Cowboy hats and guitars symbolize ‘Country Music’ today, but a hundred years ago you wouldn’t have heard much guitar picking on the porches of rural America. The banjo and fiddle were the primary voices of early American roots music; the guitar was a plaything of the rich and elite. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that guitars gained popularity, as a parlor instrument played by women. Fueled by mass-production and mail-order catalogs, guitars became a staple that slowly moved into the mainstream. But, the parlor roots ran deep: all the early country guitarists said they learned guitar style from a mother. So it’s no surprise that “Mother” Maybelle Carter would be one of the first innovators of the ‘Country’ guitar. The segment features the archive interviews and music of Maybelle Carter and Etta Baker.
Segment production: Jesse Boggs and Tom Cole

Sound Clips

Audio - Maybelle Carter talks about how she came up with her signature flatpicking style, now called the "Carter scratch."

Audio - Maybelle Carter talks about the long-lasting popularity of the traditional tune "Wildwood Flower."

Listen to Part 2

The guitar has been central to the development of 20th century American country and popular music. From its arrival in this country and its early usage as a parlor instrument, the guitar was adopted by both black and white, rural, working-class musicians. Technological changes allowed the guitar, which was originally an instrument of very low volume, to hold its own in public settings. These changes included better bracing that allowed use of metal rather than gut strings, the development of the steel and resonator guitar, and ultimately electrification and amplification. Combined with the guitar’s ability to play chords more readily than either banjo or fiddle, these changes helped move the guitar to, or near, the center of several genres of American popular music: country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, and rock.

Humanities Themes:

Is the rural to urban migration of the post-World War II South reflected in the evolution of ‘country’ guitar styles?

An exploration of the tension between technology and artistic expression. How did technical developments in the guitar change the way people used the guitar for personal or family entertainment? Did technical developments in the guitar influence the evolution of country guitar music styles and the type of songs written in the so-called ‘country’ genre?

As mass production lowered the cost of the guitar to the consumer, and instruments were available to a more diverse and larger population, how did popular music change? Did mass production of the guitar expand the audience for country music? Did mass production of the guitar influence the economic development of country music as an industry? 

How did electrification of the guitar affect mass interest in acoustic guitar styles in country music? Who were the preservationists of traditional acoustic guitar in ‘country’ music? What motivated the preservationists? What was the economic impact of guitar electrification on the ‘country’ music industry?

Does the recent unexpected success of the soundtrack from O Brother Where Art Thou indicate a mass interest in a return to pre-rock, acoustic music styles? 

Why does an urban, upscale population find traditional acoustic country music of interest? What cultural impulses give rise to phenomena such as the folk revival of the early 60s?


The story of the guitar is a fascinating evolution of three major phases. Each phase has its own distinct stories, but all three phases are interrelated through the development of guitar technology: 

PHASE 1: The move from gut strings to steel strings – at the turn of the century, the instrument was primarily played in family parlors because it was simply too quiet to be heard in other venues. But with the innovation of steel strings that could be played with picks, the guitar began to be included in string bands alongside fiddles and sometimes even banjos.

The guitar has an innate advantage over the violin in that it is able to play chords and provide a level of bass rhythmic support in a way that a fiddle can’t. As the guitar moved into string bands, fiddle-driven string band repertoire was diminished. Many tunes were just too difficult for the guitar. We start to see more guitar-driven tunes such as “Lee Highway Blues.” One can hear the change from old-time mountain music to honky tonk.  


Fiddle tunes that would be very unsuited to guitar: Tommy Jarrell’s “Sail Away Ladies” (County Records) or Enos Canoy’s “Poor Little Mary Sittin’ In the Corner” (Library of Congress).  

Fiddle or band tune more suited to guitar, suited to a standard chord structure and key: “Miss McLeod’s Reel” (Bogtrotters, Library of Congress) or the Skillet Lickers with Riley Puckett, followed by “Lee Highway Blues” from an early bluegrass band.

