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In Fig. 4, we start on the b7 and end on the root below it. Again, this lick is built for speed. The chromaticism leads from the 5 to b5 to 4, and then to the b3. This is very prevalent in blues licks. When the lick gets down to the low register, it slips back into a country sound with the b3-to-3 move. First play through it as written, then take it to the stratosphere.
This ascending lick (Fig. 5) starts out like an arpeggio and then incorporates some chromatic passing tones to spice it up a little. The chromaticism starts towards the back side of the lick, moving from the 2 up to the 4. Then it descends chromatically in thirds.
Here’s another idea (Fig. 6) that starts out like an arpeggio and blends in some cool chromaticism to really grab your attention. The chromatics occur halfway through the lick, starting on the 2 and going up to the 5 and b7. Next, we descend chromatically from the 5 to really let the listener know you are resolving it here. Then it skips the major 3 and comes from a half-step below up to the major 3 before resolving to the root.
Our next lick in Fig. 7 goes all chromatic at the top and keeps winding back through the same chromatic passing notes in different ways to bend your ears. That b3-to-3 move that resolves to the root at the end brings it all back home. This type of lick sounds like it could be played on a big ol’ flattop in a kick-ass bluegrass group blistering through a fiddle tune at breakneck tempos. That’s the great thing about this approach—chromatic licks translate so well to bluegrass. With all the chromaticism we are incorporating, you could easily play this in a jazz-fusion setting or even if you wanted to take a blues tune into a completely different direction. Imagine the savage power you will wield in a rock context playing a Les Paul through a dimed Marshall half stack. Hearing players like Steve Morse playing bluegrass through a cranked up overdriven amp is what turned me on to country guitar in the first place.
Now, let’s take a progression and weave some of these lines together so they outline the chords. Again, when you lead your lines into the next chord you can really hear the chord changes going by—even without having anyone play rhythm for you. Remember, the most important chord tones land on the first beat of the measure. You can keep either a straight-eighths or 16ths rhythm (depending on how fast your tempo is) and seamlessly weave through the chords. Always be thinking about the chord that is coming up and how you’re going to introduce it within your lines.
Here is an approach in Fig. 8 that you can try that outlines the I, IV, and V chords. This progression, or a few variations of it, is in literally thousands of songs. Learn the notes and fingerings at a slow tempo at first, then gradually speed it up and play it as fast as you can play it cleanly. Don’t try to go faster than you can play it without making mistakes or glitches.
Erik Halbig is currently touring with Thompson Square and has previously performed with Sara Evans, Blackhawk, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna, and many more. Halbig graduated from USC with a degree in Studio/Jazz Guitar and has taught clinics and seminars all over the country. He has had several books published by Alfred and Hal Leonard, and currently resides in Nashville.