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Some Common Guitar Playing Styles

Updated on March 30, 2017

Bluegrass guitar

This is my HD 28 Martin and it is a hoss!
This is my HD 28 Martin and it is a hoss! | Source

Playing Guitar is Fun

For most of my life a guitar has been in my possession. The first one that I ever had was a Royalist my daddy bought for me at Christmas when I was about 13 years old. It was the size of a parlor guitar. The string action was very high making it hard for me to easily form chords. A neighbor kid in the mill village also had gotten a guitar for Christmas. His guitar was a Stella and his was much easier to note and make chords.

His mother knew some basic chords and a couple of tunes she had learned when she was a little girl. which she taught to us. Little Brown Jug using the G C and D chords. She also taught us Chewing Chawing Gum, a little ditty that when she played and sang always got our giggle boxes turned over. Even with hard to play instruments we had discovered a new way to have fun and I suppose the saying no pain no gain applied to our experience. Then there was the tune every guitar player wanted to learn how to pick, The Wildwood Flower, an old Carter tune. Almost everyone would ask us if we had a guitar in our hand,"Hey, do you know how to play the Wildwood Flower?"

I soon mastered the C G and F chords and how to play the Wildwood Flower but my fingers were almost bleeding from all the effort I had to put into trying to make those simple chords. I became discouraged and didn't play anymore until I was in high school. In recent years a phenomenon to many of us baby boomers arthritis has made making those chords more difficult.

The guitar lends itself to many styles and fits into any genre of music. There is the simple strumming style where all the strings are plucked with a pick or just using the bare fingers. The picks are usually the plastic variety. Since they can be easily lost if one carries them in a pants pocket when not playing; I learned to make my own picks. Cutting and shaping a plastic bread bag tie worked pretty good and I have cut up Clorox jugs. The Clorox picks were just too soft and didn't bring out the tones of the strings to my liking. Although now outlawed, tortoise shell picks became much in demand for pickers and industry has mimicked those incredible picks with certain polymers. Picks can also be made from credit cards or any piece of plastic that can be cut and shaped.

When I was in the Air Force waiting for my discharge at Elmendorf AFB Alaska I was staying in a barracks where a fellow Airman had a guitar. I ask to play his guitar and he was more than happy to let me. I hadn't played in years but still could stumble through the Wildwood Flower. He told me that I played the Carter lick style." Well, I didn't know I even had a style but I felt good perceived his statement as a compliment.

The Carter lick involves good straight downward strokes and adding little runs on the base notes, the low E and A strings. This run can be added to almost any style of music for transitioning between the chords and is often called a G run.Strumming chords through their musical progression was used widely in the folk music era.

Another style of playing guitar is the alternating thumb pattern. This is the style that was played by Chet Atkins and MerleTravis. The thumb is used to alternate on the bass strings using a 6, 4, 5,4 alternation pattern of keeping time while picking melody with the fingers, normally index and middle fingers. It's not really complicated but does require a considerable amount of practice and hand coordination to master. Doc Watson was a master at the Atkins/Travis lick and almost wrote the book on flatpicking.

I am a bluegrass picker and bluegrass has its own style which can vary. Tony Rice is one of the most widely known bluegrass guitarist and his style is often emulated by budding guitarists. Bluegrass bands have very good guitarists and Bryan Sutton, Caleb Smith are two of our WNC guitarists who are notable players. Bryan does a lot of studio work in Nashville and Caleb Smith is the guitarist for Balsam Range, a band from Haywood County near where I live here in WNC.


I hope after you have read this article that you may have learned a little something about the various styles of guitar playing. Maybe it will encourage you to learn to play. If one has the urge to learn guitar there are a multitude of instructional videos available in music stores and on line. The videos by Steve Kaufman are among the best and if one has a chance to attend one of his camps it would be a worthwhile adventure. Steve teaches on a level most will find easy to follow. Almost everyone who has a computer can access youtube and find instructional videos that will help learn guitar and any other musical instrument. Finally, it has been my experience if you can find a local group that has informal jams, these are good places to go. In the beginning you might just sit and listen holding your guitar but soon you will find players are eager to share their skills with you. Before you know it you will be picking and grinning! Thank you Mrs Lucille Tankersley (RIP) for teaching me to learn playing the guitar. There are other styles of playing guitar that I didn't cover but as I said earlier the guitar is at home in any genre of music.

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Just a little guitar playing humor!!! Just listeen!!

Fiddleman and friends

Below this capsule you will find two videos of the style of music that we play. Playing string music has been in my family for many years. Informal jams in homes where the acoustic instruments were played. Singing and playing the old tunes handed down many from our Scot-Irish ancestors who settled here in the Blue Ridge mountains. The videos are poor quality made with phone cameras in a barber shop where my youngest son, Josh earns his living. We had a weekly jam in the shop up until about a year ago when the shop underwent renovations which took away space. Since that time we have found a new place to have our jams. The Dixie Gun House in East Flat Rock, NC. We pick on Saturday mornings from 10 until noon.

Darling Nellie Gray-Strumming and Carter lick

Little Rosewood Casket my style of finger picking

Jamming at the Dixie Gun House


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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 3 months ago from Nashville Tn.


      Your story is wonderful! I love hearing how people were influenced to play the guitar as well as other musical instruments.

      Now I feel like taking a break from my piano long enough to learn guitar. Thanks.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 3 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Go for it! Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

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