Carter Family picking (also called the “thumb brush,” the “Carter lick,” the “church lick,” or the “Carter scratch”) is a style of picking guitar chords where the guitarist uses their thumb to pick the strings. The Carter family has been credited with inventing this technique.
Carter family picking through the Southern United States
The earliest origins of the Carter scratching style of guitar picking are uncertain, although it is rooted in Appalachian music and the Southern United States. The guitar scratch rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s with the Carter Family, whose members included Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter, and Anita Carter. Maybelle played guitar and banjo in the family band, singing lead vocals and providing the instrumentation.
Maybelle learned to play by ear, never learning how to read music. She relied on the example set by her brothers and mother to develop her technique. Maybelle did not invent this playing method; however, it came to dominate bluegrass music in the late 1920s and 1930s.
A technique born of necessity
The Carter family’s music is usually played at around 120 beats per minute (bpm). They play in 4/4 time, slightly faster than typical American folk songs, and are “slightly uptempo.” The Carter Family’s music has been described as having a bluesy feel and is often compared to gospel and bluegrass music.
Among the Carter Family group, only Maybelle was a regular guitarist. Her cousin Sara often accompanied her on the autoharp when she performed. To make their songs sound more dynamic, Maybelle devised a guitar technique that sounds like multiple guitars are being played simultaneously.
Maybelle’s distinctive style has earned several nicknames over the decades: Thumb–Brush, Church Lick, Carter Lick, Carter Scratch, and perhaps most commonly, Carter Family Pickin’.
Carter used her index finger and thumb to pick the strings with her fingerpicks, but she could just as easily use her bare fingers. She originally recorded ‘Wildwood Flower’ with a capo at position 6th fret, but in later years, she’d move it down to lower positions to suit her deepening vocal ranges. While her showcase of “upstrokes” playing two strings and “downstrokes” hitting three with precision isn’t essential, it’s just a guide to help imitate Carter’s sound by strumming with a guitar pick, where, generally speaking, upstrokes play fewer strings than downstroke.
The enduring influence of the Maybelle Carter Guitar Scratch
Minds instantly jump to names like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen when asked to name the most influential guitar players in history.
Notably missing from that list is Mother Maybelle Carter, an incredibly gifted guitarist who was largely ignored by the music industry for decades. Her distinctive and often copied playing style was soon adopted by country music and American folk guitarists everywhere, becoming a new benchmark style.