Young (Lady) Thumbs Make History; Sweep the Legends Thumbpicking Championship

Katelyn Prieboy (left) and Bella Speelman playing their new Gretsch guitars onstage at the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition in Powderly, Ky.

Photos and article by Ron Denny.

The History Channel could’ve joined Gretsch guitars as sponsors of the 2016 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition in Muhlenberg County, Ky., in late September. That’s because for the first time in the 28-year history of the event, two ladies – make that two teenagers – competed against eight men and took home the top two thumbpicking honors. They also walked offstage with new Gretsch guitars as a result of their picking prowess.

Katelyn Prieboy, 19, is from Lutz, Fla., which is just north of Tampa, and is a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville. She is majoring in audio engineering and minoring in classical guitar. Katelyn was crowned the grand champion and won a gorgeous Gretsch White Falcon guitar for being the first woman to sweep both the traditional and contemporary thumbpicking categories.

Bella Speelman, 17 and a high school senior from Denver, was runner-up in both thumbpicking categories and won a gleaming two-toned Lotus Ivory and Charcoal Metallic Gretsch Anniversary guitar. And, Bella made even more history at the event by being the first female to receive the Horizon Award from the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame.

Although these teenagers lived a thousand miles apart, several aspects of their musical journeys are similar. They both grew up in homes filled with country music (Bella’s first concert was a Toby Keith show when she was only five years old), and both ladies acknowledge Taylor Swift as their main inspiration for learning to play guitar at a young age. And, both credit YouTube for helping them not only discover Chet Atkins and the world of fingerstyle guitar, but for being their primary teacher.

“You think I would’ve picked it up from someone else, but none of my teachers played this style of music,” Katelyn said. “YouTube was my teacher. I learned from YouTube, , and a lot hours of listening and practicing.”

Katelyn and Bella are also members of the Young Thumbs, a club started two years ago at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville by John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel. Both of these legendary guitar masters, awarded Certified Guitar Player (CGP) honors by Chet Atkins, offer advice, encouragement, and help these teenage pickers continue Chet’s legacy by connecting with older, established fingerstyle guitarists. The club currently has 25 members with some residing in New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia. They even have their own Young Thumbs Facebook page so they can stay connected with each other.

Both Katelyn and Bella admit to being, in their own words, “Gretsch girls at heart.”

“I got my first Gretsch, a 6120, because I just love the guitar and that’s the way to get the tone for fingerstyle,” shared Katelyn. “And I’m saving up to get a ’59 Country Gentleman model because it was Chet’s favorite guitar.”

When asked how she liked her new White Falcon, Katelyn said, “I love it. Not only is it beautiful, it also plays so great; so smooth. I’ve been playing it in my dorm room here at college, and, even unplugged, it sounds acoustically fantastic. Once I start playing it, I don’t want to put it down.”

Bella, who also owns a Gretsch 6120-CGP and a 5120 Electromatic, was just as impressed with her new Players Edition Anniversary.

“I absolutely love the Anniversary. It sounds and looks and plays fabulously,” said Bella. The pinned bridge and string-through Bigsby and locking tuners are all very cool new features, and the thinner body style is a nice touch, too. It’s very comfortable to play.”

Hang around and talk to these two young ladies and you can’t help but be impressed by not only their amazing talent at such a young age, but also their maturity, commitment to preserving this genre of music, and their deep knowledge and love of Chet Atkins and other legendary thumbpickers like Merle Travis and Jerry Reed. They also both appreciate the role Gretsch guitars have played in the past and continue to play today.

“It’s nice to come into this genre of music and be able to play a guitar that has that sound. The same sound your hero had,” Katelyn said. “It really helps in playing and learning Chet’s music.”

Bella also shared, “I appreciate the time and effort that Gretsch, along with the help of Paul Yandell, put into recreating Chet’s personal guitars. They’re an integral part of keeping this style of music alive.”

In addition to sponsoring the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend each September in Powderly, Kentucky, Gretsch also sponsors the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society’s Annual Convention in Nashville; two of the world’s biggest events for fingerstyle and thumbpicking guitar fans and performers.

“It is so cool to sponsor this Event in the birthplace of thumbpicking and hear that authentic, ‘Muhlenberg Sound’ from the stage of the Merle Travis Music Center,” said Joe Carducci, Product Marketing Specialist for Gretsch guitars. “We’re proud of the Chet Atkins/Gretsch guitar legacy and we’ve worked hard to duplicate the look, but more importantly, the sound of Chet’s iconic guitars. It was a real thrill to see Katelyn and Bella make history and a pleasure to award them their new Gretsch guitars. As John Knowles says, the future of fingerstyle guitar is in very good hands. This new generation of young thumbs will just blow you away.”

Bella Speelman (left), Runner-Up, and Katelyn Prieboy, Grand Champion, receive their Gretsch guitars for winning the Legends Thumbpicking Championship from Joe Carducci, Product Marketing Specialist for Gretsch guitars.