flatpicking is an important and often overlooked aspect of the guitar’s history. African American musicians played a vital role in the formation and evolution of country music, including the development of the flatpicking style, which involves playing the guitar with a pick held between the thumb and fingers of the right hand.

Early blues musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake were among the first to incorporate flatpicking into their playing, and their influence could be heard in the work of white country musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The finger-picking style that accompanied many early blues songs was modified to include the use of a pick in order to create a more powerful sound that could match the volume of other instruments, such as the banjo and fiddle.

Flatpicking became particularly popular during the 1930s and 1940s. Many African American musicians such as Lesley Riddle and Arnold Schultz brought their fingerpicking and flatpicking techniques to the country music scene, where they were absorbed into the nascent genre. Schultz, in particular, was known for his unique style that involved picking the strings with a combination of his thumb and two fingers.

The African American influence on flatpicking can still be heard in modern country music, particularly in the work of black country artists like Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. However, this history is often erased or ignored, with some historians and musicians minimizing the contributions of African Americans to country music. It is important to remember and celebrate the role that black musicians played in the development of this quintessentially American art form.

For those interested in learning more about flatpicking, there are many online resources available. Check out our Flatpicking Finger Exercises or Tech Speed Acc Flatpick articles for tips and tricks on how to improve your playing. You can also explore famous flatpicking guitarists and their styles, or check out our breakdown of flatpicking patterns in country songs. Don’t forget to avoid common mistakes flatpicking acoustic guitar players make!

The European Influence

The European Influence

The roots of flatpicking can be traced back to Europe, where guitar playing was an important aspect of many traditional folk styles. The early guitar styles of Europe involved fingerpicking and commonly used the thumb and fingers to pluck the strings. However, as guitars began to evolve in size and shape, a new style of playing emerged which involved using a plectrum or flat pick to strike the strings.

It is believed that flatpicking was introduced to the United States by European immigrants, who brought with them various traditional music styles from their respective countries. These immigrants often settled in rural areas and played music for their communities, which included early versions of country and bluegrass.

In particular, the Irish and Scottish immigrants were known for playing fiddle tunes and ballads on the guitar with a flat pick. This playing style heavily influenced American country music and established the use of the flat pick in the genre.

Some of the earliest recorded country guitarists, such as Riley Puckett and Jimmie Rodgers, were heavily influenced by European guitar styles and incorporated flatpicking into their music. The use of a flat pick became crucial to the development of country music and was eventually adopted as the dominant style in the genre.

Today, flatpicking is a fundamental aspect of country guitar playing and is commonly used in many popular country songs. Songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show are great examples of flatpicking patterns in country music. To learn more about flatpicking patterns in country songs, check out my article on Flatpicking Patterns in Country Songs.

Development of Flatpicking in Country Music

Development Of Flatpicking In Country Music
As country music evolved over the years, so did the playing style of guitarists. One of the most prominent styles in country music is flatpicking. This technique involves using a flat pick to pluck individual strings on a guitar, resulting in a bright, crisp sound. The development of flatpicking in country music was influenced by several artists who made unique contributions to the genre. In this section, we will explore the history and evolution of flatpicking in country music and the musicians who helped shape this technique into what it is today.

The Carter Family

The 1920s saw the emergence of The Carter Family, a group of musicians that left an indelible mark on the history and evolution of flatpicking in country music. Led by A.P. Carter, the group consisted of his wife, Sara, and her cousin, Maybelle.

Their unique style of music was heavily influenced by traditional folk and gospel songs, featuring the use of the flatpick on the guitar in a way that hadn’t been seen before. A.P. Carter, in particular, was known for his ability to collect and preserve old songs that were in danger of being lost. He traveled throughout the South, recording and documenting the music of rural communities.

Their music was simple and raw, but it resonated with audiences across the country, earning them the nickname “The First Family of Country Music.” They were one of the first acts to record for the legendary RCA Victor record label and their songs, such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep On the Sunny Side,” became classics of the genre.

Their use of the flatpick on the guitar was groundbreaking and influential, setting the stage for future flatpicking greats. Maybelle Carter developed a unique style of playing called the “Carter Scratch,” which involved using her thumb to play the bass notes and her fingers to play the melody. This technique has since become a hallmark of country guitar playing.

