Today’s Tech and Young Thumbs

Today’s technology helps Millennials discover – and learn – fingerstyle guitar playing.

By Fred W. Gretsch

Today’s young guitarists are taking advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. Without a doubt, digital technology has played–and will continue to play–a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians. The rise and success of these young guitarists can still be attributed to good, old-fashioned drive, hard work, and hours upon hours of practice…but with some help from today’s technology to boot.

Okay, now about these “Young Thumbs”…

“Who are these kids, and why are they winning these awards?” That was the question fingerstyle guitar fans were asking back in 2013 and 2014, as a wave of young guitarists – many of them barely teenagers – were not only competing against adults in national guitar competitions, they were also winning.

Young Thumb members pose for a group photo at the 2015 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. From left: Evan Twitty, Gracie Constable, Chelsea Constable, Samuel Grounds, Parker Hastings, Kirby Jane, Tanner Duckworth, Sojourner McClure, and mentor John Knowles CPG. Photo: Jennifer Keller Easler.

John Knowles CGP (left) and Parker Hastings performing together at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. Photo courtesy of Parker Hastings.

Sixteen-year-old Sojourner McClure placed first in the Traditional Category at the 2013 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Championship, held annually at the Merle Travis Music Center in Powderly, Kentucky. The following year, history was made at the competition when 14-year-old Parker Hastings won BOTH the traditional and the contemporary thumbpicking categories (and history would be made again two years later when two young ladies swept the thumbpicking event for the first time).

In Nashville, the same youth movement was being noticed at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) Convention. Although not a competition, the largest gathering of fingerstyle guitar fans and performers in the country saw an increase of young attendees who were jamming with each other in the hotel lobby, and signing up for as many Open Mic slots as possible at the four-day event. Older, more established performers were noticing too, with several of them inviting these young up-and-comers onstage to play and get exposure.

At the 2014 CAAS Convention, John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, two legendary master guitarists who were both awarded Certified Guitar Player (CGP) honors from their mentor, Chet Atkins, were impressed and excited with this infusion of new talent at the Convention. John and Tommy decided the time was right to gather these teenagers in a room and have them perform for each other for the first time. The result was magical. The room was packed, the young players were jaw-dropping good, and the older players realized the future of fingerstyle playing was in very good hands. As a result, a new club was formed: The Young Thumbs. “At some point, someone suggested calling the players the Young Guns,” said John Knowles. “But I said, no, this isn’t a shootout. It’s a family. What about the Young Thumbs? It was a paraphrase of Young Guns and everyone liked it.”

The original goals of the Young Thumbs were to get them noticed at the CAAS Convention so they could perform their own sets onstage; help them make connections with the older, established guitarists and find a mentor; and encourage them to connect with each other. Two years later, these initial goals have been met. The Young Thumbs currently total about 25 male and female members up to the age of 21, with some residing as far away as New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia. In addition to the invaluable advice and encouragement they receive from John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, there’s also a small support group of adults volunteering their time to manage the Young Thumbs’ Facebook page and assist them with basic marketing and promotion.

When talking with these young guitarists and asking them about influences, two answers come up regularly: Tommy Emmanuel and YouTube. “I think it’s Tommy’s world travels and YouTube that are the two biggest factors,” said John. “Tommy is the gateway to this style of guitar playing now because there’s more people hearing him and there’s an electrifying energy in what he does. They’ll find Tommy on YouTube, then click on the recommended links and discover who came before Tommy and influenced his playing: Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Merle Travis.”

Katelyn Prieboy, Grand Champion (left), and Bella Speelman, Runner-Up, with mentor John Knowles CGP, after receiving their Gretsch guitars for being the first females to sweep the Legends Thumbpicking Championship. Photo by Ron Denny.

Two Young Thumbs members, Katelyn Prieboy and Bella Speelman, made history at the recent 2016 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, by being the first females to place first and second in the 28-year history of the event. And, both credit YouTube as being their primary teacher.

