“Travis-style” thumb-picked guitar
Okolona, Mississippi by way of Nashville
Ben Hall is an exciting young guitar master keeping the Kentucky tradition of “Travis-style” thumb picking alive and relevant for old and new generations of fans alike.
Thumb picking is a type of fingerpicking in which the performer plays both rhythm and lead parts simultaneously, the thumb keeping a regular, alternating bass rhythm while the fingers pick the melody and fills. As Hall notes, “There's famous stories of so many great guitar players who play other styles listening to this and saying, ‘I had no idea that's one instrument.’” Thumb picking owes a debt to the Victorian “parlor guitar” styles that became an international fad during the late 19th century. The style never went out of fashion in Kentucky, where by the 1930s it was fully developed as a guitar genre by both black and white performers with ties to both blues and country music legacies. It gained popular notice again in the 1940s and ’50s through the playing of guitarists such as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, after whom it was dubbed “Travis-style” guitar.
Ben Hall hails from Okolona, Mississippi, where he started learning basic chords on guitar at age seven. He discovered thumb picking through his father’s country record collection and was hooked. At age 12, he had the good fortune to meet Comer “Moon” Mullins, a champion Travis-style picker from the Ozarks noted for his distinctive ragtime syncopation who became Hall’s mentor. In 2004, on a high school trip to Washington, D.C., he stumbled across a display for a new Smithsonian Folkways recording by National Heritage Fellow and Kentucky thumb-picking master Eddie Pennington. Hall recalls, “I'd fallen in love with a little known style of music, at least where my classmates were concerned. Finding that record at the Smithsonian validated my music preferences. It made me proud to be a thumb picker.”
The next year Hall won the National Thumb Picking Contest—and the International title as well. He soon headed off to college in Nashville, where a chance encounter at the city’s Louvin Brothers Museum accelerated the trajectory of his guitar career: the woman at the counter heard Hall playing and brought him back to meet Charlie Louvin. Though the elderly country legend at first seemed to ignore the young picker, the woman urged Hall on, “Keep playing—he’s loving it.” Soon Louvin, who had played so many years with Atkins, became Ben Hall’s next mentor, taking him on tour and helping produce his first album, 2011’s exclamatory Ben Hall! In 2012, at the tender age of 24, Ben Hall was named Thumbpicker of the Year by the National Thumbpickers’ Hall of Fame. Over the intervening few years, Hall put his energy toward law school, but still found time to work regularly as a performer and sideman around Nashville, including many appearances at the Grand Ole Opry; this October he celebrates completing the Tennessee bar exam by taking the stage in Richmond with his masterful thumb picking.