When I was in Nashville a couple months ago for the NAMM show, I visited some local guitar shops, including Guitar Gallery, the Opryland Gibson Guitar showcase, Gruhn Guitars, and Cotten Music, where I made my only musical purchase of the week: Roland White and Diane Bouska’s wonderful new book The Essential Clarence White: Bluegrass Guitar Leads. In addition to an illuminating biographical intro by Roland that details his life with his brother from their births in rural Maine to Clarence’s death at the age of 29 in 1973, the book includes detailed transcriptions of 14 traditional instrumentals that Clarence recorded at home in 1962. These recordings are included on a CD, along with a couple of video clips made the year he died, and a second CD provides backing tracks (by Roland on guitar and Missy Raines on bass) so students can practice the tunes in the book.
The transcriptions, by Matt Flinner and Steve Pottier, are worth the price of the book by themselves, but each tune is accompanied by detailed notes and technical tips about Clarence’s playing, along with shots of Clarence’s hands in action. So, for example, in the basic instruction section about how to hold the flatpick, you get a close-up example of exactly how Clarence held the pick. One technique that Clarence used in particular, and which is not often talked about in flatpicking technique manuals, is the rest stroke, and in addition to a clear and concise description of this important technique, the notes point out Clarence’s use of it in various points in the transcriptions.
Although these recordings were done at an early stage in Clarence’s life (he was just 19 at the time), and the versions are somewhat simpler than many of his later recorded versions, his style was already fully formed. The wealth of detail and technical information here will keep even advanced guitarists busy for quite awhile, and students just discovering Clarence’s revolutionary style will appreciate the more straightforward approach and essential repertoire, including “Shady Grove,” “Black Mountain Rag,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Sally Goodin.”