It's always my hope that everyone, both musician and non, will get some enjoyment or enlightenment out of my writing. This month's column might be putting that to the test but I hope you'll all bear with me and give me a chance.
It's been my observation over the last few years that we are suffering some losses as bluegrass music progresses. On numerous occasions, I've been blown away by the talent of today's "kids" -- the best and the brightest of the up-and-coming generation. The ones who are "gonna fill our shoes," to paraphrase the Possum. They are incredible technicians, able to play almost anything they can dream up, at unbelievable speeds. They have seemingly complete control of their fingers and their instruments, all the while composing the most intricate of tunes. Most are much better musicians than I'll ever be. But technique doesn't move the average listener. It doesn't move me. Music is about heart and soul and feeling and so many intangibles. That's not an excuse for lack of technique, but why can't we have both?
One of the most glaring deficiencies resulting from this new approach is that rhythm guitar playing -- true, solid, bluegrass rhythm guitar -- is becoming a thing of the past. So many of the younger guitar players seem to put all their focus on their lead ability, to the detriment of playing rhythm. Here is a short list of some of my favorite rhythm players:
Lester Flatt -- the father of bluegrass rhythm guitar and the one who is credited with inventing the G-run. He played with a thumb pick and one finger pick, which lead to a style that was very big on tone. Played a lot out of capoed E position, rather than playing everything out of G position, which very few do any more. Check out "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke…" and "Six White Horses."
Jimmy Martin -- Jimmy played crisp and clean and loud, developing a solid stroke that helped define what most people think of as bluegrass guitar playing. Listen to "I Like To Hear 'Em Preach It" and "Big Country."
Charlie Waller -- Charlie is a great example of "old-school" rhythm guitar playing when it included heavy doses of bass string runs combined with a super-clean down stroke. Listen to "Lord Protect My Soul" and "Home in Louisiana."
Del McCoury -- Del has a driving technique that comes across in a rolling sort of way. Reminds me of the drive wheels on a locomotive. He plays dynamics like few others. Listen to "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down" and "Who Showed Who."
Tony Rice -- If he had never played one lead break in his life, he would still go down as one of the greatest bluegrass guitar players in history. Playing with Tony is like jumping on a freight train -- it's almost impossible to play out of time. His syncopation and ability to "color" his rhythm with different chord voicings is so cool. Check out his playing on "Old Train" and Tony Trischka's "New York Chimes."
Dudley Connell -- I was immediately a fan of Dudley's playing the first time I heard him with the Johnson Mountain Boys. His current gig with the Seldom Scene calls for a slightly different approach, but he can really lay down a tight, dry, very staccato-type rhythm. Check out "Our Last Goodbye" and "Maybe You Will Change Your Mind."
Jimmy Haley -- Jimmy was the original guitar player in Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Jimmy had a more modern, less bass run-heavy sound. More like a bed of rhythm connecting the mandolin chop and the bass note. He also was a good soloist, using leads sparingly. LIsten to "Mis'ry River" and "Travelin' Down the Blue Road."
David Parmley -- Best know for his years with the Bluegrass Cardinals, David plays with a big, fat chugging style and great timing. He really fills up the sound and propels the band along. Check out "Sunday Mornin' Singing" and listen to "Be Good To My Little Baby Girl" by the Cardinals.
OK. There's your homework. I'll meet you back here next month and we'll continue. Enjoy!
DISCLAIMER: I'm not saying there are no good, young rhythm players out there today. I'm just saying I am seeing a trend where the guitar as a rhythm instrument, and the art of rhythm playing, is falling out of favor with a lot of younger players.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, several music/video links were incorrect. They have since been changed. The Sitch regrets the error.