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The Fundamentals of Flatpicking Guitar

fundamentals of flatpicking

This is for anyone who's still not sure just what makes flatpicking different from other styles of guitar. Here's one way to look at it. There are two ways to sound a guitar string; by plucking with the fingers or by using a pick, or plectrum. When we use a pick to sound the string, this is known as ‘flatpicking’, which produces the crisp, classic sound of many bluegrass, rock, and jazz standards.

Common Flatpicking Styles

Different styles of flatpicking can be contrasted with fingerstyle guitar, which utilizes the softer sound provided by playing with the flesh and/or nails of the fingers, either on nylon or steel-string guitars. Flatpicking is typically favored by players who prefer a bright, crisp, metallic sound, while fingerstyle tends to be preferred by those who need softer, darker, or more mellow tone.

When we use the term ‘flatpicking’, it typically refers to a folk or bluegrass style. However, hybrids of flatpicking and fingerstyle can be found in folk as well. For example, by using a thumb pick, guitarists can maintain a driving bass line while simultaneously plucking multiple treble strings using the fingertips. This affords players the freedom to create and control independent musical voices at the same time, thereby making more complex arrangements possible.

As with all styles of guitar, flatpicking involves a high degree of coordination between the left and right hand. Let’s look at a few common flatpicking styles.

fundamentals of flatpicking

Flatpicking Techniques

For the most part, bluegrass is a very rhythmic style of guitar. Lead licks will go in circular fashion, giving each player a chance to demonstrate their own unique style. The fretting hand typically holds basic chords in a simple progression with the picking hand doing most of the work.

Alternate bass picking involves picking the root note of the chord (typically the lowest or bass note), strumming, then picking an alternate bass note in the same chord and strumming again, all while playing downstrokes. For example, if we were to play an open E chord, we would pick the open 6th string, strum, then pick the fretted B note on the 5th string, 2nd fret, and strum the treble strings again.

The ‘boom-chicka’ technique is very similar to the alternate bass picking except in this technique we add an upstroke after the strum, hence the ‘chicka’ sound. The first note or the ‘boom’ is alternated with the note a fifth away from the root (typically located on adjacent strings).

fundamentals of flatpicking

Crosspicking is another common and slightly more advanced technique for bluegrass that integrates the boom-chicka and alternate bass picking techniques. Instead of the typical downstroke strum, crosspicking is an arpeggiated pattern, meaning that each note of a chord is sounded individually, with precision, rather than indiscriminately sweeping the pick across the strings. This allows the flatpicker to achieve the same precision as the fingerstyle player while maintaining the bright, crisp sound of the flatpick.

One of the most common licks in bluegrass is the G-run (aka ‘Flatt run’, after Lester Flatts). When playing a chord progression, this run is often played toward the end of a measure to signal that the measure is ending. Some players extend this pattern to cover an entire measure which incorporates alternate bass lines and crosspicking, ultimately cadencing on the boom-chicka pattern as they return to the beginning of the song or next verse.

Lastly, a great tune for integrating crosspicking and alternate bass picking is the famous ‘Wildwood Flower’, in which the melody and rhythm are maintained simultaneously. Start by learning the melody and chords separately, and once you can play them both from memory, try putting them together, playing slowly and clearly.

These two examples will get you in touch with your bluegrass roots, and get you flatpicking like a pro in no time!

fundamentals of flatpicking

Love bluegrass guitar? Then be sure to check out Bryan Sutton's flatpicking lessons here at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons! 

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