Want to join in a bluegrass song circle or play on your own for fun? Guitar teacher Matthew K. shares the three terms and techniques you’ll need to know to play bluegrass guitar…
Learning bluegrass on the guitar is not much different than learning blues, rock, or country guitar. There are terms and techniques that you will come across in learning bluegrass guitar that may confuse you, but do not fret! Below are three common bluegrass terms that you will certainly come across while learning the guitar.
Flatpicking is a bluegrass term that means…well, using a pick. This is opposed to using your fingers, finger picks, or a thumb pick. We have all seen a common guitar pick, this is just the term that bluegrass player have to describe using one.
If you are a bluegrass fan, you understand that the majority of the guitar work is fast! Before playing bluegrass guitar fast, you have to learn the proper flatpicking technique. First, the pick should be held between the thumb and the index finger. Hold it just tight enough so it does not fall out of your hand, but do not squeeze too tightly! Make sure you are comfortable
Alternate picking is the only way to play quickly. You have to play slow before you can play fast. Rushing the process will result in sloppy rhythms and ugly performance. The best way to gain this skill is to practice scales, alternating down strums and up strums on every beat. For example, if you are tapping your foot, your down strums should be on the tap. Below is tablature for a common bluegrass scale.
G major pentatonic
Once you graduate from this exercise, you can jump into a full 2 octave pentatonic scale. Practice it both forward and backward.
G major pentatonic
Crosspicking is a much more difficult technique used in bluegrass guitar, and should only be attempted when the player has mastered alternate picking, as alternate picking is the basis of crosspicking.
This technique creates a sound that simulates the fingerpicking style, but it has a much more clean and polished sound when mastered. Usually crosspicking is done in groups of three and features a similar pattern that repeats. Again, it should be performed slowly at first, gradually getting faster. Below is a great video that demonstrates the technique.
When crosspicking, you will have to learn to alternate pick in a different way. Instead of Down-Up-Down, the pattern may call for a Down-Down-Up or an Up-Up-Down pattern to your strumming.
In the 1930s, there was a group that revolutionized bluegrass music. They were called The Carter Family. The Carter style, which is a technique commonly used in slower bluegrass tunes, is still used today. The band would often play the melodic notes on the bass strings of the guitar, and the rhythmic fills on the treble strings. Meaning, the lead guitar parts are played on the low strings.
This technique is very similar to crosspicking. Rather than picking the strings next to one another, your pick will be jumping from the low strings to the high strings.
BluegrassGuitar.com is a great website that explains these terms and techniques in much more detail. If you are looking to dive into this style of guitar playing, first do research online, but it is always better to find a skilled teacher for private lessons.
What are you waiting for? Search for your guitar teacher now!
Matthew K. teaches guitar, piano, and music theory lessons in Brooklyn, NY. He studied music composition at Mercyhurst University, and he has been teaching lessons for four years. Matthew is available to teach in-person lessons as well as online via Skype. Learn more about Matthew here!
Photo by Tommy Wells