In the mid-seventies, I was lucky enough to become friends with the legendary fiddler Jim Shumate, who joined in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945 just weeks after Lester Flatt joined the band. In a 1976 interview here is how Jim explained it:
Lester had just started working with Bill when I joined the band. He’d been with Bill for two or three weeks. He’d been singing tenor with Charlie Monroe. So he left Charlie and went with Bill at the Grand Ole Opry. I had met Lester when he was working with Charlie, so I was glad he was with Bill. We were both rookies. I remember that Lester always had a funny run on the guitar, and we used to kid about that run. I accused him of doing it just to let people know that he was still there. That’s about the truth, because we’d be going so fast, he’d just hit one string here and there and then every chance he’d get, why he’d run something in there.
That “something” was Lester’s signature guitar run. The Blue Grass Boys may have kidded Lester about his little run, but Lester’s G run is no laughing matter to died-in-the-wool fans of traditional bluegrass. In this article, I may question whether or not Lester actually invented that run, but no one can argue with the fact that he gave it its biggest audience when he played it week after week on live appearances and on most Saturday nights on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Of course, Lester continued to play his G run over the course of his long career with Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys and later with the Nashville Grass.
We can trace the origins of Lester’s G run back at least as far as the mid-1930s when Riley Puckett played a version of it on the August 8, 1935 recording of “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” On June 15, 1936, Zeke Morris played his version of the guitar run when he and Wade Mainer recorded “If I Can Hear My Mother Pray Again.” If you listen close to Monroe Brothers’ October 12, 1936 recording of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” you can hear Charlie Monroe playing something that approaches the Lester Flatt G Run. On October 28, 1939, in Bill Monroe’s very first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry Bill amazed the audience with his performance of Jimmie Rodgers’ song “Mule Skinner Blues.” For this number Bluegrass Boy, Cleo Davis chorded Monroe’s mandolin and Bill played guitar and used a run very similar to the Lester Flatt G Run. Bill also played the run when he recorded this song with the Blue Grass Boys on October 7, 1940, for RCA Victor Records.
In comparing these early versions of the G run, the thing they all have in common is that the run is commonly played at the end of a verse or a chorus and it culminates with the open G string of the guitar. What Lester apparently did was streamline it down just to the two notes, an E and a G which he was able to hit when the band was going 90 miles an hour. As Brian Sutton once said, “It was Lester Flatt who put it on the map.” And for that, we are grateful. Thanks, Lester!
If you’d like to try the Lester Flatt run on the guitar, take a peek at the guitar tab, below. The tab is written in the style I use in my book, Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. The letters on the strings represent the name of the note on that string. The arrow represents a strum down. The feet give you an idea of the timing. Of course, Lester played with a thumb pick, but you can certainly do it with a flatpick if you wish.
Wayne Erbsen is a musician, author, publisher, teacher and radio host. Check out his instruction books and songbooks for banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin plus books of songs and lore of cowboys, railroads, cowboys, outlaws, gospel, plus historic cookbooks by visiting http://www.nativeground.com/