“YouTube has been simply invaluable. I don’t know how many hours a week I’m on it,” shared 19-year-old Grand Champion Katelyn Prieboy. “There’s so much music for this genre available that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s such a great resource for watching videos of your guitar heroes and learning from them.”

Runner-Up Bella Speelman, 17, and a senior in high school added, “My teacher didn’t know this style, so YouTube played a big role in me finding Chet Atkins and learning how to play like him. Although I’ve listened a ton to Chet and I’ll listen to a song at least 50 times before I try to learn it, it’s so helpful watching a video of Chet; seeing where he played things and learning by watching his movements on the fretboard.”

Fellow Young Thumbs member Parker Hastings added, “YouTube is a pretty powerful tool to see footage of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau and other artists. Literally with a click, it is all at your fingertips; an endless supply of visual inspiration. Plus, YouTube now has a feature that lets you slow the video down if you’re trying to learn or steal a lick without affecting the song’s pitch. A far superior method to how the older pickers learned back in the day: loading a turntable with coins or weights to slow the record down.”

Kirby Jane

Kirby Jane, 22 and a Young Thumbs “Alum,” is one of several female fingerstyle guitarists making a name for herself in Nashville. When asked about the importance of YouTube, Kirby shared, “I was one of those kids that started with YouTube. Joe Robinson is one of the first guitar stars of the YouTube generation. He taught himself primarily through YouTube because, like me, he lived in a small town. Joe’s videos on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’ led me to Tommy Emmanuel’s music, then Tommy’s music lead me to John Knowles. I can still remember watching Edgar Cruz’s `Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Tommy Emmanuel’s ‘Beatles Medley’ videos on YouTube. They’re the two videos that lit a spark and led me down this road to learning fingerstyle playing.”

In addition to YouTube, today’s young guitarists also take advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. GarageBand and JamUp are two apps that give them access to dozens of stompbox effects and amps and makes recording easy. GuitarToolkit is a popular app containing scales, chords, a metronome and a tuner, and Audacity TempoSloMo, and BestPractice are apps that let them import and export audio files and slow songs down for practicing and learning. Many Young Thumb artists also use OnSong, an app that replaces binders and paper, and digitally stores music and set lists. And, Skype is a very popular tool these young musicians use for staying in touch, sharing songs they’re working on, and swapping guitar licks back and forth in real time from practically anywhere in the world.

Without a doubt, digital technology has played – and will continue to play – a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians.  And, with one hour of video being uploaded onto YouTube every second, (that’s right, every second!), it will continue to be the primary site musicians go to for learning and inspiration. But, these young musicians are quick to point out that technology is only a tool. The human element of playing together with other people, jamming, sharing guitar licks, and getting feedback and encouragement from fellow musicians is still vital to their growth and development as artists. John Knowles, the main mentor of the Young Thumbs, shared, “I haven’t seen any parents pushing their kids to play like Chet Atkins. Each of these Young Thumbs found this fingerstyle playing in their own way, but once they heard it, something clicked, and from then on they were relentless like I was, like Tommy was, like Chet was, like all of us were. The Young Thumbs are all self-motivated, and they’ve gotten this far by being self-learners, self-motivated learners.”

Check out these great videos from these fantastic Young Thumbs:

Bella Speelman performing “Black Mountain Rag” at the 2016 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville, TN:

Parker Hastings performs an original composition “Looking for Licks” at 2016 CAAS Convention:

Katelyn Prieboy performing one of her favorite Chet Atkins arrangements, “Swedish Rhapsody,” from Atkins’ 1956 “Finger-Style Guitar” album:

Kirby Jane performing her arrangement of Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top”:

Parker Hastings and John Knowles CGP, performing “Cold, Cold Heart” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN:

More videos from the 2016 CAAS Convention can be enjoyed on The Gretsch Company’s YouTube Channel.
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