How to get the country thumbpicker’s distinctive sound, a blend of Travis-style fingerpicking and R&B and bluegrass banjo influences. With audio.
By Jim Ohlschmidt and Craig Dobbins Were you to write down a list of Jerry Reed’s talents and accomplishments, you’d need a long sheet of paper. Among the general public he’s remembered as a television and movie actor who brought to life such memorable Southern characters as Cletus Snow in Smokey and the Bandit. Others remember him as the gifted, soulful tunesmith who penned such timeless gems as “Today Is Mine,” “A Thing Called Love,” and “Amos Moses,” to name a few. Guitarists and readers of Acoustic Guitar know him as one of the most original and genial fingerpickers to ever set foot in Nashville.
Master guitarist and teacher John Knowles once described the process of unraveling a Jerry Reed instrumental as “eating soup with a fork.” Listen to Reed tear through “The Claw,” “Stumpwater,” or “Jerry’s Breakdown” and you’ll hear what Knowles is talking about. Sometimes the flurry of notes is like a swarm of bees; other times his bass lines, chords, and melodies go in different directions simultaneously. Reed also used his remarkable chops to fashion fantastic arrangements of classic American songs such as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Eight More Miles to Louisville,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and “Careless Love.” Dissect the influences in his playing, as Craig Dobbins has done in the lesson below, and you’ll find old-school rhythm and blues, bluegrass-style banjo licks, Kentucky thumbpicking, rockabilly, country, jazz, and pop. Like a musical sponge, Reed soaked up the sounds he loved and blended them all together on the acoustic gut-string guitar like no one else before him.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1937, Jerry Reed Hubbard spent most of his childhood in foster homes—his parents divorced just months after he was born. By the time he entered high school, he had learned to play guitar and sing by listening to Merle Travis and Hank Williams records. In 1954 Reed met local music publisher and country DJ Bill Lowery, who, impressed with the prodigious teen’s ability to write songs and entertain people, got Reed his first gig on the road, opening for Ernest Tubb. Later that year, Lowery introduced Reed to Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson, and Reed cut 30 songs for the label between 1955 and 1958. After serving a hitch in the army, Reed moved to Nashville in 1961 and began recording for Columbia. Neither label generated any real success for Reed.
All that changed in 1964 when his friend and guitar hero Chet Atkins signed him to RCA. Atkins knew an original talent when he saw one, and he also knew that the best thing he could do was let Reed do his thing. That wisdom resulted in three No.1 country singles between 1970 and 1982 and a string of albums—including two brilliant outings with Atkins—filled with some of the very best music ever to come out of RCA’s Studio B. Reed’s television and movie work took off in the mid-’70s, and although he never quite topped the box-office success of Smokey and the Bandit in 1977, he continued acting in various feature films for the next 25 years. In the mid-’80s Reed made two albums for Capitol with Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and in 1992 he teamed with Atkins once more for the Sneakin’ Around album. After several years away from recording and touring, in 1998 Reed made a fantastic “comeback” recording called Pickin’ for his old friend and mentor Bill Lowery’s Southern Tracks label. That same year Reed starred in the Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy and appeared alongside Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Mel Tillis on the aptly titled Old Dogs recording.
Reed made five more self-produced albums before he succumbed to complications from emphysema on September 1, 2008. A few weeks later Nashville’s Douglas Corner Café was filled to capacity with folks paying tribute to their recently departed musical hero. Many of the performers had worked with Reed during his stellar career, including Buddy Greene, Thom Bresh, John Knowles, Mark Thornton, Dick Feller, Hoot Hester, and others. Guitarists in the lineup included Richard Smith (who organized the event), Brent Mason, Mark Casstevens, Chip Young, Darrell Toney, and Buster B. Jones. Pat Bergeson told the audience that the first time he heard Reed play a bass line and a melody line at the same time—in contrary motion—it blew his mind and forever changed his concept of playing the instrument. It was a sentiment expressed by all the performers that evening: hearing Jerry Reed changed their life.—Jim Ohlschmidt
Jerry Reed–Style Thumbpicking
Although he was best known as a singer, actor, and television personality, Jerry Reed was one of the most influential guitar stylists of the 20th century. Chet Atkins often said that wherever he went, he heard some guitarist playing a Jerry Reed lick. Even so, Reed, who referred to himself as a “guitar thinker,” was modest about his playing. “I put down musical ideas,” Reed said (“Guitar Man,” Acoustic Guitar, August 1999). “I’ve worked hard at playing the strings and the notes and at capturing what I feel in my music, my life, and my background and my heritage from the South, but it has to do with much more than the guitar. The guitar is what I interpret it with.”
In this lesson, we’ll take a look at some of the elements of Reed’s signature style. Reed most often used either an amplified nylon-string guitar or a Fender Telecaster and played with his thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers (p, i, m, a). Many of the examples here can be played with a flatpick and fingers, but to get the Reed sound, use a thumbpick. Also, pay careful attention to the fingering in all the examples—it will make you or break you!
Reed referred to the best-known aspect of his style as clawin’. “But really it’s just fingerpickin’,” he said. Example 1 is the basic pattern used in his signature instrumental “The Claw” (first recorded in 1967 on The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed). Reed’s clawin’ lick is based on the right-hand pattern p–i–ma (thumb, index, and middle and ring fingers together). In his book Jerry Reed: Heavy Neckin’, John Knowles described the sound as “the thumb accents making a bass melody and the finger accents coming in like an R&B sax section.” Example 2 demonstrates how Reed might have played a clawin’ progression in the key of A.
Reed also liked to claw in dropped-D tuning on such tunes as “500 Miles Away from Home” (from Jerry Reed) and “Back Home in Georgia” (from Hot a’ Mighty). Example 3 is one of Reed’s favorite dropped-D clawin’ patterns. Here, the accent is on the bass notes. Again, this example uses the p–i–ma picking pattern. Reed also used the clawin’ technique to play funky lead lines, as in Example 4. In licks like this, Reed would sometimes alternate between middle and index fingers together (im) and thumb (p).