Improve your flat picking technique with these exercises inspired by Mother Maybelle Carter | Acoustic Guitar – Acoustic Guitar | Start Classified

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From the May/June 2022 issue of acoustic guitar | By Cameron Knowler

Mother Maybelle Carter’s playing beautifully underscores the fabled recordings of The Carter Family with a richness only further revealed through close study, transcription and analysis. Although their playing is decidedly melodic, both in their bass runs and in guitar solos on vocal songs, they are not often heard playing strictly melodic numbers.

In this Weekly Workout I present two lesser-known Carter cuts as starting material for some melodic flatpicking exercises – the instrumental “Cumberland Gap” from their 1963 album Pick and singand her rendition of the Delmore Brothers’ song “I’m Leaving You.” Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection 1952–1967.


Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises consisting of interesting technical workouts that get your fretboard and plucked fingers working in different ways, and offers musical studies to help you visualize and explore the fretboard.


I organized the lesson along two axes: by difficulty and by section. In the first week you will learn the first of the two sections of Cumberland Gap, as well as a more difficult version with advanced techniques and flourishes. In week 2, the same treatment is used for the second section. In weeks 3 and 4 we will use the same approach to address I’m leaving you. At the end of this weekly workout, you will have two playable arrangements designed to develop your technique and understanding of flatpicking language.

“Cumberland Gap”, version of the Carter family

Week One: Introducing Cumberland Gap Crosspicking

“Cumberland Gap” has a simple 16-bar structure, with each of its sections containing a four-bar phrase played twice. Let’s start with the first section of the Carter Family recording, which takes the melody to a higher pitch. (Note that most versions of “Cumberland Gap” start in reverse, with a deeper melody.)

example 1 is pretty easy as the melody falls mostly on open strings, which are in the upper part of the open C chord we all know and love. (On the original recording, Carter used a capo on the fourth fret, which made the chord sound as an E.) With this in mind, however, it’s important to pay close attention to dynamics when rendering this section. Because the higher strings have less inherent tonal potential than the lower strings, more emphasis must be placed on balancing dynamics across the guitar’s string sets.

One logic that applies to all of these examples is the strict adherence to picking direction: downbeats get downstrokes and upshots get upstrokes. The same is true for syncopation – for example, if a single eighth note falls on the “and” of a beat, it is played on an upbeat to prepare for use on the preceding downbeat.

example 2 presents special challenges as it incorporates cross-picking, strums and chordal ornamentation to deliver the melody in an all-in-one package. Some players use a down-down-up picking pattern, although I suggest sticking to an alternating picking pattern for cohesion. As with any tricky passage, this is best tackled at slower tempi at first, bar by bar.

Beginner tip #1
To become familiar with alternate plucking, try playing consistent quarter notes on a single string, using only downbeats. Then play eighth notes in an even dynamic with alternating up and down strokes. Note that upstrokes are inherently weaker and require extra emphasis when first practicing.

Second week: Refining the details

You will find that most of the individual notes in Example 3 fall into the open C shape. The trick to getting this passage across convincingly is excess power in the gripping hand. It is important to remember that in Carter’s playing, open strings often ring into one another, creating overtones that are essential to the fluent rendition of a melody. Another important feature is their use of lighter strums on the chords in bars 1 and 4.

in the example 4, you’ll find that the core melody is largely preserved. Cross-picking was added around this core framework to flesh out the arrangement in a banjo-like way. Just like the cross-selected example in week 1, take the time to give equal consideration to dynamics, rhythmic accuracy, and timbre. In bar 4 in particular, pay close attention to the precision demanded by the grace note at the top of the bar, the eighth-note beat pattern, and the chromatic run that leads us to the top of the melody.

Beginner tip #2
To better control the dynamics, practice with a metronome, preferably with headphones. Using the metronome volume level as a reference point, try to bring all your notes to the same dynamic level to increase balance and make the melody sound different from the lower notes.

“I leave you”

week three: Tricky Dynamics of “I’m Leaving You”

This week you’ll be working on “I’m Leaving You”, which has fewer open strings than the previous piece, making it more difficult to play fluently. It also includes more single note runs and ideas that provide ample opportunity to practice using dynamics. Look at Example 5it is important to play the first four bars with accuracy and robust tone before moving on to bars 5–8, which require a lighter touch to play the strums succinctly.

The intention of Example 6 is intended to show how one can train in a higher register. Set an octave higher, this example is a note-by-note transposition of the first four bars of Ex. 5. For extra practice, try playing the low and high versions back-to-back with consistent timing, feel, and accuracy, along with a metronome to play.


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Beginner tip #3
Try switching between rhythmic and melodic playing bar by bar. To do this, play the first two bars of Example 5, followed by two bars of a struck G chord. Once you’ve mastered this, apply the same philosophy to bars 3 and 4.

Week Four: Unique note selections in melodic bass lines

Example 7 presents a master class in unique tone selection in the context of melodic bass lines. For example, the trigger from the tied third string in bar 6 and the dense chromaticism of the closing idea in bar 7 are challenging but very rewarding when played accurately. When tackling passages like this that combine a number of different grasping hand positions, do your best to visualize them before physically learning the ideas. Not only does this help you play them safely, but it also helps you retain them for creative use in other contexts.

Try it for some extra twists example 8, which uses a higher form for the G chord, extended chromaticism in bar 3, and an eighth-note triplet in the last bar. This treatment gives the solo a more modern bluegrass edge. In addition, cross-picking is used in connection with rhythm playing; This is a tricky concept because you have fewer quarter note beats to fall back on. Instead, you must rely on your ability to play fast eighth notes with high rhythmic accuracy and with robust tone to pick up the slack.

After working through these examples, I encourage you to look at the original recordings of Mother Maybelle Carter. While lessons like these can include detailed transcriptions and insights, they simply cannot impart the knowledge that comes from deep listening.

Beginner tip #4
As a style and technique exercise, try incorporating the bass run into bars 7 and 8 of Example 7 into your rhythm game. As with the other ideas in this lesson, do your best to seamlessly balance the dynamics between your strums and individual notes.

Mother Maybelle Carter Flatpicking Guitar Lesson sheet music 2
“East Virginia Blues”

Take it to the next level with “East Virginia Blues.”

For an added challenge, try learning this excerpt of Mother Maybelle’s playing on East Virginia Blues. I incorporated a healthy amount of cross-picking to reflect and build upon the frame in the original shot. As with the other examples in this lesson, start slowly, bar by bar, paying close attention to dynamics and accuracy.

Mother Maybelle Carter Flatpicking Guitar Lesson sheet music 3

Cameron Knowler, author of the method book Guitars have feelings toois a Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist and educator specializing in jazz, bluegrass and old-time music.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of acoustic guitar Magazine.




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