THE EVOLUTION OF
By Rich Kienzle
SUCH AS EARL SCRUGGS' rolling in style of 5-string banjo helped define
the sound of bluegrass, the fingerpicked guitar-both electric and acoustic-has
shaped the rhythm and tonal color of country music for several decades.
Of all the country guitar styles, none are richer or more complex than
those played with the fingers. And none have had such far-reaching effects
on other musical idioms.
Popular history has generally credited only a few guitarists-most notably
Merle Travis and Chet Atkins for the development of the wide range of
fingerpicking styles, but the truth goes much deeper. The evolution
came through the creativity and ideas of many musicians, the majority
of them in western Kentucky-some not well known more than 20 miles from
The basic fingerpicking style (known as the "choke" style)
consists of the right-hand index finger picking out the melody while
the thumb, usually equipped with a pick, plucks out a constant alternating
bass accompaniment. The net result is a self-contained, rich, varied
sound that gives the illusion of a lead and rhythm guitar being played
simultaneously. Talented players have introduced their own individual
variations of the basic style to create a personal sound. In the case
of Merle Travis, he also brushed the fourth, third, and second strings
with the thumb on the upstroke while muting the strings with the heel
of the right hand, which created a percussive bass-chord accompaniment
to the lead. On occasion, Travis would add even more variety by interjecting
a single-string melody. Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed use many or all of
their right-hand fingers to create their sounds.
The earliest fingerpicking styles evolved slowly, handed down from
guitarist to guitarist in the Appalachian regions. One of the first
influential guitarists from this area was a black man named Sylvester
Weaver. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1897, Weaver was apparently
the first blues guitarist to ever record. His 1924 recording of "Smoketown
Strut" for Okeh demonstrates the basic elements of country fingerpicking
with its syncopated bass, clearly articulated melody line in the key
of C, and the use of a roll similar to that later popularized by Earl
Scruggs and Merle Travis. Weaver also composed a tune called "Guitar
Rag, " which upon even casual listening is clearly the antecedent
to the famous "Steel Guitar Rag" composed and recorded by
Leon McAuliffe with Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys in 1936. His intricate
style led Okeh recording executives to dub him "the man with the
talking guitar," a description later applied to both Travis and
Weaver was not the only black guitarist playing in that style around
that time. To the south, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake (from
Tampa, Florida) developed highly complex, intricate styles, but their
impact was little felt outside their immediate regions until they recorded
several years later. Another black guitarist, Arnold Shultz, may have
had an even greater impact on the development of Kentucky fingerstyle.
Shultz, a fiddler/ guitarist who played around western Kentucky, had
a profound impact on white guitarists in the region. Though segregation
was the norm throughout the South (and in the North more than many realized),
rural western Kentucky seemed surprisingly open-minded to interaction
between white and black musicians. Shultz was a favorite at white square
dances where he met and influenced, among others, a young Bill Monroe.
He also may have predated Weaver with his guitar techniqueborn in 1886
in Ohio County, Kentucky, he was nearly a decade older. Though Shultz
never recorded, according to Charles Wolfe's excellent book Kentucky
Country (University of Kentucky Press), some who remember his playing
have compared it to Blind Blake's.
But the musician who apparently benefited most from listening to Shultz
was a white guitarist from Muhlenberg County named Kennedy Jones, who
added his own concepts to the style. Kentucky guitar researcher Bill
Lightfoot's 1979 interview with Mose Rager, published in a folklore
magazine entitled Adena #4, reveals Rager's recollection that Jones
pioneered the use of a thumbpick to produce an enhanced bass accompaniment.
Jones also varied his chord positions. "He'd go way down on the
neck," Rager told Lightfoot. Rager also credits Jones (apparently
having never heard Weaver) with creating a multiple-finger "roll."
Lester "Plucker" English was another
Muhlenberg guitarist whose knowledge of chord construction and popular
music had an impact. Travis remembered listening to Rager and English
playing together, and contrary to what one might think, Tin Pan Alley
played afar more prominent role in the repertoires of the area's guitarists
than country songs. "Little Brown Jug," "Has Anybody
Seen My Gal," and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" were all
favorite instrumental numbers of Rager, English, Ike Everly, and other
guitarists of the era, as were blues tunes. In 1968 and 1980, Merle
Travis continued in this tradition by recording entire instrumental
albums of pop tunes.
Rager and his longtime friend Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil) became
a team by the early '30s, having met while working in the coal mines,
They became popular regulars on the local house party circuit, where
they exerted their influence on many budding guitarists, among them
an adolescent Merle Travis. Everly, who also played professionally,
had a slightly different style, and careful analysis suggests that Rager
was the unifier of the earlier styles of Shultz, Jones, and English.
In 1943 Rager took the plunge into professional music. He worked on
the Grand Ole Opry with Grandpa J ones briefly and then joined up with
fiddler Curly Fox and his wife, vocalist Texas Ruby. He can be heard
on Fox's 1947 recording of "Black Mountain Rag" on a solo
that, though more restrained, leaves little doubt of his impact on Travis.
He may also have done some recording with Fox and Ruby on Columbia before
leaving music to return to Muhlenberg County.
At the same time all this was transpiring in Kentucky, down in middle
Tennessee Sam McGee was working on his own fingerpicking guitar style.
Born in Williamson County (south of Nashville) in 1894, he began playing
fiddle but quickly graduated to guitar. McGee was influenced by a variety
of factors, among them the playing of black laborers who frequented
his father's store and the lessons he took from a black guitarist named
Jim Sapp. According to McGee's biographer, Charles Wolfe, he may have
also been influenced by the "parlor" guitar styles of the
late 1800s, judging from certain songs in his repertoire. His playing
style was similar to that of the Kentucky fingerpickers: Alternating
bass notes created a bouncy accompaniment while the fingers picked out
bright melodic flourishes on the treble strings.
Sam and his brother, fiddler Kirk McGee, were among the earliest performers
on the Grand Ole Opry, where they worked with Uncle Dave Macon and Fiddlin'
Arthur Smith's group, the Dixieliners. Though he performed at the Opry
for many years and recorded several instrumentals, Sam remained a relatively
obscure figure until folklorists rediscovered and extensively recorded
him in the '60s and '70s. Wolfe sees a number of reasons for this, among
them McGee's inherent shyness, the fact that he didn't
record any Strong-selling guitar numbers, and the lack of decent amplification
systems at the Opry tent shows he and Kirk often played. Nonetheless,
McGee's style was an important-if belatedly recognized-aspect of country
fingerpicking that undoubtedly influenced many guitarists within range
of the Opry's radio signal. There were others in the South also experimenting
with fingerpicking during this period. Among them was Roy Harvey. Best
known for his work with Charlie Poole's North Carolina Ramblers, he
also recorded fingerpicked guitar duets with Leonard Copeland and Jess
All of this had a profound impact on the young Merle Travis. Born in
Rosewood, Kentucky, on November 29, 1917, Travis became fascinated with
the playing of Everly and Rager and made it a point to show up whenever
they performed in the area. Rager remembered him as an intense, apt
pupil. "Sometimes I'd make achord, "he told Bill Lightfoot,
"and Merle'd say, "Let's see you do that again." And
that's how Travis got to listenin' to me and started playin'. And I
declare, I thought he made a good 'on myself."
Following a hitch in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Merle Travis
moved across the Ohio River to Evansville, Indiana, where his brother
Taylor lived. One night he played an Everly/Rager-style version of "Tiger
Rag" at a marathon dance that was being broadcast over local radio.
Shortly after that he caught on with the Tennessee Tomcats, a local
band, then moved on to a better-known act: fiddler Clayton McMichen's
Georgia Wildcats, where he was known as "Ridgerunner" Travis.
From there he went to a group known as the Drifting Pioneers who, in
1939, joined the musical staff at 50,000-watt WLW Radio in Cincinnati.
His abilities as a guitar soloist were obvious to the management, and
he began playing often over the station (though he caught some flak
from the station operators over his use of an electric guitar). That
association with WLW initially did more than anything else to spread
the gospel of fingerpicking.
One true believer who picked up the WLW signal on his two-tube Allied
radio one night in Mountain Hill, Georgia, was aspiring 16-year-old
Chester Atkins. Merle's playing sealed his musical future. "His
style was closer to that sound I had been searching for than anything
I ever heard," Chet wrote later in his autobiography, Country Gentleman
(Regnery). His inability to get a consistent signal from WLW may have
indirectly contributed to his finding his own approach to Merie's playing,
since he had to experiment without the benefit of hearing him constantly.
In late 1943 Travis and his close friend Grandpa Jones recorded the
first masters ever issued by the King label of Cincinnati (later a distinguished
country and rhythm and blues label) as the Sheppard Brothers. In February
1944 the pair did another session that included Merle's performance
of Alton Delmore's "What Will I Do," which featured his vocal
and lead guitar backed by Jones' rhythm guitar. The solo break may be
the first substantive recorded example of the Kentucky fingerpicking
style. Unfortunately, the record wasn't issued for over a decade and
was then was buried on a King anthology LP, Nashville Bandstand.
Merle's success at WLW influenced two of his colleagues there. Staff
guitarists Joe Maphis and Roy Lanham both learned
the Travis style, albeit in their own ways. Maphis, a confirmed flatpicker,
developed a variation of the Travis style that involved holding a flatpick
with the thumb and index fingers of the right hand while picking out
the melody with the middle finger. Lanham, a
native of Corbin, Kentucky, who excelled at jazz in the George Barnes
style, learned the Travis method in a more conventional way.
In March 1944 Merle pulled up stakes and headed for Los Angeles, hoping
to capitalize on the strong reputation he had built in the Midwest.
He quickly found work as an extra in western movies and as a sideman
with the western swing bands of Porky Freeman, Texas Jim Lewis, and
Ray Whitley. By mid 1945 he'd recorded the first disc under his own
name. "That's All," released on the local Atlas label, was
a tune he and Jones had written in Cincinnati but, ironically, instead
of fingerpicking, a stinging, single-string blues guitar solo constituted
the instrumental break. At that point Travis was still a couple of years
away from recording an instrumental under his own name. It appears that
the first instrumental commercially recorded in that style was Chet
Atkins' 1946 recording of "Guitar Blues" for the Nashville-based
Bullet Records (also the first label to record B. B. King). The tune
was a mellow, after-hours blues recorded on electric guitar and featuring
a surprisingly sophisticated Owen Bradley arrangement complete with
Travis had continued his association with King Records on the West
Coast, doing some production and working as a session man. When former
WLW colleague Hank Penny moved west in 1945 to lead a western swing
band, Travis went into the studio to back him. Among the 12 songs they
recorded was "Merle's Buck Dance," a solo instrumental derived
from "Buck And Wing." He'd learned the song from Mose Rager,
who'd learned it from Kennedy Jones. Travis' pulsating, syncopated thumbpicking
provided the rhythmic foundation for virtually all the songs recorded
at that session. He also contributed a blistering, intense solo on "Steel
Guitar Stomp" (out of print), a throbbing instrumental featuring
Noel Boggs' steel guitar.
By 1946, Travis' reputation was such that he'd begun doing session
work for Capitol Records, the major independent label on the West Coast.
One recording on which he was prominently featured was "Ridin'
Down To Santa Fe" by Shug Fisher And The Ranchmen Trio, a group
styled after the Sons Of The Pioneers. His solo break on the song constitutes
one of his finest instrumental moments on record-easily the equal of
the Penny session. Merle also led his own western dance band in the
In March, Travis was signed to Capitol as a solo artist, and his first
release was recorded with a sassy honky tonk band. "Cincinnati
Lou"/ "No Vacancy" became a major hit, yet it featured
no guitar soloing. Nonetheless, both songs underscore the influence
Travis' guitar work had on the rhythms of his material. Virtually all
of the country hits he had in the '40s, from "Divorce Me C.O. D."
to "I Like My Chicken Fryin' Size" and "Sweet Temptation"
are built around the same syncopated rhythm that came from his thumb.
After that first single, he began taking guitar breaks on his records,
which helped expose his playing to a nationwide audience, as did the
instrumentals he recorded for Capitol Transcriptions with acoustic guitar
(later issued as Walkin' The Strings).
