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Flat Picking and Bluegrass Guitar: A Student's Perspective

I have been an ArtistWorks student for over a year now, learning guitar with Bryan Sutton.  I still find it somewhat incredible to be able to say, “Bryan Sutton is my bluegrass flat pick teacher.” 

Bryan’s accomplishments and recognition in the world of bluegrass is legendary: 8 time Guitar Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Association plus five albums, including his latest, Into My Own which got him a Grammy nomination and universal acclaim.   Bryan has already won a Grammy Award for the song “Whiskey before Breakfast” which he played along with perhaps the greatest flat picker of all time, Doc Watson. If you want to experience flat picking at its greatest, listen to that cut on Doc Watson’s album, Best of the Sugar Hill Years:

“Whiskey before Breakfast” was recently added as a lesson in Bryan’s curriculum here at ArtistWorks.  You can watch Bryan breakdown this tune at 70, 80, 90, and 110 beats per minute and then test your own flat picking skills by playing along with the instrumental backing tracks.

Bryan is universally named as one of the most sought after session musicians in Nashville, which is home of some of the biggest recording artists in music today.  The speed and complexity of his flat picking are truly mind boggling.  Bryan also sings, and he is an accomplished player of the mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, and banjo. He has his own band, and he's been playing with the famous bluegrass group, Hot Rize for over 10 years now.  He was Ricky Skaggs’ guitar player for the great Kentucky Thunder band, and he's also toured with some amazing artists that include: The Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, and Tony Rice. 

I had the pleasure of attending a Hot Rize concert in Baltimore last year, and I got to meet Bryan in the theater lobby after the show.  He was very gracious as my wife took our picture together.   Amazingly, Bryan remembered me and my version of “Turkey in the Straw” from our Video Exchanges at ArtistWorks. You can check out a link to a couple of of my Video Exchanges with Bryan below. 

bryan sutton with student

Here's the thing, when I first joined ArtistWorks I had no idea what flat picking is, nor did I have but the vaguest understanding of bluegrass music. 

For sixty-three years I had strummed a ukulele, tenor guitar, and finally a six string acoustic guitar with four basic chords (C Am F G), where I could play virtually any fifties rock and roll tune from “Silhouettes on the Shade”  to “Dim, Dim the Lights.”  My knowledge of other genres was almost as limited as my crude guitar strumming.  On the other hand, I had taken violin lessons as a child at the Peabody Preparatory School in Baltimore, and could read basic music notation and did have some understanding of what we like to call “good music.”  Alas, the vicissitudes of youth took their toll however, and I never seriously pursued music again - until last year with ArtistWorks.

Before signing up with Bryan, I had sampled lessons from other AritstWorks guitar teachers of jazz, fingerpicking, blues, classical, and rock.  I ultimately chose Bryan and bluegrass flat picking because it seemed the most fertile for me in terms of skill set development.  In addition, I felt an immediate affinity with Bryan and his teaching style and approach. Even though I didn’t know what flat picking and bluegrass were, the speed, complexity and haunting beauty of the flat picking bluegrass fiddle tunes in Bryan’s lessons suggested a substantial challenge that I hoped would develop my guitar skills. 

I assumed that flat picking bluegrass or no, the basic and intermediate skills that I would learn with Bryan would transfer to almost any style of music.  As I have gotten to experience Bryan’s teaching over this past year, I have come to appreciate his own compelling story about his life and family and growing up in western North Carolina, where bluegrass and flat picking were part of his blood. 

Bryan’s grandfather was a fiddle player. Bryan first began playing the guitar at age eight.  In a one of his “Special Guests” videos, he sits down with his father, Jerry Sutton, to reminisce and pick some fiddle tunes on guitar.  They also talk about how Bryan started playing guitar at around age ten in the family band, with his older sister on fiddle and Dad on bass.  Bryan also describes Van Halen and ArtistWorks' Rock Guitar instructor Paul Gilbert as some of his early musical heroes.

bryan sutton and jerry sutton

Bryan often plays a Martin guitar his grandfather purchased in WWII.  His most recognizable guitar is a double pick-guard Martin that he often uses when he teaches.  I have learned that Bryan is a very serious student of bluegrass and flat picking.  As I mentioned, Bryan played with the famous Doc Watson, the first and most definitive flat picker.  Bryan names Doc, Tim O’Brien, and Darrell Scott as important influences in his own playing.  When you watch a Hot Rize concert you will see Bryan’s friend, the famous Tim O’Brien and his haunting voice and incredible mandolin playing on “A Cowboy’s Life”:

Because of my generally curious nature and the desire to learn my teacher’s musical genre, I started to explore the worlds of flat picking and bluegrass.  This experience has been packed with long emersion in some of the music and literature of bluegrass and flat picking.

