Kaufman brings flatpicking to a new generation

The flatpicking style that Steve Kaufman plays and teaches allows guitarists to play notes at amazing speeds.

The flatpicking style that Steve Kaufman plays and teaches allows guitarists to play notes at amazing speeds.

Carlton Fletcher

ALBANY — Steve Kaufman’s decision to delve deeply into the art of guitar “flatpicking” was not, he claims now with three National Flatpicking Championships on his resume, something he eased into.

“The first time I heard Doc Watson play (on a Flatt & Scruggs album), it was like lightning striking,” Kaufman, who will hold an all-levels flatpicking workshop and concert in Albany Nov. 2-3, said. “It was instant. I told my brother, ‘I’ve got to do that.’ It’s not like any other kind of guitar music.”

The rapid flatpicking style made famous by Watson and mastered by Kaufman is dependent on the use of a flat, plastic pick that allows practitioners to play notes at amazing speeds. Its use is prominent in bluegrass, “old-timey country” and Celtic music.

“In contests, you have to play fast,” Kaufman explained. “But with practice you actually learn to play slow. In flatpicking, you learn to play spaces, not notes. You learn to play in phrases.

“I was the son of a single mother, so there was never money for guitar lessons. I’d just listen to (Watson’s) playing and hunt up the notes. I call it the ‘Bible method’: Seek and you shall find.”

The self-taught Kaufman read about flatpicking competitions in a bluegrass-themed magazine and decided as an 18-year-old that he was ready to take on the nation’s best. He entered his first national championship in Winfield, Kan., and finished in the Top 10. (“I got a T-shirt,” he notes.) The next year, 1977, he got nowhere.

But in 1978, at age 21, Kaufman won his first national title. Championship rules dictated that winners were inelegible to compete for the next five years, so Kaufman came back in 1984 and won again. In 1986 event organizers did away with the five-year rule, and Kaufman came back and claimed his third title.

“(Winning three titles) doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a better player than the others who competed,” Kaufman said. “It’s a tough competition, and the key is choosing your music carefully. It’s not like boxing or downhill skiing where one person is going to come out in first place. You play in front of five judges, who have their own subjective criteria they’re looking for.

“Me winning tells me I did my homework and picked the right music. The key is getting through the first cut. You have more than 60 people competing, and in the first round you get to play two songs. From that, the field is cut all the way down to five. It’s a lot easier to knock out four others than it is 60.”

Kaufman started teaching guitar at age 18, and his student list quickly surpassed 85 a week.

“When you have that many students, you quickly have to adjust to the next level,” he said.

As his reputation as both player and teacher grew, Kaufman was sought to put his teaching technique to paper. He’s since written around 30 books on flatpicking technique and has produced a number of instructional videos.

“Don’t think this all just fell into place,” Kaufman says. “You have to look at the timeline. I came to Tennessee in 1976, and I didn’t write my first book until 1991. I paid my dues. I made my living teaching lessons, and I made the money I needed to pay my taxes at the end of the year by playing on the weekends and collecting money in a tip jar.”

Kaufman’s teaching technique and workshops have become renowned the world over. He’ll work with pickers of all levels at the Merry Acres Events Center in Albany for two hours Nov. 2 and for an intense six-hour session Nov. 3. He’ll perform in concert at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

“I use the first couple of hours on Friday to figure out a theme for the weekend,” Kaufman said. “That will carry us through the weekend. I don’t go into any workshop having decided what to work on. I let the participants decide that

“I find that advanced students have elements they’re missing. So everyone starts the session at zero, and we chip away at the various elements. I find that by 3:30 on Saturday, everyone’s gotten something from the session.”

Mike Dykes, a friend of Kaufman’s since college, and Tom Bishop, a long-time musician who met Kaufman through Dykes and eventually took part in a couple of the guitarist’s workshops, decided to bring Kaufman to Albany to work with a growing group of area musicians.

“I’ve been playing guitar longer than I am good,” Bishop quipped. “I played with bands in the ‘60s in high school and college and then just gave it up. I always complained that I shouldn’t have quit playing, so my wife bought me a Fender Stratocaster 50th-anniversary edition for our 10th anniversary.

“I don’t know why I gravitated to bluegrass music, although I did have a college buddy who introduced me to Doc Watson. I’ve since been to Steve’s camp and to a couple of his workshops, and he’s just an amazing musician and teacher. He’s an ambassador of this type music, and he’s bringing it to a new generation. And even musicians who know how to play learn something new at his workshops.”

Enrollment in Kaufman’s Albany workshop (which is $90, much lower than the $600 charged by other noted teachers: “I didn’t want to charge so much it would keep anyone out,” Kaufman said.) is available for a limited number of musicians by calling (229) 869-2498 or (229) 347-9728 or by emailing tbishop@jsmithlanier.com or mdykes@mchsi.com.