• Develop a fluid hybrid-picking technique.
• Combine major and minor pentatonic scales.
• Create lines that feature open-string pull-offs, chromaticism, and banjo rolls.
Brad Paisley has won the hearts and minds of country fans with his passionate vocal delivery, a tongue-in-cheek slant on the human condition, and an off-the-wall guitar style to match. Winning multiple ACMs as a vocalist and entertainer for the past decade, he is now also recognized as a guitar giant by having won a Grammy for the pickin’ party instrumental “Cluster Pluck.” On that cut he plays to-to-toe with veritable veterans of the Nashville session scene while ripping off solos that mix jazz awareness, rock passion, and country twang. Oh yeah, he also has astonishing technical facilities on par with Eddie Van Halen. So, if you want an answer to the “What’s that?” aspect of his guitar style, you’re in the right place.
Playing a pink Paisley Tele through vintage amps with multiple delays, Paisley has re-ignited country soloing. By combining wide intervals and chromaticism with pizzazz, he has enticed us to pry at how he’s pulling it off.
Fig. 1, inspired by the opening lick from “Nervous Breakdown,” is a droning Albert Lee-style 3rd-position G minor pentatonic (G–Bb–C–D–F) lick. In measure one we encounter a descending pull-off sequence to fretted and open notes of the same letter. Measure two’s ascent applies various pedal tones towards a rapid-fire whip of bluesy pull-offs that end on the b7. Hybrid picking adds the perfect punch to the pull-offs and open strings, so pick as precisely as possible.
Heard in live solos from the likes of “Alabama,” slurring from higher frets to open strings is another of Paisley’s favorite tricks. Fig. 2 uses the open-G string (root) as a pull-off pedal point while ascending with diatonic third shapes built from the G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) mode. Practice playing the fretted dyads at the same time before trying the lick, and watch out for the open-string, wide-stretch hammer-ons just before the pedal-steel bend.
Another crucial facet of the figure is how it exploits a unique rhythmic pattern that displaces strong beats across a measure. Known as a hemiola, this trick is done by playing an odd-numbered pattern in an even subdivision to create strong forward momentum. Use it sparingly for rhythmic surprises.
Similar to the intros of “Cluster Pluck” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” Fig. 3 exploits open strings by pulling off from higher places on the neck. It employs the 5th-position A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in a similar pull-off sequence as Fig. 1, but the shape’s location gives the slurring an extra oblong sense of direction. Measure two explodes with a sextuplet pull-off descent that is relatively easy to execute, yet produces rather sonically complex results. The higher on the neck from where you pull-off, the more sideways the lines will feel, so use the layout of the guitar to your advantage.
Borrowing ideas from “Ticks,” Fig. 4 fluidly mixes Paisley’s country and rock influences via ringing banjo rolls and metal-esque legato flash. While the pull-off frenzy is the fun part, the banjo rolls present some potential picking problems. Make sure your right-hand fingers avoid any extraneous movement, as that will cost you the precious precision that eludes so many hybrid pickers.
Paisley’s eccentrically effective note-choice and effortless position shifting via passing tones is our final focus of his frenetic fretwork. Inspired by solos from “Mud on the Tires” and “Cliffs of Rock City,” Fig. 5 weaves E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#) and E minor pentatonic (E–G–A–B–D) with the E Mixolydian mode (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D) and other outside sounds. Starting with major pentatonics, it ascends with a hybrid Mixolydian-blues sequence on beat 3 that takes advantage of the open 3rd string for smoothness. Obvious chromatic ideas are employed in measure two by inching towards the 3rd and 5th with various picked and sliding articulations. The phrase is effectively capped with a pedal-steel-style, double-stop bend. Pulling towards the floor as you bend helps ensure that the notes will ring together as you slide the shape to the 10th position for an E7b9 sound.
As long as the chord tones of your solos come on beats 2 and 4, you can generally get away with as much chromaticism as you want. Let your ears be your guide as you venture into this uncharted territory.
This lesson was mainly a study in legato licks of jarring jocularity, but we’ve only scratched the surface of Paisley’s talent. His technical facilities feature augmented arpeggios, breakneck bluegrass runs, and Danny Gatton-style octaves—not to mention his finger-breaking G-bender licks. Having these ideas at your fingertips is a life-long pursuit, and once they are, the goal is to use them effectively and tastefully. Playing a solo where the speed never stops overloads listeners and turns them off to what your guitar has to say. Mr. Paisley surprises his audience by pacing his phrases and making the techniques the climax of his soloing story. Take a lesson from a master storyteller, singer, and picker by making the contours of your solos many, gradual, and deliberate. Knowing when to whip out the wailing comes from experience with a lot of trial-and-error, so keep playing, have fun, and enjoy the journey.