• Learn how to transform stock blues licks into twangy country riffs.
• Create solos and phrases that outline the changes.
• Supercharge your hybrid picking. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
“I grew up playing blues, but now I want to play country!” These were my exact words in the mid ’90s. Back in the day, I remember surfing TV channels and breezing by a country music show called American Music Shop. I was exposed to some country music in my youth, but I mainly listened to and played blues, R&B, rock, and metal. I didn’t stay tuned into the show for very long but, one particular night I stumbled onto an episode just as Brent Mason was annihilating a blazing chicken pickin’ solo. I had never heard playing like that before and my life was forever changed. To get a taste of what I heard that day, check out the clip below of Mark O’ Connor’s tune, “Pick It Apart.”
The quest to play country guitar had begun. But here was the problem: I was a hardcore blues-rock guy who idolized Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Clapton, and the Allman Brothers. True, I could play major pentatonic ideas because I loved the Southern rock guys who could really navigate that stuff. Little did I know that would be the jumping off point for me.
I started to dig into Brent Mason, Albert Lee, Ray Flacke, and Jerry Donahue via instructional video tapes. (YouTube, online lesson resources, and streaming services weren’t around yet!) I got lucky and ended up working at a music store that rented Star Licks videos. I grabbed the Flacke, Lee, and Steve Morse videos and dove in. I ended up buying Brent Mason’s Hot Licks VHS too. I still own it.
I immediately took away some really important things from those videos. The biggest by far was hybrid picking. If you’re not familiar with hybrid picking, simply put, it’s the technique that involves attacking the strings simultaneously with a flatpick and your fingers. Hybrid picking is also the vehicle for chicken pickin’—a style that’s synonymous with country playing.
What came with hybrid picking was … fingernails! I’m a chronic nail biter and I could never grow mine long enough. I found out that it’s a common practice for guitarists to use acrylic fingernails, so I went to Wal-Mart and bought a package of Lee Press-On Nails. Voilà—my chicken pickin’ chops increased by leaps and bounds. I used to carry a nail kit with me at all times until I found a good nail shop to hook me up for less than 10 bucks.
When it comes to playing country, technique is huge—and that’s not only for chicken pickin’. As I watched Brent’s video he would go into these insane Western swing licks using the same hybrid picking technique he did for the country stuff. A light bulb went on: I’m going to try that too! Hybrid picking increased my speed and control so much that I’ve never looked back. As a guitarist who fancies himself able to cover multiple genres, I can honestly say hybrid picking is the single most important part of my personal style. And I owe it all to country guitar.
The next part of the journey involved learning vocabulary. I digested some of the licks in the videos I mentioned and then went on a hunt to find the records these masters played on. I then sought out their influences, just like I did with my blues heroes. SRV had Albert King. Clapton had Freddie King. Brent Mason had Roy Nichols and Don Rich. Albert Lee had James Burton and Scotty Moore.
From there, I really started to get a taste of where these guys were coming from. However, I was still having trouble getting around the songs. These country players were so melodic and could masterfully weave through the chord changes. When they weren’t playing a fast open-string lick, they were playing a beautiful solo that really honored the song. In rock and blues, we can sometimes go overboard with our solos (pointing a finger at myself). In my experience, that’s not the case with country players. The best of the best players are subtle and tasteful. I wanted to get to that place, but I was still handcuffed by my blues mentality.
If you’re a blues player looking to get into country, have no fear—those minor and major pentatonics are going to come in handy. Once you pair up some of your blues licks with hybrid picking, you’re well on your way to getting some twang happening.
Here’s a basic course of action:
1. Make sure you have a solid foundation of major and minor pentatonic scales in all keys.
2. Try to immediately incorporate hybrid picking into your scale playing.
3. Transcribe a few licks from recordings that really excite you and try to transpose them as much as possible. Chicken pickin’ riffs, pedal-steel bends, and a few open-string licks make a great foundation for your journey into hot-rod country guitar.
4. Find some songs to jam over. Backing tracks are great, but to simulate a real-life situation you really want to play with something that has a vocal. In the country genre, you might get lucky and have an eight-measure solo, but you may only get four before you trade off with the next soloist.
5. Find some easy I–IV–V based songs. Check out a few of my favorites:
- “Workin’ Man Blues” – Merle Haggard/James Burton/Roy Nichols
- “Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash/Scotty Moore
- “Two More Bottles of Wine” – Emmylou Harris/Albert Lee
- “Milk Cow Blues” – Ricky Nelson/James Burton
- “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues)” – Alan Jackson/Brent Mason
- “Little Sister” – Dwight Yoakam/Pete Anderson?
Because these songs are blues-based, your current vocabulary of blues licks will work well over most of them. Notice how each of these great players don’t overplay. Pay special attention to the restraint they use and how it seems like they almost never repeat themselves. Heck, steal some of the licks in these tunes—I sure did!
Now let’s explore eight blues licks that I morph into country licks to highlight techniques like double-stops, pedal-steel bends, and chicken pickin’. The goal here is to get you to hear and see how the blues and country vocabularies aren’t too far apart. It’s all about technique, approach, and attitude.