The Tulsa Guitar Society does not focus exclusively on classical guitar as many guitar societies do. Although classical is always a foundation for the guitar as it is most every other instrument, there are a number of styles of music that can be and are played fingerstyle on the guitar and we feel that overlooking them would be a disservice to those who play them. (“Fingerstyle” is defined as plucking the guitar strings with the fingertips, fingernails, or fingerpicks as opposed to using a pick or plectrum.) The following is a list of styles that we have included in our focus when it comes to fingerstyle guitar.
Classical guitar (“classical” being a general term, referring to music written in the styles of the renaissance, baroque, classical, and romantic periods) has been around for two hundred years, but only gained widespread acceptance with the successful career of Andres Segovia. Prior to that the guitar was viewed by the classical world as more of a folk instrument that was used for accompaniment in taverns, and too vulgar for the concert stage. Relatively little music has actually been written for classical guitar, so much of the classical repertoire is taken from transcriptions of pieces written for other instruments like the violin, cello, piano, or lute. Among the more famous classical guitarists are Christopher Parkening, Elliot Fisk, John Williams, Julian Bream, Sharon Isbin, and Pepe Romero. In Tulsa classical guitar is taught on the campuses of TU, ORU, TCC, and NSU.
Flamenco is probably the oldest form of fingerstyle guitar. Some say it began when the Moors brought the guitar’s predecessor into Spain in the fifteenth century. It employs many complex rhythms, rasqueados (using a succession of descending strokes), scales, and percussion in accompanying dancers and singers. Carlos Montoya did for flamenco what Segovia did for classical guitar. He took it from the taverns to the concert halls. Among today’s more famous flamenco guitarists are Paco de Lucia, Juan Martin, Juan Serrano, and Paco Pena.
The folk fingerpicking style can be broken up into several groups. First is the Travis style, named for Merle Travis. Merle popularized the guitar as a solo instrument by playing tunes like Nine Pound Hammer and Sixteen Tons with an alternating thumb pattern. After Travis came Chet Atkins, a fiddler who discovered his true genius was with the guitar. He took Travis’ style and expanded on it using alternate tunings, harmonics, and playing ballads. A devotee of Chet Atkins named Tommy Emmanuel has now taken the folk fingerstyle approach into the stratosphere with amazing harmonics technique, lighting fast runs, and seemingly impossible countermelodies like his rendition of Lady Madonna. Similarly, Buster B. Jones has taken the Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed style and created his own sound with high energy fingerpicking. Chet once said about Buster “This guy picks the guitar like he’s double parked!” Another branch of folk fingerstyle can be found with artists like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, who employ alternate tunings, 12 string guitars, and slide bars.
Many pop music artists have employed various fingerstyle techniques over the years. Bob Dylan frequently used Travis-style picking in his songs. Paul Simon used both Travis-style (Homeward Bound) and a more classical style (Scarborough Fair) in his playing. Other pop artists who played fingerstyle include Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Jim Croce, John Denver, Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Dan Fogelberg, and Don McLean. Today’s pop artists who play fingerstyle include Dave Matthews and John Mayer. Additionally many pop tunes have been arranged for fingerstyle guitar by recording artists and local performers.
Blues fingerstyle was made famous by artists like Blind Blake, Mississipi John Hurt, and Rev. Gary Davis. This approach frequently uses a resonator guitar, a slide bar, and open tunings. Today’s more noteworthy fingerstyle blues artists include Keb’ Mo’ (Kevin Moore), Kelly Joe Phelps, Mike Dowling, and Bob Brozman.
In the late 70s and early 80s a new approach to fingerstyle guitar emerged that came to be known as New Age (likely from the tendency of many people to use the music during meditation). It moved away from the alternating thumb pattern approach of Merle Travis and focused more on composition and melody, employing numerous alternate tunings and frequent use of “slapping” and “tapping” techniques. (Slapping uses the right hand to slap on a fret to create harmonics and tapping uses the right hand to hammer on to a fret when the left hand is too busy to reach it.) New Agers also frequently use various harp guitars, echo and chorus effects with signal processors, and accompanying instruments like the violin or cello in their pieces. Windham Hill artists William Ackerman, Michael Hedges, and Alex DeGrassi were among the more famous New Age guitarists.
Celtic fingerstyle takes its influence from the music of the British Isles – Ireland in particular. It employs the frequent use of a drone in the bass to mimic the sound of bagpipes. Although celtic music can be traced as far back as the 14th century it only became commonly played with fingerstyle guitar during the 20th century. The most common tuning in celtic is DADGAD. Some of the better known celtic fingerstyle artists are Pierre Bensusan, Duck Baker, and Steve Baughman.
Many fingerstyle guitarists have chosen to focus more on jazz. Among them are Joe Pass, Martin Taylor, Earl Klugh, and Tulsa’s own Tommy Crook. There are so many different approaches to jazz among fingerstyle artists it’s difficult to even describe this particular style. Some use the thumb for a bass line and play a combination of melody, harmony, and chords with the other fingers. Some focus more on playing lead with both thumb and fingers. And some are all over the place playing jazz chords and an improvized melody line like a jazz pianist. Your best bet is to just listen to a few recordings from each.