By the late '40s Merle's recording success and the popularity of the
Capitol transcriptions had established him as the nation's preeminent
country guitarist. Only Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith enjoyed
similar stature, and Chet Atkins' popularity was just beginning to build
after his 1947 signing to RCA Victor.
A number of fine guitarists developed in the wake of Travis, among
them Texas based singer Hank Thompson. Thompson was one of the few western
swing bandleaders to sing his own lead vocals and have hit country recordings
well into the '50s. He became an excellent Travis-styled fingerpicker,
following Merle to the point of having Gibson custom-build him a Super4OO
electric with inlays, pickups, and a vibrato unit similar to those used
Much more obscure but no less talented was Al Meyers, who worked in
California as a sideman with the Hollywood-based western vocal trio
called the Georgia Crackers (Bob, Slim, and Hank Newman). When Bob Newman
began doing solo recordings for the King label in the early '50s, Meyers
was often prominently featured. He also did some Travis-styled instrumentals
for King, backed by Jerry Byrd on steel guitar, which were later issued
on a budget anthology album. Whether Meyers played in a purely Travis
based style or used a flatpick to approximate the sound is difficult
By 1950 Chet Atkins' reputation had begun to emerge in a substantive
way. He'd had a solo spot on the Opry as Red Foley's guitarist around
1946, and then worked as a sideman until Steve Sholes signed him to
RCA in 1947. His earliest Victor recordings were more or less in the
Travis style and featured vocals. There's some speculation that Sholes
originally had him in mind as direct competition to Travis, who was
then racking up numerous country hits. It soon became apparent, however,
that Chet's direction was more oriented towards instrumentals.
This, in fact, was probably why Chet's impact appears to be greater
than Merle's. While Travis was concentrating on a career as a singer,
songwriter, and guitarist, Chet was almost exclusively recording instrumentals.
While Merle was recording vocals for Capitol, Chet was racking up numerous
instrumental hits and gaining a strong reputation for his work in the
fledgling Nashville recording scene. Though Chet has stated that he
finds it rough to listen to his early recordings due to the less-than-outstanding
recording quality of that day, they were highly sophisticated in their
musical content. His sidemen were always top-flight and complemented
the sophisticated influences his recordings showed.
Chet distinguished himself stylistically from Travis by freely working
in musical ideas from Les Paul, Les' mentor Django Reinhardt, and various
other non-country instrumentalists. The Reinhardt spirit seems to pervade
many of the early Atkins sides, as fellow Django devotees Homer Haynes
and Jethro Burns (on rhythm guitar and mandolin, respectively) backed
Several of Chet's instrumentals, particularly "Galloping On The
Guitar" and "Main Street Breakdown" (both recorded in
1949), became popular as themes for country music discjockey shows.
The 1951 release of Chet's first 10' RCA LP, Chet Atkins In Three Dimensions,
spread his reputation, as did his subsequent singles and albums. It
was not until about 1954 that Capitol released Merle Travis' first instrumental
album, The Merle Travis Guitar. Meanwhile, guitarists around the world
soaked up the Atkins influence, picking up second-hand what is now commonly
termed "Travis picking" or the "Travis style."
Other guitarists were emerging in the same style by this time, among
them Jackie Phelps, who worked on the Opry. In the mid '50s Phelps joined
Roy Acuffs Smoky Mountain Boys as their first electric guitarist when
Acuff, stung by rock and roll's success, tried integrating the electric
sound into his own for a brief, unsuccessful period. Widely respected
in Nashville for his fingerpicking abilities, Phelps was often teamed
in recent years with the late Jimmie Riddle on the Hee-Haw television
show. Another equally talented but even more obscure Kentucky fingerpicker
popular during that era was "Spider" Rich, a friend of Atkins.
Some artists influenced by the Travis/ Atkins style approached it their
own way, such as singer/ guitarist Billy Grammer, who in the '50s featured
a number called "The Merle Travis Blues," in which he used
a flatpick to cross-pick Travis style licks.