Bluegrass is a serious and complex music that reflects early American seventeenth and eighteenth century fiddle tunes imported to Appalachia from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  As evidenced in Bryan’s teaching, bluegrass music is a sophisticated genre that not only requires considerable flat picking skills, but also a working knowledge of music theory in general, as well as a musical treatment that involves a metamorphosis from rapid flatpicking to lovely musical expression.  Bryan stresses that he'd rather hear actual music from his students as opposed to mechanical fast playing without any feeling.

With the introduction of the guitar in the early twentieth century, there was a shift from the pure mountain fiddle music to include the influences of jazz, blues, and gospel music.  Yet essentially, Bryan’s mantra is a continuous emphasis on translating fiddle tunes to guitar in ways that reflect the drive and sway of original fiddle tunes.

Bill Monroe is generally acknowledged as the father of bluegrass.  He once described bluegrass as a combination of bagpipes and fiddle playing that combines Methodist and Baptist music with blues and jazz resulting in a high and lonesome sound.  Listen to a Bill Monroe duet with Jimmy Martin, and I challenge you to keep a dry eye.  This early bluegrass music is lovely and haunting, like little else that I have heard in my seventy-three years.

Although Bill Monroe had been playing since 1939, it wasn’t until later that the term “Bluegrass” was used.  This music generally was known as old time mountain hillbilly music.  Early members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band included the famous Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Charlie Wise on fiddle, and Howard Motts (Cedric Rainwater) on bass, and later, Jimmy Martin on Guitar.  At an early music festival, the organizers decided that because Mr. Monroe came from Kentucky, the bluegrass state, and because his band was called The Bluegrass Boys, the name of this “new” musical form would be “Bluegrass”.  The name, bluegrass, became more permanent when Ralph Stanley started his own band with the bluegrass identifier in 1948.  Interestingly, Bluegrass did not become an official name in the music lexicon until 1987. 

Bryan cites Mark Knopfler as one of his influences because of his incorporation of traditional and modern sounds.  Many historians suggest that the musical form, bluegrass, is constantly evolving.  For example, this evolution can be seen in Bryan’s album, Into My Own with tunes like “Overton Waltz” and “Swannanoa Tunnel”.  In bluegrass literature, Bryan is often cited as one of the most important representative of bluegrass in the 90’s and 2000’s.  Yet a list of future bluegrass guitarists is constantly emerging, including new flat pickers Cody Kilby, John Chapman, Chris Eldridge, Adam Wright, Tyler Grant, Matt Wingate, and Tony Watt.  My guess is that Bryan would be one of the first to acknowledge their important contributions.

Through Bryan and ArtistWorks I have learned to play classic tunes like “Turkey in the Straw”, “Kitchen Girl”, “Over the Waterfall”, and “Whiskey before Breakfast”.  There are probably thousands of bluegrass fiddle tunes, so be sure to do some searching around if you're interested.  Some of the most popular fiddles tunes include :

  • "With Body and Soul” by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
  • “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys
  • “Rank Stranger” by The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys
  • "Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys
  • “On the Sunny Side of the Mountain” by Jimmy Martin and The Sunny Mountain Boys
  • "Rocky Top” by the Osborne Brothers

As you know by now, I am as far as you can be from a bluegrass expert, but I am trying to get a deeper understanding of the history of the genre that I have been learning online with Bryan Sutton and ArtistWorks.  By far, my most basic understanding of the guitar and bluegrass is the attempt to reflect the flow and beauty of traditional fiddle tunes on the guitar.  In a real sense, the bluegrass guitar becomes a violin.  I have spent many hours watching the seemingly endless YouTube clips of both old time and contemporary Bluegrass guitar players, and my understanding and appreciation of bluegrass has expanded accordingly.  I would encourage you to immerse yourself in a bluegrass exploratory adventure.

Looking at the history of flat picking on guitar has also been an interesting trek.  In its most simple form, "flat picking" implies the use of a thin plastic pick or plectrum in a variety of up down patterns, typically with eighth notes.  This is different from finger picking where the thumb plays the bass and one or two fingers play the melody, or in simple strumming with a pick or thumb and fingers.  In its beginnings, bluegrass guitarists would often flat pick a base line on the low strings while strumming melody on the others.  Listen to “I’m a One Woman Man” by Jack Williams and the Nashville Playboys for an example:

Eventually, flat picking evolved to rapidly picking all of the strings.  Flat picking is not unique to bluegrass music as evidence by the phenomenal flatpicking of Django Reinhardt, a gypsy acoustic guitar player who performed with Stephane Grapelli at the Paris Hot Club during the early part of the twentieth century.  Almost every guitarist, including Bryan, refers to Django as one of his or her profound influences, even though his music was Jazz.  As an aside, you may want to know that ArtistWorks fingerpicking instructor, Martin Taylor, took over for Django once he retired and played guitar with the incomparable jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli for thirteen years.  Quite an act to follow!

