Open your dictionary and find the entry for superpicker. The guy in the picture next to that word is Ricky Skaggs. Okay, not really, but it should be. He’s been a flat-out phenom since the age of six, and now at 55 (with thirteen Grammy Awards to his name) he’s revered as the Ambassador of Bluegrass. Bluegrass and country music aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but nobody who knows anything about chops has anything but respect, if not awe, for Skaggs’ abilities.

When he was six, a symbolic gesture from Bill Monroe heralded Skaggs’ destiny. Monroe put his own mandolin on the child and sent him out on stage to sit in with the Bluegrass Boys. Since then, he’s been like a force of nature on the bluegrass scene, from his first major gig with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (along with his boyhood friend, the late guitarist Keith Whitley) to his return to bluegrass after a decade breathing new life into traditional country music. One of a handful of artists to thrive after thumbing his nose at the established mainstream music industry, Skaggs knows his way around a studio, too, and was the first “unknown” artist in Music Row history to be allowed to serve as his own producer from the very beginning of his contract.

You’d expect a guy with such legendary chops to have killer axes, and Skaggs is a connoisseur. He told me that in his studio currently he’s got fifteen amazing guitars strewn around that he’s using on a new solo project (Songs My Father Loved, Skaggs Family Records, release date to be determined). Recently he’s been involved in the design and production of some of the most amazing guitars ever made: the Bourgeois Ricky Skaggs Limited Edition and the new acoustics from PRS.

Eager to talk about pickin’, guitars and gear, Skaggs was a peach to interview.

You and I went to the same kind of bootcamp/ university, learning to play music by playing music, sitting in a circle with a bunch of other pickers and learning from them, imitating what they do. How did all that happen for you?

Well, I was singing before I was playing, listening to my mother. She was a great singer, a great old mountain voice, almost like Hazel Dickens on steroids, so pure and so mountain. Of course my dad was a singer, too, so I was singing with them a couple years before I started playing, in church when I was three years old. I remember my mother carrying me up and putting me on the pulpit with my little ol’ legs danglin’ down, and I would sing harmony with her and dad. So my dad bought me a mandolin when I was five, but it really freaked him out—he bought me a mandolin and he had to go back to work, and then he got snowed in in Ohio for two weeks. When he came back home after two weeks, I was singing and playing and changing chords at the same time, and he really hadn’t shown me how to change chords on the mandolin. He showed me G, C and D, that was all he knew on the mandolin. I just had a gift to be able to hear that it needed to follow wherever the singin’ was gonna go.

So, I’ve been exposed to that music all my life, and there’s nothing, nothing nothing that can take the place of exposure. All the training, all the sight-reading—I don’t read music. I can read a chord chart a little bit, but I don’t read music and I wish I did. I really do think that it could be a wonderful blessing to me if I could.

But, there’s nothing to take the place of exposure… sitting around in a circle, and when it’s your time to play you play something, and you learn to honor and don’t sit there and play solos all night long. You learn to play rhythm, too, while somebody else is soloing. Playing in front of people causes other people to encourage you and build you up, other than your dad and mom. When you hear encouragement from another musician, a musician that you admire—like when Bill Monroe did what he did for me when I was six years old, or Earl Scruggs hearing me at age seven backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and then inviting me down for an audition for their television show—those kinds of things… there’s nothing that can take the place of that kind of environment to grow up around, a community of musicians.