western Kentucky thumbstyle originated in the Western coalfields of Kentucky, in the County of Muhlenberg, in the 1930's and 40's. Early exponents were black players such as Arnold Schultz and Sylvester Weaver, who passed on their skills to white coal miners such as Kennedy Jones, Ike Everly, Lester English, Mose Rager and Merle Travis. Travis became a guitar session man and songwriter on the West Coast after the war, where he found fame with his million seller, "Sixteen tons."

Travis developed the style of Kentucky thumbpicking using electric guitars, amplification, unique chordal shapes, banjo rolls, alternating muted bass plucking and syncopated melody played with the fingers. His music was heard on the radio by a young Chet Atkins, who further developed the style, releasing several albums a year for RCA while smoothing out Nashville's country music to make it more popular, in his role as head of the RCA label. Atkins influenced many musicians with his smooth melodies, and helped to start the careers of many famous artists such as Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings.
Today, thumbstyle has evolved into modern country hybrid picking(using a flatpick and second and third fingers) but many guitar players still reference Merle and Chet as extremely influential in the development of country and pop music.