Another who absorbed much from both Chet and Merle was Winfield Scott
'Scotty" Moore. As lead guitarist with the Memphis based Starlite
Wranglers, he often supplemented his income with studio work. In July
of 1954 Scotty, along with bassist Bill Black, recorded with Elvis Presley
on Eivis' first Sun sessions. As Presley sang "That's Airight (Mama),"
Moore chimed in with accompaniment and leads virtually identical to
those of Travis and Atkins. In the process, he made the fingerpicking
style an integral portion of rockabilly guitar. [Ed. Note: For an extensive
overview of this style, see the Roots Of Rockabilly features in the
December '83 issue.] Scotty, as well as Chet, had such an impact that
more than a decade later their styles are apparent in the solo breaks
of George Harrison on several Beatles tunes, among them "I'm A
Loser" and "She's A Woman."
Two other legendary early rock stylists heavily influenced by the Atkins/
Travis style were the late Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy, who (although
his hits don't reflect it) is an expert fingerpicker. Both even emulated
Chet's choice of guitar-the Gretsch 6120. The lesser-known Hal Harris
was a Texas based country and rockabilly player who also excelled in
this style. Though he approached it with a more primitive sense of phrasing
than did Scotty Moore, his pulsating, harsh sound worked well on many
country and rockabilly recordings for the Houston-based Starday Records.
He was featured prominently both on George Jones' gospel number "Taggin'
Along" and "My Baby Left Me," a cover of the Presley
hit by singer Leon Payne recording under the pseudonym of "Rock
Rogers." The rockabilly guitarist who took the Atkins/Travis styles
a quantum leap ahead was Georgia-born Jerry R. Hubbard. Best known as
Jerry Reed, he began as a rocker recording for Capitol. But by the '60s
he became a Nashville studio musician of the first magnitude, best known
for his "claw" approach to fingerpicking. Where Travis used
the thumb and index finger almost exclusively and Atkins used thumb
and at least two other fingers, Reed used them all. He created driving,
harmonically-rich percussive leads far beyond anything Kennedy Jones
could have imagined. Atkins' influence gave him discipline, sophistication,
and a clean, uncluttered approach to single-string leads interspersed
with fingerpicking. More recently Reed has downplayed the fingerpicking
to concentrate on mastering flatpicking. In any case, his considerable
instrumental talents have been somewhat overshadowed by his raucous
hit recordings and thriving acting career.
Merle Travis' youngest disciple, Tom Bresh, got his tutelage from the
master himself Travis had known Bresh, born in 1948 in southern California,
since he was a small child, and taught him his fingerpicking style while
Bresh was quite small. Through his teens, Bresh was featured in Las
Vegas with Hank Penny's country/ pop/jazz stage show (he replaced Roy
Clark) and often played Travis-styled solos such as "Wheels"
onstage. It was Bresh who officiated at Travis' funeral in Oklahoma
in November '83.
Another Travis adherent who has become a strong influence is Arthel
"Doc" Watson. Primarily known for his flatpicking, he is,
nonetheless, a longtime admirer who often fingerpicks Merle's tunes
such as the Delmore Brothers' "Deep River Blues" arranged
in the syncopated Travis style. To this day, Watson has continued to
play in the Travis style, using a thumbpick on his acoustic guitar.
Doc's son and playing partner-an excellent fingerpicker himself-was
in fact named after Merle.
Chet Atkins' most distinguished recent disciple, Lenny Breau, has come
far from the days when he worked at emulating Chet's solos to become
one of the premier 7-string jazz guitarists of the current period. Nonetheless,
the influence of Chet still manages to show through in his playing,
particularly on the Atkins/ Breau collaboration album, Standard Brands.
Their jazzy duet interpretations of "Taking A Chance On Love"
and "This Can't Be Love," though unorthodox, are basically
a sophisticated continuation of the Kentucky fingerpickers' tradition
of playing Tin Pan Alley songs. Later guitarists including Marcel Dadi
have brought their own concepts to the Travis/ Atkins style. And perhaps
that is the best place to leave it. Suffice to say that through this
convoluted evolutionary process, the popularity of country fingerpicking
has mushroomed from a parochial style limited to one region in western
Kentucky to a sound heard on country music recordings throughout the
world. It is a style that, in many ways, changes but also remains the
same-as galvanizing and uplifting as the first time Travis or Atkins
heard it. Its popularity remains as a memorial to Merle Travis, the
man who first spread the word, and its impact on country and rock music
is still being felt and probably always will be.
Guitar Player magazine,