“Salt Creek” Bluegrass Flatpicking Guitar Lesson

Kendall Bailey Photography

From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Alan Barnosky

A common question advancing flatpickers have is how and when to play up the neck. In genres like blues, rock, and jazz, the answers are somewhat intuitive because those styles primarily use closed shapes that feel natural to move around. But in acoustic flatpicking, things are a bit more nuanced. The essence of flatpicking is rooted in the open position, so moving up the neck must be done in a way that doesn’t betray that sound. I like to think of up-the-neck passages as brief departures that typically start and end in open position. The previous two Pickin’ columns give nice examples of these types of passages. In this lesson, you’ll look more deeply into another.  

“Salt Creek” is an old favorite tune that can be heard at any bluegrass jam. The arrangement through bar 17 shows how this tune is commonly played on guitar. It utilizes open strings, slides, and slurs, and the B section requires a substantial fretting-hand stretch. This arrangement is mostly based out of open position, and as such it has that classic flatpicking sound. 

I’ve also included an alternate way to play the B section in a closed, up-the-neck position that avoids the fourth-finger stretch. This is nearly the exact same melody, but in a higher position it takes on a different quality. It has a warmer tone, and playing across three strings offers more connectedness between melody notes compared to mostly moving along the first string. The only difference is the added D at the end of the second and sixth bars, a drone note that can be sustained underneath the following passage and can’t easily be done in the lower register. This alternate approach isn’t necessarily better sounding or easier to play—it offers its own set of advantages and challenges, and it’s up to each player to decide which approach they prefer.

Notice how the last measure uses the open second string to leave the closed position and drop back down the neck. This “escape note” is critical when moving along the neck so that there are not audible gaps when changing positions. One other point worth mentioning: when playing with a band, a guitarist usually needs to start playing rhythm immediately after their solo. Dropping back down to open position at the end of the passage helps create a seamless transition into accompaniment mode.

Try both versions of the B section and see which one works best for you. Even if you end up choosing the first approach, learning the alternate can help with understanding the neck a little better. If you wish to explore the fretboard even more, try working out the A section—or another fiddle tune you may know—in a closed position. You’ll probably find that playing a whole tune in that manner doesn’t sound the best, but maybe a brief passage up the neck is the exact thing a piece needs in order to reach its full potential.

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