By RYAN TRARES, for the Brown County Democrat
The lilting notes went up and down with dizzying tempo, music flowing in waves from the expertly tuned acoustic guitar.
At the same time, players tapped a beat out with their thumbs, or added bass to the depth of their playing by simultaneously plucking the lowest strings.
When fingerstyle guitar players pick up their instruments and start playing, it seems like they have more than just five fingers at their disposal. Their playing hand creates the sounds of an entire band.
That’s the challenge, and the appeal, of the unique brand of guitar.
“The fingerstyle players is a one-man band. As a solo performer in particular, it keeps the music very interesting,” said Chuck Wills, a fingerstyle performer from Nashville.
More than any power chord or rock solo, fingerstyle playing showcases the depth of potential within the guitar. When some of the world’s best players come to Brown County this weekend for the annual Indiana State Fingerstyle Guitar Festival, the range of that still will be on full display.
The annual event is one of the top destinations for fingerstyle performers, and will feature three days of the best, most-complex picking and plucking.
“Fingerstyle guitar is the ultimate challenge for a guitar player,” said Kara Barnard, a Nashville-based musician, owner of Weed Patch Music Co. and co-organizer of the festival. “You’ve got three different jobs to do all at once — the rhythm, the lead and the bass player. There’s nothing like it.”
Participants and attendees mingle together in a Friday night jam session before getting down to business on Saturday. A fingerstyle competition at the Brown County Playhouse will feature about 30 players given five minutes to show off their skills.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There is a lot of music over that time,” Wills said.
A blind panel of judges will score the players for arrangement, execution, expression and overall impression.
Once the winner is awarded a handcrafted Thomas Roeger guitar, world-renowned performers Michael Kelsey and the father/son duo of Myles and Tim Thompson will perform a special concert. The top three finishers in the fingerstyle competition will also perform.
In fingerstyle guitar, players use each of the fingers on their playing hand independently to play multiple parts of a musical arrangement. The sounds that emerge from a skilled player take on aspects of bass, percussion, harmonic accompaniment and melody, according to the Toronto Fingerstyle Guitar Association.
When the guitar first developed in Spain more than 400 years ago, players were plucking the strings with their fingers, rather than the more modern style of using a pick.
“Most guitar players that you see use a flat pick, and hold it between their thumb and first finger. They can strum or pick individual strings with it,” Wills said. “Fingerstyle does away with that flat pick.”
Within the fingerstyle category, there is a wide range of ways to play. People can go from traditional classical plucking to twangy country to more avant-garde compositions.
“We characterize fingerstyle as ‘the Olympics of guitar playing.’ It’s definitely the most challenging style to master,” Wills said.
Wills has been a musician all of his life. Though he started as a classical trumpet player, he also played the guitar for enjoyment. When he moved to Brown County 10 years ago, he connected with the area’s rich bluegrass heritage.
Playing more and more guitar, and becoming more familiar with musicians in the scene, he started taking lessons from Barnard. She introduced him to fingerstyle, which she had been playing for decades.
The idea for a local festival was originally hatched by Barnard. She had competed in the International Fingerstyle Guitar Competition in the past, and as Brown County was becoming a haven for skilled guitar builders, she wanted to bring competitors and players together.
“I wanted to try and combine the enthusiasm that I saw in the international competition, as well as promote local builders by giving their guitars away. It was a chance to let these great players from all over the world learn about the amazing builders we had in Indiana,” Barnard said.
Wills, with a background in event planning, teamed up with Barnard’s musical experience to put together the first fingerstyle event in 2011.
Since its inception, the festival has attracted players from Italy and Japan, and this year’s version has competitors from Spain and Turkey. The Indiana event is one of only eight fingerstyle competitions sanctioned by the Walnut Valley Association, which oversees the International Fingerstyle Guitar Competition.
More importantly, it brings new people to Brown County who would otherwise never come to the area, and infuses the community with fresh ideas and talent.
“Back when Kara and I started this, one of our values was that for everybody who comes here to see the great hospitality of this community, and want to come back,” Wills said. “For us, it’s not just fingerstyle guitar, it’s showing off Brown County for people.”
Indiana State Fingerstyle Guitar Festival
What: A gathering of some the best fingerstyle guitar players in the world, competing against each other and performing throughout the weekend.
Saturday, July 30
- Brown County Playhouse, 70 S. Van Buren St., Nashville
- Fingerstyle guitar competition, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., featuring about 30 players judged on the style, execution and overall impression.
- Evening concert, 7:30 to 10 p.m., featuring Michael Kelsey, Tim and Myles Thompson and the top-three performers from the competition.
Tickets: $22.50 for an all-day pass for both the competition and concert; VIP passes for $32.50 come with a swag bag, in addition to all-day access; concert-only passes are $17.50.