PHASE 2: Mass production and marketing allows the guitar to reach broad customer base. Mass production of mail-order guitars sold by Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward allows guitars to become available to a large clientele. Relatively unskilled rural musicians develop their own styles; sometimes, though not always, with banjo influences as a base. African-Americans start to adopt the guitar, and to play African-influenced and blues-style music with it.  

In Texas, the guitar plays a role in developing honky tonk music. The development of ‘sock’ chords in the ‘30s moves the guitar to yet another level of importance. It becomes more than a timekeeper now, and really starts to drive the band.

PHASE 3: The electrification of the guitar helps move country music into the mainstream. Electrification of the guitar, which began in the mid-30s but became widespread in the 50s, permits this once timid parlor instrument to scream over large crowds in dance halls throughout the South and Southwest. Electrification of the blues guitar brings new musicians, such as T-Bone Walker and B.B. King to a larger audience, particularly in the cities.  

Country and rock musicians adapt blues motifs to their playing, from Jimmie Rodgers to Elvis Presley and beyond. Elvis utilizes the electric guitar. Doc Watson plays rockabilly, bluegrass, and blues on the guitar, and brings acoustic mountain-style guitar to a new level of elegance.

As the development of guitar styles increases at a dizzying pace, Merle Travis bursts upon the scene with a trademark style of picking, variants of which are adopted by Chet Atkins and others. 

Before long, English rockers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones are reaching back to American blues guitar masters such as Robert Johnson for inspiration. The guitar has made it to the front of nearly every genre of popular music, a place it still holds in country bands, rock groups, bluegrass bands (alongside the banjo), folk/singer-songwriter music, and college and jam bands.

Background And Source Quotes

Acoustic guitar had a more limited role in traditional country music until Doc Watson rewrote the book, building on the elegant but much simpler earlier styles of Maybelle Carter, The Delmore Brothers, and Riley Puckett to fire off blazing lead lines as intricate and exciting as the hottest bluegrass fiddle or mandolin breaks. (source: John Lumsdaine from

Doc was born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, NC (Watauga County) on March 23, 1923 into a family with a rich musical tradition. At age thirteen he taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar. As the story goes, Doc's father was so pleased that Doc had been able to teach himself these chords in one day, that he helped Doc buy his own guitar the very next Saturday. Armed with his new $12 Stella guitar, Doc began playing both traditional family tunes as well as new material he learned from records and the radio. (source: 

Guitar Overview:

Present in America since colonial times. (source: Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA, University of Texas Press, p. 24) 

Seems to have been a flatland phenomenon before its use in the mountains. (Malone, p. 24)

An engraving from Scribner’s Monthly 1873 shows a fiddler and guitarist playing a dance in Denison, TX. (source: Malone, p. 24) 

By end of the 19th century, the guitar was sold through mail order houses. (source: NLCR Songbook, p. 9)

It was first used by blacks in the flatlands. Though guitars were seldom used in the mountains, or with the white working class of the South, a study of ex-slave narratives reveals a number of memories of guitar playing by blacks in pre-Civil War times, almost all of them located in the Mississippi River delta. There is little documentation as to how these guitars were played, but the location is significant: it would later be the center for the classic delta blues (source: PBS at 

Black southern musicians were quicker to adopt the guitar, and it became an integral part of rural black music. White musicians noticed this and began using guitars, which started showing up more often in white stringbands by the early 1900s. (

Building techniques and mail order. By the turn of the century, improved guitar-making techniques allowed manufacturers like Martin (founded 1833) and Gibson (founded 1894) to offer steel-string guitars. When played with picks, this allowed a much brighter, louder sound and let the guitar hold its own in a string band, at a square dance and as a solo instrument in its own right. Around 1911, Lead Belly discovered an inexpensive Stella 12-string with steel strings and as loud as a piano. Soon mail-order catalogue stores like Montgomery Wards and Sears-Roebuck were adding inexpensive guitars to their catalogues. Sears' models ranged from $2.70 to $10.30, and one inventory in 1900 reported that over 78,000 guitars had been manufactured that year.
(source: PBS at

Guitar Innovators:

