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flatpicking

I am beginning to recognise the value of teaching guitar students how to flatpick on their guitars. But first, allow me to offer a definition:

flatpicking is a style of playing which is mostly performed on acoustic flat-top steel stringed guitar and is done entirely with a plectrum or pick. The pick is responsible for both creating effective accompaniments, lead guitar breaks and solo guitar playing (in other words, self contained with no accompaniment). When accompanying, the flatpicking guitarist will often provides bass lines alongside the chords that are strummed. This can include bass runs (notes which are used to connect chords roots) as well as licks (lead breaks). Of course, the exact approach to accompaniment depends upon the context: you don’t want to cross wires with a bassist if there is one present in the lineup. All three approaches feature the use of slurs such as hammer ons, slides and pull offs too; which of course, is done with the power of the left hand fingers alone!

I should just say that flatpicking guitar really has its origins in Bluegrass (1940’s and onwards) and Old time Country Music; so we are talking traditional American Folk Music. And it all began when guitarists tried to emulate the fiddle players resident in bands in these styles; trying to copy the fast, flowing lines that fiddle players use. It has also come to be associated with Celtic Music (Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes) and all the different types of dances featured in this music such as Hornpipe, Strathspey and Jig.

Here’s one of it’s greatest exponents, Steve Kaufman:

Although my experience with this style extends back many years (I grew up listening to Country Music), I haven’t really been teaching it to any great extent; though that is changing. I will tell you why: first of all, a lot of beginner students come to me with acoustic guitars (nylon or steel). But rather than teach them fingerstyle or indeed Classical, I think the use of plectrums is a far easier technique to get to grips with. So, it becomes a question of what they can do on acoustic guitars with plectrums. Whilst they may aspire to playing electric guitars, if the reality is that they only have acoustic then I see no point in trying to teach them playing styles that really need an electric guitar to sound authentic. It’s too disheartening for them…and for me!

But I can teach them styles and techniques which overlap both electric and acoustic; and there I feel that flatpicking does the job! Flatpicking covers both the roles of lead and rhythm as it relates to the normal role of electric guitar; except tha the authentic sound of flatpicking is achieved with an acoustic guitar. Great, no horrible bends to negotiate and it doesn’t have to sound overdriven or distorted in any way. And another thing, flatpicking fiddle tunes is a great way to learn about simple rhythms because mostly they are consistent eighth notes or sixteenth notes. A lot of it is done in the first few positions which is good too for beginners; the tunes are a great way to practice alternate picking (no sweep picking here!) too. And finally, both student and teacher can engage in an interaction between two guitars that sounds effective and authentic.

So, there you are, I hope you are sold on the idea of learning to flatpick – no mattter whether you are a beginner or more advanced. Finally let me say what great fun it is to play flatpicking tunes – they are pretty sprightly to say the least!

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