• Learn how to “chicken pick” single-note licks, double-stops, and open-string cascades.
• Develop precise whole- and half-step pedal-steel bends.
• Understand righteous country phrasing and how to target chord tones.
For many guitarists who cut their teeth on blues, rock, or jazz, country guitar technique is a bit of a mystery—perhaps even a little intimidating. While country guitar has roots in the aforementioned styles, concepts such as open-string cascades, hybrid-picked double-stops, and pedal-steel bends can befuddle even the most accomplished players.
To help demystify country guitar, this lesson delves into a broad range of styles and techniques that have been popularized by guitarists over the past several decades—everything from bluegrass and Western swing licks to chicken pickin’ passages and modern lead approaches. If you’re new to country guitar, do yourself a favor and check out some of the more notable practitioners, past and present, including Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, James Burton, Jerry Reed, Ray Flacke, Brent Mason, and Brad Paisley, to name just a few. Their inspiration, along with the examples in this lesson, will turn you into a genuine country picker!
Despite the melodic complexity of their solos, country guitarists mostly rely on a few choice scales: major pentatonic, the blues scale, and the composite blues scale. The most prevalent of the three scales, major pentatonic, is a five-note scale (1–2–3–5–6) derived from the major scale (1–2–3–4–5–6–7). The scale’s most common fingering is illustrated in Ex. 1, without regard to a specific key (use the root notes in red to help you relocate the scale to your key of choice).
The blues scale (Ex. 2) is a variation of the minor pentatonic scale (1–b3–4–5–b7), in which the b5 is added to create a six-note scale: 1–b3–4–b5–5–b7.
Interestingly, parallel major and minor pentatonic scales—scales that share the same root—employ the same fingering, although the minor pentatonic pattern is located three frets higher. (Relative scales share the same notes, but have different tonics.) Consequently, the blues scale pattern differs from the minor pentatonic pattern by just one note—the b5.
The marriage of these two scales lets country guitarists blend major and minor tonalities over the major and dominant harmonies that permeate country music, particularly the juxtaposition of major (3) and minor (b3) notes, which is a staple of the genre.
Ex. 3 shows a fingering for the nine-note composite blues scale (1–2–b3–3–4–b5–5–6–b7). Guitar players rarely—if ever—incorporate every note of the composite blues scale into a single phrase. Instead, they pick their tones judiciously, depending on the sound and feeling they want to communicate at a given moment.
Country phrasing can be summarized in two words: chord tones. While chord-tone soloing is found in all forms of music, perhaps no genre epitomizes the concept more than country. Unlike lead-guitar styles that focus on the overall sounds that certain scales impart or the technical skills required to play them, country lead is, first and foremost, based on targeting chord tones on the downbeats—a direct influence of bluegrass.
The following example in Ex. 4 is an open-position bluegrass lick played over a V7–IV–I (G7–F–C) turnaround progression in the key of C. Note the presence of chord tones on nearly every downbeat (indicated between staves), as well as the bluesy maneuvers at the ends of measures two and three.
Targeting chord tones isn’t the only trick to replicating country phrasing. Another key element is the way hammer-ons and pull-offs are implemented. Ex. 5 is a four-measure phrase that outlines an A major harmony with notes from the A composite blues scale (A–B–C–C#–D–Eb–E–F#–G). Note that, when three notes are voiced consecutively on a string, a single hammer-on or pull-off is used—an approach favored by rock and blues guitarists.
Ex. 6 is a “countrified” version of the same phrase (note the chicken pickin’). On beat one of the first two measures, the pull-offs connect just the second and third notes, rather than all three. This approach places greater emphasis on the notes on beat two—A and E, respectively—both of which are chord tones, whereas the three-note pull-offs emphasize all three notes equally. The same concept is applied in measure three, where the third-string notes—B, C, and C#—are broken up with a hammer-on from the b3 (C) to the 3 (C#), which is located squarely on the downbeat of beat three. Remember, this phrase is played with hybrid picking, so use your flatpick for the notes with the downstroke symbol and your middle finger (m) for the others.