Riley Puckett
Showed the guitar was capable of adding melody lines as well as rhythm. His stunning fingerpicked runs have proved virtually inimitable and still fascinate string band musicians a half century after they were committed to wax. (source: Joe Wilson, National Council for the Traditional Arts at

Maybelle Carter
Introduced what would become known as "the Carter Scratch," playing a melody on the bass strings and brushing the higher strings for rhythm. It would become the quintessential "lick" for country music.
(source: PBS at

Black guitar player Leslie Riddle accompanied A. P. Carter on song-collecting trips, and had a direct effect on Maybelle Carter’s famous guitar style. (source: 

Lonnie Johnson
Known for his accomplished guitar playing, Lonnie Johnson made many of his early recordings as a blues singer. He accompanied himself on guitar in a country blues style. He was born in New Orleans in 1889, and worked in Storyville, and on Fate Marable’s steamboat the St, Paul, before making a name for himself. It was unusual, at the time, for a country blues artist to cross over and make recordings, as Johnson did, with jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Even more unusual, Johnson made a series of recordings with the white guitarist Eddie Lang, who adopted the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn to sidestep the racial prejudices of the day and record with a black artist. Due to his many recordings, Lonnie Johnson’s guitar playing influenced a wide audience of both black and white guitarists.

Charlie McCoy
Guitarist and mandolin player Charlie McCoy (1909-1950) came out of the black string band tradition in the area around Jackson, Mississippi before World War II. Playing at a white square dance, his band was discovered by a local record dealer who set up a recording session with the Okeh label. Under the name the Mississippi Sheiks they had a pop hit with the tune, “The Sheik of Araby.” Like other black musicians in the south, McCoy migrated to Chicago where he made many recordings. (source: The Country Music Foundation’s From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music)

Sam McGee
Down in Tennessee, a brash young man named Sam McGee, the traveling partner of Uncle Dave Macon, watched with fascination as black section hands near his farm in middle Tennessee played a blues finger picking style. He would soon combine this with ragtime he had learned from a parlor guitar teacher in nearby Franklin to create some of the first solo records featuring the guitar: “Buck Dancer's Choice,” “Railroad Blues,” and “Knoxville Blues.” (source: PBS at

Bob Dunn
Steel guitarist Bob Dunn is often credited as the first to electrify his guitar. A possibly apocryphal story relates that Dunn hooked his guitar up to a car battery during an outdoor dance in order to be heard. However, historian Kevin Reed Coffey indicates that Dunn wanted to accomplish more than volume with electrification. He writes, “Not content with just being louder, Dunn experimented with ways to capture the brassy resonance of jazz horns. According to surviving contemporaries, he emulated musicians such as Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden and the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and his approach to the steel was based on their styles, their tone, their phrasing and attack.” (Source :Lost Chords, Richard M. Sudhalter, Oxford University Press)

Bill C. Malone in Country Music USA writes, “Dunn converted a standard round-hole Martin guitar into an electric instrument by magnetizing the strings and raising them high off the box. He then attached an electric pickup to the guitar, which in turn was connected to a Vol-U-Tone amplifier.” Dunn’s first use of electric guitar on a recording was in 1935.

By the 1930s a number of new guitar styles emerged in the South and Southwest. In 1933 the Delmore Brothers from Alabama began featuring a little tenor guitar in their work at The Grand Ole Opry and on records. The little tenor, noted like a ukulele, was used to take single-string instrumental breaks on the Delmores' records like “Brown's Ferry Blues.”
(source: PBS at

In 1931, Clayton McMichen (who had been a fiddle player with the Skillet Lickers) organized a band called the Georgia Wildcats. The group included some of the most progressive musicians in country music. Among them, Hoyt “Slim” Bryant and Merle Travis. (source: Malone, p. 121)

Bryant (who in 1933 recorded four tracks with Jimmie Rodgers) began playing single-string solos and “sock” rhythms before most guitarists. (source: Malone, p. 121) In Texas and Oklahoma, a new style of rhythm playing developed using what were called "sock chords" - tight, jazzy 4/4 chords played high up on the neck as opposed to the older "open" 2/4 chords still favored in Nashville. (source: PBS at 

Aaron “T-Bone” Walker (1910-1975) was a pioneer in the development of modern blues and created an electric guitar sound that influenced a broad spectrum of guitar players in the post-World War II era. His musical roots can be found in Texas country blues musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Travis (1917-1983), who joined McMichen’s band in 1937, developed his “thumb style” of guitar playing. (Malone p. 121) He befriended two coal-miners, Mose Rager and Ike Everly, who demonstrated how to use the thumb for the bass strings while playing the melody on treble strings. (source:  

Thumbstyle was a guitar playing style that grew up around 1920 in western Kentucky. Identified with the music of its most well know creators, Mose Rager, Kennedy Jones an Merle Travis. It became the basis for later styles of country guitar, including Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed. (source:

Also from western Kentucky, a new style sometimes called "choking style" emerged in which artists like Merle Travis began picking a syncopated melody on the bass strings while simultaneously playing the lead on the higher strings with the index finger. This so-called "Travis picking" was later developed even further by Chet Atkins, and became one of the standard methods in modern country music.
(source: PBS at

Interview Subjects:

Doc Watson
Now in his 80th year, with a guitar playing career that spans six decades, Doc Watson’s playing reflects many threads in the story of country guitar in America.

“The first thing I learned was the old Carter Family style, using a thumbpick and a strum with the fingers. Maybelle Carter played the lead on the bass strings with her thumb and did the rhythmic strum with her fingers.” (source:

In an interview conducted by Acoustic Guitar magazine (March/April 1993), Doc says, "I guess I liked every guitar player that I listened to, but there’s some at the top of the list, like Chet, Merle, Smitty, Hank Garland."(source: 

Dr. Charles Wolfe, of Middle Tennessee State University, is the author of numerous books and publications relating to the development of rural American music. He is the author of a biography of country music legend Lefty Frizzell, and The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling.

Dr. Kip Lornell, Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology, is a professor of African Studies, Music, and American Studies at George Washington University, and he serves as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian. He is the author of Happy in the Service of the Lord: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis, originally published by University of Illinois Press in 1988. 

Emmylou Harris, performer, revivalist of traditional guitar styles; introduced traditional guitar styles to new audiences in the 1970s.

Bill Ivey, former Executive Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Director of the Country Music Foundation. He has written widely on the subject of the evolution of country music styles. 

Les Paul, guitarist, inventor of multi-track recording techniques, early innovator of electrification of the guitar.

Resources, Bibliography, Discography, Archival: 

(Not Already Mentioned Above) 


Charters, Samuel Barclay. 1959. The Country Blues. New York: Rinehart & Co. 

Cooper, Daniel. 1995. Lefty Frizzell: The Honky Tonk Life of Country Music's Greatest Singer. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Green, Douglas. 1976. Country Roots: The Origin of Country Music. New York: Hawthorne Books. 

Kirby, Jack T. 1995. The Countercultural South. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Lilly, J. and C. Wolfe. 1993. “Legends—No. 9: The Skillet Lickers.” Old-Time Herald (Vol. 4), pp 8-12 

Malone, Bill C. 1993. Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens, University of Georgia Press.

Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh. 1975. Stars of Country Music: Uncle DaveMacon to Johnny Rodriguez. New York: Da Capo Press. 

Oermann, Robert K. 1996. America’s Music: The Roots of Country. Atlanta: Turner Publishing.

Tosches, Nick. 1985. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll. New York: Da Capo Press. 


Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene (3 Volumes). 1996. Yazoo: 2015-17. 

Honky Tonk Blues. ND. Music Heritage: MH602. Roots of Country: The Story of Country Music (4 Volumes). 1996. Friedman/Fairfax. 

Roots of Rock 'n Roll (4 Volumes). 1999. Fremeaux & Associates: FA 35I-54. Stompin' at the Honky Tonk (Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 7). 1996. President: PLCD 563. 

Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkway Recordings, 1960-1962. 1994. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: CD SF 40029730.

© Copyright 2002-6 Terms of Use | Email