The Carter Family played a significant role in the development of country music and flatpicking. Their influence can still be heard today in the music of many modern country artists.

What? Who? When?
Emergence of The Carter Family A.P. Carter, Sara Carter, and Maybelle Carter 1920s
Unique style of music The Carter Family N/A
Use of flatpick on guitar The Carter Family N/A
Musical influence The Carter Family N/A
Recorded for RCA Victor The Carter Family N/A
“Carter Scratch” technique Maybelle Carter N/A

Bill Monroe and Bluegrass

One of the most important figures in the history and evolution of flatpicking in country music is Bill Monroe, also known as the Father of Bluegrass. Monroe’s innovative approach to music and his virtuosic flatpicking style changed the face of country music forever.

Monroe was born in Kentucky in 1911 and grew up listening to old-time string bands and gospel music. He began playing music professionally in the 1930s and eventually formed his own band, the Blue Grass Boys. Monroe’s style of music, which he called “bluegrass,” was a mix of old-time fiddle tunes, gospel music, and jazz-influenced improvisation.

One of the key elements of Monroe’s music was his distinctive flatpicking style. He played the guitar fast and cleanly, using a flat pick to produce a bright, percussive sound. This style of playing was highly influential and became an essential part of the bluegrass sound.

To better understand how innovative Monroe’s flatpicking was, we can look at some examples of his playing. The following table highlights some of the unique techniques and features of Monroe’s flatpicking style:

Technique Description
Downstroking Monroe used primarily downstrokes when flatpicking. This allowed him to produce a clean, powerful sound.
Alternate Picking Monroe also used alternate picking, which involves alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes. This allowed him to play faster runs and create more complex rhythms.
Chord Inversions Monroe often used chord inversions in his flatpicking. This means he played a chord shape in a different position on the neck of the guitar, creating a unique sound.
Single Note Runs Monroe was also known for his fast, intricate single note runs. He used these runs to create melodic interest and add excitement to his songs.

Monroe’s influence on flatpicking in country music cannot be overstated. His innovative approach to playing the guitar helped to create a new genre of music and inspired countless musicians to take up the instrument. His legacy continues to be felt in country music today, as generations of musicians have built upon his foundations to create new and exciting sounds.

The Nashville Sound

During the 1960s, a new style of country music emerged called the Nashville Sound. With its lush orchestration and polished production, the Nashville Sound aimed to appeal to a wider audience and compete with the rising popularity of rock and roll. Flatpicking played a crucial role in this new sound, providing the backbone for the guitar soloing that was often featured in Nashville recordings.

Here are some key characteristics of the Nashville Sound:

  • The use of sophisticated background vocals, often including the famed Jordanaires.
  • Expanded use of string sections and orchestration, sometimes featuring prominent violins or steel guitars.
  • The rise of the “Nashville number system,” a shorthand method for notating chord progressions that allowed studio musicians to jam together with ease.
  • The creation of “countrypolitan” music, which blended country with pop, jazz, and other styles.
  • Focused on delivering universal appeal and crossing over into the mainstream.

Flatpicking guitarists like Chet Atkins, who was also a prominent producer during the Nashville Sound era, helped define the sound with their precise and melodic solos. Other flatpickers, such as Jerry Reed and Glen Campbell, also made significant contributions to the Nashville Sound.

Despite some criticism from traditionalists who felt the Nashville Sound was too polished and removed from the roots of country music, the style was hugely successful and influenced country music in both positive and negative ways. Today, many modern country artists still draw on the Nashville Sound for inspiration and incorporate flatpicking into their music in newer and more innovative ways.

Flatpicking in Modern Country Music

Flatpicking In Modern Country Music
As country music has evolved over time, so has the style of flatpicking. Today, it continues to be a vital component of modern country music. With the fusion of different genres, technological advancements in music production and changing audience preferences, flatpicking has undergone a series of transformations. Let’s dive into the new era of country music and investigate the ways in which flatpicking has evolved in modern times.

The New Traditionalists

In the 1980s, a new wave of country music emerged, marked by a return to traditional sounds and styles. This movement was known as the New Traditionalists, and it heavily featured flatpicking. Some of the most popular New Traditionalist artists included Randy Travis, George Strait, and Reba McEntire.

1. Randy Travis: Travis’ 1986 album “Storms of Life” marked a turning point in country music. It featured a stripped-down, traditional sound that stood in stark contrast to the polished, pop-infused country of the era. Travis’ signature song “Forever and Ever, Amen” featured a prominent flatpicking solo that underscored the song’s traditional roots.

2. George Strait: With his cowboy hat and western shirt, George Strait embodied the aesthetic of the New Traditionalists. His hit songs like “Amarillo By Morning” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” featured lively flatpicking solos that helped define the sound of the era.

3. Reba McEntire: McEntire’s 1990 album “Rumor Has It” was a landmark moment for the New Traditionalist movement. The album was filled with classic country sounds, including plenty of flatpicking. One standout track was “Fancy,” which told the story of a woman who rises from poverty to become a high-class escort. The song’s rollicking flatpicking solo added to the sense of rebellious energy.

The New Traditionalist movement was a reaction against the slick, pop-oriented country that had dominated the charts in the 1980s. It brought back an emphasis on traditional instruments like the acoustic guitar, and flatpicking became a key part of the new sound. These artists were embraced by audiences who were hungry for an alternative to the glossy, synthesized sounds that had been ubiquitous in the previous decade.

The Influence of Rock and Roll

As the decades progressed, country music encountered a variety of new sounds and influences, one of the most prominent being the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s. This new genre quickly spread like wildfire across the country, influencing music scenes from coast to coast, and country music was not immune to its impact.

The Influence of Rock and Roll on Flatpicking in Country Music

With rock and roll came a new wave of electric guitars, amplifiers, and other equipment that transformed the sound of music in a significant way. Initially, many traditional country music fans resisted these changes, but over time, the two genres gradually began to merge. As a result, flatpicking in country music also began to evolve, taking on a new edge and energy.

Some of the biggest names in country music during this period that were inspired by rock and roll included Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. These artists not only embraced the sound of electric guitars but also worked to incorporate the feel of rock and roll into their own music, adding a new dimension and vibrancy to their songs.

The Evolution of Flatpicking Techniques in Response to Rock and Roll

To keep up with this new sound, guitarists began to experiment with their flatpicking techniques, incorporating new rhythms and picking patterns into their playing. This shift in technique gave rise to new subgenres of country music such as rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound.

One of the most notable guitarists during this period was James Burton, who worked with both Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Burton was known for his fast and intricate flatpicking style, which could be heard on classic hits like “Susie Q” and “Hello Mary Lou.” His innovative use of the guitar created a new sound that was highly influential in the country music scene.

Ultimately, the influence of rock and roll on flatpicking in country music cannot be overstated. The incorporation of new techniques and rhythms brought a renewed energy to the genre, and country music as a whole evolved in response. As the music industry continues to change, it will be fascinating to see how flatpicking in country music continues to evolve and adapt.

The Rise of Country Pop

In recent years, Country Pop has become one of the fastest-growing genres in music. This subgenre of country music combines the traditional sounds of country with more modern, mainstream pop influences to create a unique sound that appeals to a wide audience. One of the defining features of Country Pop is its use of flatpicking guitar.

Here are some of the ways that flatpicking has evolved and been utilized in Country Pop:

  • The Electric Guitar: While flatpicking has historically been associated with acoustic guitar, many Country Pop artists have incorporated the use of electric guitars in their music. This has allowed for more complex and varied styles of flatpicking to emerge, with musicians like Keith Urban and Brad Paisley bringing their own distinct styles to the technique.
  • The Nashville Sound: Country Pop has its roots in the “Nashville sound” of the 1960s, which was characterized by polished, orchestral arrangements that aimed for a wider commercial appeal. These arrangements made use of flatpicking to add a distinctive twang to the music, with artists like Glen Campbell and Chet Atkins incorporating the technique into their playing.
  • The Crossover Appeal: Country Pop has become popular among younger audiences who may not have grown up with traditional country music. One way that flatpicking has contributed to this crossover appeal is through its use in popular television shows like Nashville and in movie soundtracks like A Star is Born. These mainstream media appearances have turned younger audiences onto the technique and helped to bring it into the Country Pop mainstream.

