The Carter Scratch

They didn’t call her Mother Maybelle for nuthin.’ Nope. In addition to being the mother of three girls (Helen, Valerie June, and Anita), Maybelle Carter certainly earned the title of Mother of Bluegrass Guitar. Starting in 1927, her lead and rhythm guitar playing laid the foundation that was built upon by those who followed in her footsteps. Her signature lick on the guitar has been referred to as the Carter Scratch because of her way of playing the melody notes on the bass strings while vigorously strumming up and down on the treble strings of the guitar with her index finger. To some, it looked like she was scratching the strings, hence the name.

It is ironic that Maybelle played such a fundamental role in creating the guitar sound known as flatpicking guitar, when she actually rarely, if ever, used a flat pick. Bill Clifton, who was one of the first bluegrass guitar players to feature the guitar as a lead instrument, was profoundly influenced by Maybelle’s guitar style. Clifton shared with me that he assumed that she was using a flatpick because he learned from her records before seeing her play in person. It was only later, when he relocated near the Carter Family homeplace in southwest Virginia, that he realized his mistake, but he was too far along on the guitar to change now.

In searching for the roots of Maybelle’s style of guitar playing, the name of an *African-American musician named Lesley Riddle immediately springs to mind. In late 1927, A.P. Carter met Lesley at a jam session held in east Tennessee that was hosted by John Henry Lyons. Immediately impressed with his skills on the guitar, A.P. hired Lesley on the spot to accompany him on song collecting trips. When they found someone willing to share an old song that the Carter family could record, A.P. wrote down the lyrics and Leslie memorized the melody. Upon returning to A.P.’s homeplace, they shared the songs they had found with Maybelle and Sarah. It was during those song sessions that Maybelle absorbed much of Lesley’s guitar style. Once asked by Mike Seeger if he gave lessons to Maybelle, he replied, “No, I didn’t have to. She would just watch and learn. She was that good.”

Maybelle Carter went on to be the first musician in recorded country music to use the guitar as a lead instrument. It all started with “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree,” which was the first song the Carter Family recorded on August 1, 1927. On this recording Maybelle used her signature way of playing rhythm and lead at the same time.

There’s actually not much difference between the Carter Scratch and what’s commonly called the “Thumb-Brush” or the “Boom Chick.” In both of these ways of picking, either the thumb or a pick alternates back and forth from one bass string to another. On the second part of this strum, the bottom three or four strings of the guitar are struck with a downward motion. With the Thumb Brush, the back of the fingernails are used. In flatpicking, the pick strums down on the strings. And in the Carter Scratch, the index finger is used to go down and up on the bottom three or four strings.

Why not take the Carter Scratch for a trial run on your “scratch box,” better known as a guitar. The illustration shows this legendary strum on a D chord. The arrows indicate the direction of the strum.

By the way, I’ll be including complete instruction on playing the Carter Scratch in my upcoming book, Easy 2-Chord Songs on Guitar, to be published this spring by Native Ground Books & Music.