Stuart Ryan discovers that country queen Dolly Parton has a neat twist on fingerstyle guitar.
The undisputed Queen Of Country, Dolly Parton is a bona fide superstar, both within that genre and beyond. Even if you are not familiar with her work you may be astonished to discover that she has penned over 3,000 songs and was the author of Whitney Houston’s 90s mega-smash I Will Always Love You. Of course, there are her own hits - Jolene, Coat Of Many Colors, Here You Come Again, Love Is Like A Butterfly and 9 To 5 among many others.
While it’s tempting to be sidetracked by Parton’s opulent onstage image, she actually came from extremely humble beginnings. Born in Tennessee she was brought up in a one-room shack but by the age of 10 she was performing on local radio and, astonishingly, made her debut appearance on America’s flagship country show The Grand Ole Opry at just 13. After she left school Nashville beckoned and she started to work as a songwriter. Weekly appearances on country star Porter Wagoner’s TV show saw her reach a huge audience and soon she was embedded in the public conscious. After dueting with Wagoner and enjoying a string of Top 10 hits with him she went solo and even greater success started to come - most notably with 1973’s aforementioned Jolene. I Will Always Love You was a No 1 in 1974 (and, interestingly, in 1984 too) and by 1979 she had been awarded her first Grammy.
In addition to playing guitar Parton can often be seen with a banjo and it’s the ‘thumb and flick’ technique of banjo that dominates much of her guitar work. In essence it’s a version of the classic Maybelle Carter approach where the thumb plucks a bass note, which is followed by the first finger ‘flicking’ down to sound the corresponding chord – strike the strings with the fingernail, which will give a more percussive sound (McCartney employs this technique too).
There are no demands on the fretting hand here as Dolly is mostly playing simple open-position chords. But you may find the picking hand needs some work on thumb accuracy, ensuring you hit the correct bass notes; and on the first-finger ‘flick’ use enough power to strike the strings but not too much that they overshadow the bass notes. In essence it’s a balancing act between thumb and finger to get this to sound right.
born in tennessee dolly was brought up in a one-room shack, but by the age of 10 she was performing on local radio
Dolly Parton: mixes picking and strumming in her playing style
Dolly has played many different guitars over the years but these days you will often see her with a Taylor GS Mini and other parlour sized instruments. Any good acoustic will work fine, but these smaller guitars work extremely well for the more intimate tone required. Dolly often picks near the soundhole for a warmer tone, so do experiment with where and how you hit the strings.