Doc Watson, the father of flat picking, played a lot of mountain folk tunes with the flat pick before he became primarily a bluegrass musician.  Early on, Doc was in a rockabilly country swing band where he played a Les Paul electric.  The band had no fiddle player but was often contracted to play square dances.  Doc had been “messing around” with flat picking fiddle tunes, and the band leader asked him to use that idea in their square dance venues.  Also, Doc was an accomplished finger picker in the styles of Merle Haggard, Chet Atkins, and Tommy Emmanuel.  Watch Doc finger picking “Deep River Blues”:

Even though flat picking can be used with both acoustic and electric guitars, most experts agree the term is limited to flat top steel string acoustic guitars.  Because of the unamplified guitar sound and its relatively heavy strings, the firm attack of the pick produces the desired sound and volume.

In my flat pick lessons so far, the music is composed mostly of eighth notes where the down beat is picked with a downward motion and the back beat is picked with an upstroke.  Bryan has been very focused on the basics of flat picking: such as fret board efficiency, holding the pick properly, and proper rotation of the hand, wrist, and arm to achieve good sound and speed.  Bryan is constantly going back to flat picking basics because he knows that more advanced flat pick playing is clearly dependent on sound basic flat picking skills. 

Most of us neophyte flat pickers are in awe of the speed with which these fiddle tunes are played by advanced students and professionals.  It is relatively uncommon to see one of Bryan’s students tackle the 90 plus beats per minute threshold.  Because flat picking is so fast, the normal beats per minute standard is halved so as not to clutter the player’s mind with too many eighth note metronome beats.  Therefore a 90 beat per minute Bryan Sutton assignment is really 180 beats per minute in the traditional music standard.  But yet again, Bryan always emphasizes musical quality of the guitar as violin over speed. 

video exchange with bryan suttonI have seen his comments on video exchanges, including mine, in which he says something like, “Nice job, Bruce. You hit every note and stayed in time.  Now let’s refocus on your fretboard and pick hands to gain a more relaxed approach that results in a nice expression of that beautiful fiddle tune.”  For Bryan, speed always seems a distant second to turning a tune into a musical thing.  The goal seems always to emulate the drive, flow, and beauty of the fiddle.

In addition to the up/down flat picking of eighth notes, I have also learned from Bryan how to do embellishments such as hammer-ons and pull-offs where you can increase speed and flow by hitting and pulling off of strings with a finger on the fretting hand.  As an erstwhile former classical violin student, I associate hammer-ons and pull-offs with the violin music “slur”, where two notes are played in the same stroke of the bow to achieve a smooth transition from one note to the next. 

Click the images on the Right to watch Video Exchanges® between Bryan and Bruce!

Cross picking is another important advanced flat picking technique that Bryan teaches.  Cross picking on guitar is often like playing a series of triplets in 4/4 time where three strings of a chord are played in various up/down patterns.  The result is the hearing of a strong melody while, at the same time, there is a rhythmic, sustained embellished series of supporting notes from three strings played alternately. This results in a beautiful cascading kind of melodic playing.  I am looking forward to the cross picking lessons as I progress through the Intermediate Curriculum.  For a precise example of the beautiful sound that emerges from cross picking, be sure to watch Bryan’s lesson on cross picking in the Intermediate curriculum.

Even though I am at the early Intermediate Level, sometimes I sneak ahead and look at more advanced lessons and VEs, just to see where I might be heading.  When you are 73, this can be important, in terms of time left to become a decent guitar player!  I am happy to report that even a 23 year old would have more than ample future material to study.

video exchange with bryan sutton on flat pickingThere is so much to learn, and every little step has proven to be a truly pleasurable experience.  I often feel that I care less about arriving “there”, wherever ”there” is, because it's more about enjoying the experience of steady progress on my flat picking skills.  Ido wonder if I will ever be able to play a tune at 100 plus beats per minute with good musical quality, but the journey toward that goal has been a true pleasure so far.

Finally, the most important thing that I have learned is the importance of practice, practice, practice.  I am fortunate that as a retiree, I am able to practice every day for one to two hours.  Typically, I submit a Video Exchange to Brian every month or so.  I once calculated that in over a year’s time, I will probably spend about 2 ½ hours in Video Exchanges with Bryan Sutton.  During that year, I will practice some 700 hours!  Quite a ratio, isn’t it? 

Bryan has taught me, and it has been my experience, that hard consistent practice of good skills will always result in improved guitar playing; and this is not just a theory, it is absolutely true.  Whenever I get frustrated with my progress, I pause to reflect that in two or three weeks, I will be noticeably improved over my present skills no matter what.  In my observation of my fellow ArtistWorks students, it is clear that most work very hard, take their music seriously, and see Bryan Sutton as a treasured resource that is not to be abused with sloppy VE submissions that do not reflect serious practice.

Bluegrass, flat picking, and especially, Bryan Sutton, have provided a rich and positive dynamic this past year and I am eagerly looking forward to my future learning more.

-  Bruce Packard

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Find out more about online guitar lessons with Bryan Sutton at

Guitar Lessons with Bryan Sutton



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