The Roots of "Thumb Picking"
Let me start off by quoting the
Country Music section from a book called "Guitar – From the
Renaissance to Rock", by Tom & Mary Anne Evans – 1977….
"The British settlers of America
brought with them the ballads and folk songs of England, Scotland, Ireland
and Wales, usually sung unaccompanied by a solo performer. These were sung
for entertainment and for passing on the history of a society that had
little time or energy for formal education. The ballad-making tradition
has been an integral part of country music ever since.
In the Southern states where country music
was developed, a rigid agrarian economy and rural environment encouraged
an often inflexible traditionalism. Coupled with a defensive feeling
toward slavery, which was being increasingly criticized during the first
half of the nineteenth century, the South was determined to preserve its
way of life and adopted an isolationist stance. Moreover, the communities
were often remote from any agents of change. Physical conditions and
emotional attitudes were equally important in helping preserve cultural
Wherever the pioneers settled and formed a
community, they entertained themselves by the age-old tradition of music
making. It was not only in the lonely Appalachian Mountains that country
music flourished, but also in the lands further to the Southwest –
Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The original meandering solo style of the
early ballads was modified by the practice of harmony singing and the
introduction of instrumental accompaniment. A variety of instruments were
adopted. The dulcimer, of German origin, remained popular in the remote
mountain areas where other instruments took longer to appear; more
widespread were the fiddle and banjo. The guitar made is appearance in the
1880s, at about the same period when black musicians were beginning to use
it (for blues).
But the guitar was not so decisive in the
development of country music as it was in the blues. In the blues, the
guitar became a second voice; its qualities were exploited to produce
sounds, which in turn added an extra dimension to the music. Morever, in
the early history of the blues, the guitar was the principal solo
instrument. The number of good black guitarists in the Southern state, the
development of different styles and techniques in different areas, and the
intermingling of musician helped to build up a strong tradition of guitar
playing among blacks.
In country music the story is rather
different. Country music was usually played by groups of musicians and
where there was a solo instrumentalist he was a fiddler. In white country
music, the early guitarists usually played in a simple fashion – using
three or four basic open chords (like Palmer still does) to provide
rhythmic background which could be interspersed with the occasional run.
Nonetheless, in the history of the music there are a number of notable
guitarists, who invariably had learned from blacks a for intricate style
of playing which came unfortunately to be known as "nigger pickin’."
For wherever poor whites and blacks mixed – on railroads, down coal
mines or along the river – there was an interchange of musical ideas. As
traditional white ballad-making was taken over by black singers, so the
white country musicians learned to pick
a melody on the treble strings of their guitars while using the thumb to
give a steady rhythm on the bass
During the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries the black influence on country music increased. The
cities held just as much attraction for the poor white as for the poor
black. In Beale Street, Memphis; Deep Elm, Dallas; or Decatur Street,
Atlanta, blues, ragtime and jazz could be heard by anybody for the price
of a drink. In this way the styles and songs of such great bluesmen and
guitarists as Blind Lemon Jefferson (based in Dallas from 1917) must have
found their way into the music brought back to the white homesteads. For
those who remained on their farms, the medicine and tent shows which
traveled around the Southern states brought white and black musicians,
performing a variety of styles: straight blues, dance tunes, religious
songs and the latest Tin Pan Alley hits.
The great expansion of country music came,
like the expansion of the blues, in the 1920s, when the recording
companies discovered the potentially large audience. The first recordings
were of solo fiddlers and string bands, which consisted of fiddle, banjo
and guitar. ………
The radio did far more to disseminate white
country music than it did for the blues. Sales of radios increased
nationally from $60,000 in 1922 to $548,000 in 1929 (mostly to whites).
With such a large audience the program directors were eager for new ideas,
and in the early 20s the radio barn dance concept was born with the start
of the two longest-running and most popular programs. The World’s
Largest Station (WLS), own by the World’s Largest Store (Sears Roebuck),
started its National Barn Dance in 1924, beaming the program to a Midwest
and Great Plains audience. A year later the founder, Geo Hay, moved to WSM
in Nashville and began the grand Ole Opry. The first performer was a
fiddle player, and the program was an instant success: …. After
three of four weeks of the fiddle solo business, we were besieged with
other fiddlers, banjo pickers, guitar player and a lady who played an old
From 1925 to 1935 the Grand Ole Opry was
dominated by string bands. Dr. Humphrey Bates and his Possum Hunters, the
Crook Brothers, the Gully Jumpers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers were all
regular contributors. It was in the Fruit Jar Drinkers that Sam McGee, one
of the pioneers in country guitar playing, first started out as a
Sam McGee (born 1894 in Tennessee) was the
first guitarist to introduce fingerpicking into country music (to Dave
Macon on the Grand Ole Opry - around 1925.) Sam grew up surrounded by
plenty of home-made music - his father a fiddler, his brother banjo - so,
he just took to playing accompaniment with them. But, the guitar was rare
in the Tennessee hills before the First World War and he didn't have
anybody to learn from. The first other guitarist that young Sam heard was
Tom Hood (black guy?) who was fingerpicking the guitar in the way that Sam
was trying to teach himself.
After Sam’s family moved from the farm to
town was where he had his first contact with black people: "My daddy
ran a little store, and these section hands would come over from the
railroad at noon... Well, after they finished their lunch, they would play
guitars... that's where I learned to love the blues tunes. Black people
were about the only people that played guitar then."
(End of Quote)
Tom and Mary Anne Evans (writers of Guitar
– From the Renaissance to Rock) research seems to indicate that country
music got its fingerstyle influence from southern black blues
players, thus helping propel the guitar out of the back line of the
Nashville (Grand Ole Opry) got introduced
to fingerstyle guitar from Sam McGee – who learned from blacks
eating at his folks store. Circa – 1900 - 1910
Chet says one of his earliest guitar
influences was Blind Lemon Jefferson records that his "soused"
step-dad used to play over and over. And, Jefferson was heavy into playing
intricate melodies with his fingers while keeping rhythm with his thumb.
Circa 1930s Another major influence was Merle Travis over the airwaves.
Merle Travis’s connection seems to be
back through Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, & Ike Everly (father of the
"Brothers") – via blacks, Arnold Schultz and Amos Johnson down
in western Kentucky. Circa 1910 – 1940’s
Bill Monroe learned a bunch of his music as
a kid from the same Arnold Schultz. Circa – approx 1920 - 1930’s (No
wonder Pat Kirtley wrote a song about that Arnold Schultz dude…..)
The southern black blues singers/players of
the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had a need to have a rhythmic
accompaniment instrument that could also absorb some of the solo action.
It’s pretty obvious to me from my quick research that their
"need" pretty much gave birth to the "essence" of our
Merle – thumb picking and Chet - alternating bass style guitar music.
The fact that the blues players were finger pickers (probably because they
couldn’t afford picks) forced them to develop it. It sounds like that
the blues players were broken up into a couple of groups like Merle and
Chet were: the heavy thumbed whackers that got by with energy and
personality, and those that had a more intricate control of the strings
that "probably" were also using alternating and moving bass
lines wherever possible.