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Mississippi John Hurt

I owe him a lot. After I had picked up which fingers went where as regards fingerpicking I got a book published by Oak Publications (long gone now, I think) containing the notation (this was before the days of tablature) of this man’s tunes. And I learned and practiced just about every damn’ one. Even tried to sing them. “Stagolee” and “CC Rider” readily spring to mind. I spent so long with this book that his style has been irrevocably embossed onto mine – or the other way around. In fact, my style is largely predicated on his. Which is a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because it’s easy to learn and alternate bass fingerstyle sure provides your tunes with plenty of forward momentum, when needed.

The downside is that the very regularity of the thumb movement becomes so firmly embedded in the muscle memory that it can be hard to break out of without having to think about it. Or to put it another way: for a long time whenever I picked up my guitar and start noodling, I just fell into an alternating bass style which became limiting and frustrating after a while. It’s no longer as inevitable as it once was although when I’m putting together some up tempo stuff, it still permeates the results.

For a listener, the boom-chick-boom-chick of an alternating bass fingerpicking style can be infectious. For the player, recuperation can take a long time.

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My first fingerpicking lesson

Sometimes I look back wistfully and muse upon odd events that have defined the directions I would take in life. Apropos my music, one of the events that had a profound impact was a casual ten minutes with a friend back in 1971 when he showed me my first fingerpicking pattern. Here it is:

Fingerpicking pattern

It’s such a felicitous pattern that it can be applied to every chord in the book requiring only the strings corresponding to the lower of the two bass notes being changed from the 5th to the 6th, or vice-versa, depending on which the root of the chord falls. It’s a pattern that I’ve shown many guitar players who have wanted to learn fingerstyle. It’s great to see that moment of epiphany light up in their eyes as they realize the latent possibilities of this pattern.

I have normally asked that the student start very slowly – slow enough that the pattern itself is hardly discernible – but firmly, not shyly as if you were trying to hide it away. In this way the student will ingrain the muscle memory (but see below) so that when played at tempo mistakes are less likely. Then – and only then – I suggest that the student increase the tempo by increments; getting faster and faster in the manner of a train picking up speed. Hey, presto! The player is a fingerpicker!

Caveat: the student should then make every effort to unlearn this pattern less, like me, it should get so deeply ingrained it becomes monotonous and the possibility of playing any other way becomes an impossibility!

Postscript: I’ve read people on internet forums call this, and alternate bass fingerpicking in general, “Travis picking”. I beg to suggest that alternate bass picking predated Merle by some years. Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake…