How to Fingerpick Like Chet Atkins

I’d like to kick things off with a look at my approach to the song, “El Vaquero,” written by the great Chet Atkins and Wayne Moss, which I recorded for It’s Never Too Late.

A vaquero is a cowboy, and, as the name implies, this song has a “western” feel, with a Spanish/Mexican flavor. I first heard this song as recorded by Chet for his Hometown Guitar album, on which Wayne played the rhythm guitar part and Chet added the melody, or lead, part on top, along the lines of FIGURES 1 and 2. To execute the rhythm part properly, use the standard Merle Travis fingerpicking technique, wherein the notes on the bottom three strings are picked with the thumb, with light palm muting, in an “alternating bass” fashion, and the notes on the top three strings are picked with the index and middle fingers.

My goal with this tune was to find a way to play the song as a solo piece, so I had to devise a way to cover both the rhythm and melody in one guitar part. FIGURE 3 represents my take on the first six bars, and throughout this section (as with most of the song), my pick-hand thumb alternates between the bass notes in steady eighth notes. While doing this, my index and middle fingers pick the melodies and harmonies, often with the index picking the G string while the middle finger strikes the B string; if the index finger needs to move up to the B string, the middle finger will then be used to sound the notes on the high E, as the fingers work together (in most places) on adjacent strings.

In bar 1, notice that I use a hammer-on to move the melody note from C to D on the B string right on the downbeat of beat three. Using a hammer-on here works well because of the consistent alternating bass. In bar 2, I take a similar approach, using a pull-off from C to the open B string on the downbeat of beat two. The second time through (second ending), this B-string melody is a little different, as it ascends up to a high E over the A chord in the last bar of the example. Be sure to play through this figure slowly and carefully, with focused attention paid to the subtle syncopations between the “bass” parts and melody.

FIGURE 4 recalls the subsequent five-bar section, wherein the bass notes ascend in half steps every two beats, from F (Dm/F), to Fs (D/Fs), to G (G), to Gs (E7/Gs), setting up the return to Am. Notice that the highest note of the melody replicates this movement on the first string. The first section of the tune ends with FIGURE 5, as somewhat unusual chord voicings for E(f9) resolve to Am.

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Tommy Emmanuel is an Australian guitarist, who's worked as a session player and won awards for his solo recordings. He is one of the finest acoustic players working today. In 2019, MusicRadar named him as one of the 10 best acoustic guitarists in the world.