THE EVOLUTION OF
COUNTRY FINGERPICKING

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 their homes.

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 Atkins.

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 Johnson.

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 bluesy clarinet.

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 area.

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 by Travis.

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 to tell.

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 Chet.

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.


Article from:
       Guitar Player  magazine,
Written by:
       Rich Kienzle

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