The Lead Guitar in Bluegrass Pre-Doc, Clarence, and Tony

The sad news of Tony Rice’s passing on Christmas Day has prompted many well deserved and insightful tributes to his extraordinary skills as a guitar innovator and singer. It’s safe to say that Tony Rice’s influence is heard in nearly all contemporary bluegrass lead and rhythm guitar playing.

In this post I want to focus on the earlier use of the guitar as a bluegrass lead instrument, especially by the Stanley Brothers. Along with Don Reno, the Stanleys and their guitarists, particularly George Shuffler, did much to popularize the lead guitar sound in bluegrass in the late 1950s and early 60s. This was a time before Tony Rice, and pickers who inspired him, such as Clarence White and Doc Watson, became well known to bluegrass audiences.

When Bill Monroe led the “original” bluegrass band with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the mid-1940s, the “lead” instruments, that is, those that commonly played solo passages, were the fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. The guitar and the bass fiddle generally played rhythm only, with Lester’s snappy guitar runs punctuating the end of each line. This format predominated with Monroe’s band and most of the bands that followed in his footsteps during the next 10 or 15 years. Guitar solos, which were becoming more common on country records, were less often heard in bluegrass.

In those years, there were relatively simple guitar solos on Bill Monroe’s recording of “Panhandle Country,” played by Edd Mayfield, and Flatt and Scruggs’ recording of “Foggy Mountain Special,” played by Flatt. Earl Scruggs sometimes played lead guitar on Flatt and Scruggs’ gospel songs in a fingerpicking style that was similar to the alternating bass picking of Merle Travis. This was one way the Foggy Mountain Boys showcased their gospel numbers and made them stand out from their secular material, which most often featured Earl playing banjo.

Don Reno was a guitar virtuoso as well as a banjo innovator, so Reno and Smiley featured flatpicked lead guitar work more often than other bands. Two of their popular songs featuring Don’s impressive guitar solos were “Country Boy Rock and Roll” and “Freight Train Boogie” (on the latter number Don’s guitar work borrowed some licks from the Delmore Brothers’ earlier recording). But like Scruggs, Reno was best known as a banjoist, and most of the Reno and Smiley repertoire featured Don’s exciting banjo playing.

Finally, the Country Gentlemen, formed in 1957, featured occasional guitar leads by singer and guitarist Charlie Waller. His showpiece guitar number in the band’s early days was the instrumental “Under The Double Eagle.” From their beginnings, the Gentlemen were looking for ways to distinguish themselves from other bluegrass bands, and Charlie’s fleet-fingered guitar style was one way they accomplished that.

However, a strong case can be made that the Stanley Bothers were the ones who really popularized the guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass. Indeed, for a time, the guitar was the dominant lead instrument on many of their recordings. They were strongly encouraged to feature the guitar prominently by Syd Nathan, the head of King Records (their record label), who was also the producer of the Stanleys’ King recordings. By the late 50s, rock and roll was coming on strong and Nathan was afraid that banjos and fiddles were old hat. He wanted a different sound, and the Stanleys gave him one.

The Stanley Brothers had already shown that they were willing to incorporate new elements into their music. As discussed in Blog post 8, early in their career they began to feature high baritone vocal trios, with two harmony parts above the melody, which gave their trios a melancholy feel in keeping with their often somber lyrics. Beginning in 1959, the Stanleys recorded a series of gospel and secular albums featuring the guitar as a lead instrument. On these recordings, Bill Napier and Curley Lambert, who had previously played mandolin with the band, and Ralph Mayo, a Stanley fiddler, picked the guitar. On many of the songs, the only instruments were the guitar, banjo, and bass fiddle. A good example of the band’s new guitar sound is “Mountain Dew,” a favorite of jammers everywhere, featuring Napier.

The lead guitarist who is most closely associated with the Stanley Brothers is George Shuffler. Like Napier and Mayo, he had previously recorded with the Stanleys on another instrument, playing bass on some of the band’s most iconic recordings. Shuffler was known for his “walking bass” (four bass notes per measure rather than two), which propelled Stanley classics like “This Weary Heart You Stole Away,” and “I’m Lonesome Without You.”

But Shuffler became even better known for his style of “crosspicking” the guitar, in which the flat pick strikes several strings in succession to create a series of notes that sounds somewhat like Scruggs style banjo. Shuffler was a master of this technique and he used it frequently in his leads and backups on songs like “I’m Only Human” and “Standing Room Only (Outside Your Heart),” as well as on instrumentals like “When You And I Were Young, Maggie/Redwing,” where he and Ralph trade breaks.

Watch starting at 19:24

By the time the Stanley Brothers recorded these songs in the early 1960s, lead guitar was becoming more common and accepted in bluegrass. And it was during this time that guitar virtuosos like Doc Watson and Clarence White were just beginning their brilliant careers. They, along with pickers like Dan Crary and, of course, Tony Rice, both of whom came to prominence with the Bluegrass Alliance, built on the work of musicians like Scruggs, Reno, and Shuffler and brought the guitar to full acceptance as a bluegrass lead instrument.

3 Responses

  • Many a “country” guitar picker made his way from the music of guitar pickers like Hank Snow, Billy Byrd, Cowboy Copas, Sonny James and Mother Maybelle Carter, into bluegrass. This was because commerical country music was moving away from old style acoustic flat top guitar picking. About all that was left in “country” music were Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. You can hear a tiny bit of their styles in the guitar breaks of Blue Grass Boy Charlie Cline in the 1950s. But fascinating and intricate as the Travis/Atkins guitar styles were and are, they didn’t seem to find a home in bluegrass (although George Shuffler was entirely capable of their styles).

    So where was a young flat top picker to go? Well, bluegrass welcomed them in, with new idols to emulate like Jimmy Martin, Red Smiley, Lester Flatt, the Stanley Brothers’ records, Charlie Waller, etc. All those new “hot runs” to learn!

    The fellow who played rhythm guitar with me in Maine for over 30 years, the late John Sanborn, was unquestionably the BEST bluegrass rhythm man in Maine. He started out in the early 1950s as a Hank Snow buff. Once he heard Jimmy Martin, Charlie Waller and Del McCoury’s guitar work, he knew he had a home in bluegrass.

    Great summary Andy!!

  • Andy, I’ve really appreciated these articles you’ve written and each one has expanded my knowledge of bluegrass. The key to many of them is how many great innovators expanded on the innovations of the great innovators that came before them and I believe that is still happening today keeping the music vital and interesting. I think Bill Monroe was all for it because as he said when we met him in the early ’80s and told him we had a band playing some of his songs, “That’s great but be sure to make them all your own.” “And most of all…always play them from your heart.” Every time I get on stage and play one of his or someone else’s songs or even an original his words ring through my head.

  • Thanks to both of you for your comments. I always learn something interesting from Dick Bowden’s comments, and this week’s is no exception. They flesh out and add a deep historical and personal perspective to my posts. And thank you Dick Stock for pointing out a unifying thread in these blog posts. Your quotes from Bill Monroe himself are revealing; he definitely kept his music fresh over many years. All he ever said to me was, “Take good care of that mandolin now.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *