Carter-style picking is a technique named after Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family. She was the first recording artist to popularize this style, which became the driving rhythmic force behind the Carter Family's music - as well as an inspiration for generations of guitar players to come.
Carter-style is characterized by playing the melody notes on the bass strings and rhythmic fills on the treble strings. What makes this style significant is that it makes the guitar perform as both a lead instrument and rhythm instrument at the same time.
Here is an audio clip of Maybelle taking an instrumental break on "Wildwood Flower." Listen to how she carries both the melody and the rhythm. The clip is in mp3 format.
It is interesting to note that while most modern players use a flatpick for Carter style picking, Maybelle herself used a thumbpick for the bass note and her index finger for the rhythmic strums. For Maybelle, this approach was a natural adaptation of the banjo picking style she had learned from her mother before she started playing the guitar.
Creating a Carter-Style Arrangement from the Basic Melody
We're going to show by example how this to arrange a tune for Carter style picking. Our starting point is the basic melody discussed in the previous section.
Click on the link shown to view a simplified Carter-Style arrangement that shows how it's done. The TAB file is available in both Scorch format and as a PDF document and contains both standard notation and tablature.
Let's look more closely at this TAB file and compare it to the one of the basic melody. The two arrangements are identical except that rhythmic fills have been added in the Carter-style. Remember that Maybelle had to make her guitar perform both as a lead and rhythm instrument, so she had to keep the beat going even when there are pauses in the melody. So, whenever there are notes longer than a quarter note (the basic beat in 4/4 time), you have to add something to keep the rhythm going.
In the graphic below, we've highlighted in longer notes the simple melody that need to have rhythm support. In the Carter-style version below, these notes are replaced with a quarter note of the same pitch PLUS some kind of rhythmic fill - either a strum or a combination of notes and a strum. This fills out the rhythmic structure and makes it more driving.
Other Carter-style Techniques
This Carter-style arrangement is very simple, and you may have noticed that it doesn't sound exactly like Maybelle's version in the recording. That's because she was doing some other things with it to make it more interesting. One technique is to convert the quarter note strums into eighth-note strums - basically going down and up on the strum instead of just down. Another technique is her use of hammer-ons and pull-offs.
We've created a more advanced arrangement of "Wildwood Flower" that uses both of these techniques and is closer to what you hear on the recording. Click on the link shown to see this arrangement in Scorch format.
Our next step will be go back to the melody and then look at how to crosspick "Wildwood Flower."