The Sins of the Flat Picker

Isn’t it true that flat picking needs a reformation? Perhaps it hasn’t seen enough attention to even be considered for reform. We now face a time when this is needed most. We see thousands (if not millions) of flat picking videos proliferating on YouTube. Perhaps it may be a mistake to reflect on it too heavily, as it may disrupt its (flat picking’s) natural trajectory. I am willing to do this, only because I believe that enough of a disrespect as been enacted by this community. It has extracted a resource which is simultaneously non-extractable, and inexplicably delicate. I am speaking of old-time fiddle tunes, and their sources. Politically, there has been a divide between bluegrass and old-time; as if they weren’t siblings. The spokespeople of this political divide are the following: fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Perhaps of most audacious character in the divide is the guitar. The instrument's melodic usefulness, ensemble-wise, has only become realized within the last 60 years. Perhaps this is the reason why reflection has not been possible: we have been too wrapped up in the doing that we haven’t moved into the knowing.

Like a nation, we’ve seen the American guitar grow, both physically and influentially. From a humble, peanut-shaped parlor instrument in the late 19th century, we’ve seen its body grow in both width and length as it develops alongside the banjo: a battle for volume. Both landing in their finalized forms nearabout the same time, the banjo and guitar structurally "peak" in 1930s America. After these technological advancements leveled out among the playing community, they became the weapons used on the front lines of the bluegrass crusades during the 1940s and onwards. Ironically or not, the most common configurations for the guitar and banjo were named the "dreadnought," and "Mastertone," respectively; the former being the name of a British battleship. For what reason? Competition. Early patents of the banjo during the late 19th century incorporated steel strings and enclosed rims, which shows inventor's concern for volume that was being afforded to guitar builders of the same era. This launched counter attacks from the guitar building community, which inevitably led to Oliver Ditson's invention of the dreadnought guitar.

We see that the smaller-bodied guitars and open back banjos found their home in old-time circles, while dreadnoughts and Mastertone banjos found their way in bluegrass bands.

Perhaps it is impossible to breach this topic without experiencing it for oneself. I first became aware of the guitar’s politically charged position across both genres when I first attended the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV. Before arriving, I was a fiddle-tune driven, recovering bluegrass musician. Thankfully my appreciation and love for fiddle tunes kept my head securely in place. Without them, I would have been a lost cause. Nowhere did I hear Blackberry Blossom being played; the occasional, mutated Billy in the Lowground. Not one guitar melody, save for the greasy undergrounders who could be found in marajuana-smelling circus tents.

If we look at the recorded history of flat picking guitar, we see a similar trend. The recovering bluegrassers found each other in dismay after the destructive reign of the folk revival came to a close, and disco creeped in. Scratching their heads, these musicians made change happen fast. We see the rise of the Aereo Plane Band and Dawg’s Quinet: at the forefront of these, we see the flatpicked guitar, louder than ever.

Before this rendezvous, we were lucky to have well-intentioned practitioners develop this style: people like George Shuffler, Doc Watson, Dan Crary, Norman Blake, and Clarence White. As these forces culminated, something was lost, as is evident by modern reflection: the impetus, or “will” of flat picking is obscured. Why did it come to be? I am not referring to flat picked melodies which accompany lyrical tunes; I am referring to the performance of fiddle melodies, which beg to be executed in a distinct, idiosyncratic manner.

This is where the sins of the flat picking community begin. When asked where their tunes come from, they could not tell you. Not out of rejection for tradition (though it is sometimes the case). Instead, they don’t know what to ask, who to ask, how to ask... and, most terrifyingly, why to ask. I am not suggesting a unified appeal towards traditionalism across the board. Instead, I am insisting that flat picking can serve as a line of communication between two traditionally disparate worlds. By using the guitar as a frame of reference, we may see the irony and shortcomings in a linear perspective fueled by two worlds cynical of one another. Most importantly, this discussion shall provide a home for individuals, like myself, who are driven by ambitions which require reconciliation in order to be executed non-oafishly.

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