The rise of Country Pop has given flatpicking a new opportunity to be heard and has allowed it to evolve in new and exciting ways. As a result, it will be interesting to see how the technique continues to be utilized as Country Pop and other genres continue to evolve in the future.

The Future of Flatpicking in Country Music

As we look to the future of flatpicking in country music, it’s clear that this iconic technique will continue to play an important role in the genre. With the rise of technology and digital music production, many have worried that the art of flatpicking may be in danger of being lost or forgotten. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, there are many young musicians who are picking up the guitar and learning the flatpicking style, ensuring that it will continue to be a vibrant and evolving part of country music. It’s also worth noting that flatpicking has expanded beyond traditional country music and has been embraced by other genres such as bluegrass and folk.

Some musicians are even blending flatpicking with modern styles and techniques, creating a new sound that is both unique and exciting. And with the growing popularity of Americana music, which incorporates a blend of traditional country, folk, and rock influences, there is plenty of room for flatpicking to thrive.

Another promising trend is the emphasis on live performances and the return to a more organic sound. Many younger artists are seeking to create music that is authentic and true to their roots, and flatpicking can help achieve that goal.

Of course, there are always challenges when it comes to the future of any art form. As technology continues to advance and music consumption habits evolve, there may be shifts in the way flatpicking is created and consumed. But one thing is for certain: the love and passion for this timeless technique will never waver.

The future of flatpicking in country music is bright, and we can’t wait to see where it will take us. Whether it’s through the hands of a new generation of musicians or as a part of a traditional bluegrass band, flatpicking will continue to define and shape the sound of country music for years to come.


Throughout its history, flatpicking has been an integral part of country music. From its early origins with influences from both African American and European styles, to its development as a distinct technique within the genre, flatpicking has evolved alongside country music itself.

The pioneers of flatpicking, such as Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson, helped to define the sound of country music and paved the way for future generations of musicians. The influence of bluegrass and the Nashville sound further expanded the possibilities of flatpicking, while the incorporation of rock and roll and country pop elements added new dimensions to the technique.

Despite these changes, flatpicking remains a beloved aspect of country music, appreciated for both its technical prowess and the emotions it can evoke. As the genre continues to evolve and new artists emerge, it is likely that flatpicking will continue to evolve and adapt with the times.

In conclusion, the history and evolution of flatpicking in country music is a fascinating story that highlights the creativity, innovation, and endurance of the genre. From its humble beginnings to its current status as a beloved technique, flatpicking has proven to be an important part of country music’s past, present, and future. As fans and musicians alike continue to appreciate and explore the possibilities of flatpicking, the tradition is sure to thrive for years to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is flatpicking?

Flatpicking is a guitar playing technique that involves the use of a flat pick to strike the strings.

2. When did flatpicking first appear?

Flatpicking can be traced back to the early 1900s, but its precise origins are unknown.

3. Is flatpicking limited to country music?

No, flatpicking can be used in a variety of genres, including bluegrass, folk, and rock music.

4. Who were some of the early pioneers of flatpicking in country music?

The Carter Family and Bill Monroe were two of the most influential flatpickers in early country music.

5. How did the Nashville Sound impact flatpicking in country music?

The Nashville Sound, which emerged in the 1950s, introduced a more polished and orchestrated sound in country music, but it also led to a decline in the popularity of flatpicking.

6. Who are some of the new traditionalists in modern country music?

Artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have helped revive interest in traditional country music and flatpicking.

7. How has rock and roll influenced flatpicking in country music?

Rock and roll’s emphasis on electric guitars and distortion effects led to a decline in the popularity of flatpicking, but some country artists like Brad Paisley have incorporated rock elements into their flatpicking style.

8. What is the difference between flatpicking and fingerpicking?

Flatpicking involves using a pick to strike the strings, while fingerpicking involves using the fingers to pluck the strings.

9. Is it difficult to learn flatpicking?

Flatpicking can be challenging for beginners, but with practice and dedication, anyone can learn the technique.

10. Can flatpicking be used on acoustic and electric guitars?

Yes, flatpicking can be used on both acoustic and electric guitars.


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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