What is Flatpicking in Guitar? [Explained]

Flatpicking is one of the more difficult types of picking. It is one of the only picking techniques that also refers to a style of music as it does to a style of playing. So, what is flatpicking in guitar?

Flatpicking in guitar is a style of picking the strings that is often associated with bluegrass music. Flatpicking is faster paced, alternate picking that strikes the string down on the beat and up on the offbeat.

Continue reading to find out:

  1. Who invented flatpicking?
  2. What is flatpicking in guitar?
  3. 3 Tips to Improve Your Flatpicking

what is flatpicking in guitar

Who Invented Flatpicking?

Arthel “Doc” Watson is said to have invented flatpicking in the early 1960s. Doc began this picking style on his fiddle with folk and bluegrass music. He adapted this picking style to the acoustic guitar, stunning guitarists with the fast-paced nature of this picking. Thus, flatpicking was invented/popularized.

Doc was a blind guitarist and singer song-writer that won multiple Grammys. Doc started his solo tour in the early 1960s, releasing his breakthrough album Doc Watson. On the album was the song “Sittin’ on Top of The World”. This song became an instant folk classic that set the stage for flatpickers.

What is Flatpicking in Guitar?

Flatpicking is a style of guitar picking that uses a pick to pluck each string individually. With flatpicking, alternate picking is utilized where the down pluck occurs on the beat and the up pluck occurs on the offbeat. Flatpicking is commonly associated with Bluegrass music.

This style of picking with the down strum on the beat and up strum on the offbeat gives off a driving, percussive and precise sound.

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Aside from the literal movement of flat-picking that defines itself, it also refers to the style and body of music. Whereas, other picking methods like cross picking or fingerstyle do not. It is simply not just a style of playing the guitar, it is most commonly associated with bluegrass music and spans into other genres as well.

Flatpicking is defined by it’s limitations. Any use of finger picking or raking takes the picking style out of flatpicking.

With flatpicking, there is typically a lot of alternate picking as the music is often faster-paced. This style of picking drives the sound forward with absolute precision and gives off a more percussive tone.

Open chords/positions are usually associated with flat-picking. It is rare that flatpicking guitarists will span past the fifth fret unless a capo is used.

Watch this video of Billy Strings to see one of the best current flat-pickers in the world.

3 Tips to Improve Your Flatpicking – Flatpicking Exercises

Flatpicking is a picking style that takes hours and hours of practice. It is considered to be one of the more practice-intensive guitar techniques the instrument has. This is because of its often faster pace and complete precision.

That being said, let’s dig into the below tips that can help you improve your flatpicking. These are the tips I used to practice and I am thankful for them.

1. Implement Rest Strokes

This first tip to improve your flatpicking comes from the great Bryan Sutton. Classical training teaches guitarists to implement rest strokes, especially for songs that are faster paced. The concept of a rest stroke allows the pick to “run into” the the muted string below the string that is struck.

An example is picking the D string and continuing that motion to the G string. There the muted G string acts as a block for that motion.

With faster picking, the momentum gained from the picking can often send your picking hand in disarray. The great thing about rest strokes is that after striking your string and stopping at the muted one below it, the pick’s momentum is stopped and is already available to do the offbeat strike.

Rest strokes are especially helpful for beginner flatpickers that will find themselves striking the incorrect strings or getting displaced with the picking hand. With a rest stroke, fast picking becomes far easier as the reference point does not stray far after the first strike of the string.

2. Practice With a Metronome

The second tip to improve your flatpicking is to practice with a metronome. More so than any style of picking or music (bluegrass), keeping accurate time is essential.

There is minimal strumming to find your time as blues and rock guitarists often do so it is very easy to lose your sense of timing in the middle of a flatpicking run. Furthermore, because of the large number of hours needed to practice flatpicking, many guitarists become “bedroom guitarists”. This means they learn their own sense of timing.

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This own sense of timing for a bedroom guitarist can become troublesome as soon as they start to play with other musicians.

Practicing with a metronome every practice session will help you learn proper timing as well as playing the beat and offbeat correctly.

3. Start With Simple Songs

The third tip to improve your flatpicking is to start with simple songs. This will likely be rather obvious but it is still important to bring up. It is easy to become discouraged when seeing a musician like Billy Strings play. But behind the musician is thousands of hours of practice.

Flatpicking often carries the assumption that meticulous exercises are needed to become proficient. Exercies that are mundane and do not provide much enjoyment.

Instead, I encourage guitarists to start with simple songs when learning how to flatpick. Learning songs instead of repeating exercises gives the guitarist more sense of achievement and is simply more fun. Afterall, playing the guitar is supposed to be fun no matter your level.

A song I encourage guitarists to learn is from Active Melody.

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