I suspect that since the first days of guitar plucking, guitarists have been looking for ways to play those “gee-whiz” speedy licks that make the Muggles all agog with wonder. And of course, like any good wielders of magic, we aren’t above using tricks when sheer physical prowess isn’t enough, hence the birth of open string licks. You hear this kind of bagpipe-like motion in flamenco, country chicken-pickin’ and bluegrass, and my hero Lenny Breau used it all the time. What it involves is adding in open strings between the fingered notes so that you get a nutty cascade of coolness. Another thing that adds to the illusion is that you get some drone from the open strings so the runs tend to smear a bit and sound much bigger. Cool right? One more small detail: because you are using open strings you do have some limits as to where it will work. We’ll deal with stuff in G (Em), but as we’ll see, there is a bunch of cheaty stuff you can do. There’s a bunch of ways you can play with this stuff and I would encourage you to try a lot of ‘em. Try it picking every note, and try it using hammer-ons and pull-offs. Both ways are cool and give different feels to what you do. These examples are just some guidelines for a place to start. Once you start rolling with this you will find your own ideas and variations. Go for it!
Example 1 is just a G major scale that will give your ears the idea of the sound we’re going for here.
Example 2 takes us into a practical sort of run. Try it over G, as well as Em.
Example 2a is another little G run you can try.
This would be a good moment to talk about picking. Of course you can do this anyway you like. I pick it fingerstyle using mainly my thumb and index finger, and once in a while my middle finger, too. I’d like to suggest you take a look at online videos of Scotty Anderson; he does this right hand picking style really well and is just a great player. Check him out.
Another way to use this is in chromatic motion. Personally I use chromatic motion all the time as it really colors the motion in a way I like. Example 3 reminds me of some moves I have heard from Tony Rice (one of my favorite pickers). You can use this to move up and down the neck as a path to other ideas.
One last one, this is a little wacky sounding at first but it will actually plug in to some unexpected places. Try it against some different chords and see what you get.
These are just starting points, take all these examples and flip them every which way, then make your own. Good Pickin’