No longer relegated to beginner-level
melodies or open-position chords,
open strings can add sonic spice to your
solos and make them come alive. In this
lesson we’ll explore three ways of incorporating
open strings into a solo. To facilitate
our discussion, I’m calling these “devices.”
• Device 1: Use an open string as a
place to facilitate a position change.
• Device 2: Use an open string
as a pedal point.
• Device 3: Use open strings to create
a cascading effect.
Let’s begin with Device 1. This is very
helpful for creating seamless transitions from
low-to-high or high-to-low, depending on
the direction of the musical line. In Fig. 1 we
have a G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#)
spanning an octave and a 5th (G up to a high
D) where the scale starts in 1st position and
finishes in 7th position, with the open 1st
string facilitating the shift into 7th position.
Wherever there’s an open-string note
that belongs to the key, then there is the
potential to make a position change at this
spot. In Fig. 2, we find the same G major
scale with the shift occurring after playing
the open B (2nd string). In Fig. 3, we once
again play the G scale, this time a shift
occurs after both the open B and E.
Playing scales by combining open strings
and position shifts is a great way to break out
of any position-playing ruts you may find
yourself in, and it adds the sonic variety of
open-string and fretted-note combinations.
Device 2 uses an open string as a pedal
point. A pedal point is where a specific
note—usually the root or the 5th of the key
and typically the lowest note in a phrase—is
continuously played while other harmonic
or melodic material is played above it. In
Fig. 4, we simulate the sound of a continuous
pedal note by alternating between the
pedal note and the melody above it, giving
the impression of multiple parts. Focus on
strict alternate picking and you’ve got a
great picking-hand workout.
The devices mentioned so far are not mutually
exclusive. While playing Fig. 4, you may
have noticed that it combines both a pedal
point and a position change. In that example,
the position change is facilitated by an open
string on beat 4 of measures one and four.
The sonic variety you can create by combining
open strings and fretted notes is something
unique to the guitar and other stringed
instruments. The final device we’ll discuss
showcases this to a greater degree than either
of the devices we’ve explored up to this point.
Device 3 produces a harp-like sound from
the guitar—sometimes referred to as cascades,
floaties, or campanella—and open strings play
a significant role in producing this sound.
To achieve this sound, we rearrange a passage
that may typically be played on a few
strings and play it across multiple strings,
allowing as many notes to ring as possible.
Take a look at Fig. 5. Here you see a descending
G major scale played in 1st position,
followed by the same scale with a different
fingering to allow multiple notes to sustain
simultaneously. Because of the refingering, the
open strings can continue ringing, and this
contributes to the scale’s harp-like quality.
What better way to apply the information
we’ve covered than to put it into a tune? I’ve
written an arrangement of “Bill Cheatum”—a
traditional fiddle tune—that incorporates
all three of the devices we’ve discussed. “Bill
Cheatum” is typically played in the key of A.
However, I’ve notated it in the key of G, so
grab your capo and place it at the 2nd fret,
and you’ll be in the key of A. Let’s dig into the
piece and try out these open-string devices.
In measure five (counting the pick-up
measure as one), Device 3 occurs in a
descending G major-scale run. The final
note (E) of that measure is played on the
7th fret of the 5th string. To get back to
1st position for the next phrase, the open
4th string is used to facilitate the position
change (Device 1). Strive to make measures
four through six sound as smooth and connected
as possible. Keeping the open strings
ringing in measure five will help with this.
Measure eight begins with a cascading
effect. The third note of the measure (E)
provides an opportunity to shift from the
3rd position to the 7th position. To shift
back to 1st position for measure nine, use
the open E once again.
The phrase that begins on beat 3 of
measure 12 and ends on the first note of
measure 14 uses both the open 1st and 2nd
strings for position changes. The phrase in
measure 13 is played out of 7th position
and resolves in 1st position thanks to the
open 2nd string found on beat 1 of the
next measure. By listening to the tone of
the last note in measure 13 and comparing
it to the tone of the first note of measure
14, we’re able to hear the distinct characteristics
of a note fretted higher up the neck as
compared to an open string. Considering
the tone of notes on various strings plays a
part in deciding note placement.
The tune’s B section begins at measure
18. Here, I’ve used a pedal point through
measure 23. Measures 24 and 25 use
Devices 1 and 2 to wrap up the first statement
of the B section. At measure 25, beat
3, the open G provides a point for a smooth
transition into the low register to begin the
second half of the B section. Beginning in
measure 27, we see the longest usage of
Device 3, which resolves in measure 29.
Measures 30 and 31 reuse the G pedal
point, but this time we vary the texture by
playing pull-offs to the open G. The final
two measures use Device 3, which generates
a cascading effect to close the solo.
The techniques in this lesson will help
you to navigate the fretboard outside the
boundaries of position playing, challenge
your picking hand, and add sonic variety to
your arrangements and solos. When arranging
your next solo, try adding a few of these
devices. Good luck!
is an award-winning performer
and educator. A stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist,
Cramer has shared the stage
with or opened for B.B. King, Tommy Castro,
Chris Duarte, Gordon Goodwin, John Hartford,
and Steve Kaufman. Cramer co-founded All 12
Notes, LLC where he has a private lesson studio,
teaching guitar, mandolin, and electric bass. His
most recent CD release, Open Spaces, is a collection
of original and traditional acoustic pieces.
For more information, visit all12notes.com