In Ex. 1, I take a mid-tempo shuffle lick in the key of A and change it to an up-tempo country lick with a straight feel (Ex. 2). This lick is based on A minor pentatonic (A–C–D–E–G) with a major third (C#) thrown in. This sound is one we’ve come to know and easily crosses over from blues to country. Notice how I’m “clawing” the strings with my middle and ring fingers to get those notes to really pop out.
B.B. Goes Country
Once again, we’re in the key of A, but this time in an area of the fretboard B.B. King favored—one that offers great opportunities to blend the major and minor pentatonic scales. Blues and country are perfect vehicles for using both sounds. In Ex. 3, I start with a mid-tempo shuffle lick and then increase the tempo while straightening out the feel (Ex. 4). On the country version, muting the strings a bit allows you to get that choked sound you hear from great country players. The muting happens in the middle of the lick; you’ll release it as you release the bend. As always, pay attention to the right-hand fingerings.
Thirds and Muting
Here’s a cool lick featuring thirds and some chromatic movement. I’ve also set this lick up to take you to the IV chord in a 12-bar blues or a I–IV–V country song. The last measure of each lick will be the one that takes you to the IV chord. Ex. 5 is over a shuffle feel and starts out with a classic saxophone-inspired line. This lick’s country counterpart (Ex. 6) is full of some fun muting and alternate picking. The lick is virtually the same harmonically, but the country techniques really take it to a traditional place.
Here’s a lick out of the D minor pentatonic scale (D–F–G–A–C) that features the usual suspects, like pull-offs and double-stops (Ex. 7). Use this lick as an exercise to really get that alternate picking happening. As I mentioned earlier, this type of playing has infiltrated everything I do, and a lick like this will help you put some twang in your playing, too (Ex. 8).
Country Pickers Like Triplets
So much of translating blues lines into country lies in rhythmic phrasing. Country pickers often craft lines using triplets, and that’s what we’ll try next. First, we’ll hear an E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#) lick (Ex. 9). The line cascades through the scale shapes for a classic-sounding major lick. In Ex 10, I increase the tempo while keeping the shuffle feel, and alter the lick to include triplets that yield cool clusters of notes. All of the masters do this, so really check this one out.
Bend Through the Changes
Country players really know how to outline the chord changes. In Ex. 11, we’re shuffling again in the key of E while playing some bends that weave through the E7–B7–E7 chord changes. I’ve gone back to the muted attack in the country lick (Ex. 12) and thrown in some pre-bends halfway through each measure. These licks are going after that steel guitar sound, so pay close attention to keeping them in tune while bending.
Hope You’re Using Light Strings!
Let’s build off the previous lick and focus on some quintessential country bending and double-stop ideas. Again, I’ve crafted these double-stop bends to work over the chords in their respective measures (Ex. 13). One of the biggest challenges of these kinds of bends is having the strength and callouses to keep the notes in tune and the double-stops sounding strong. I recommend going down a string gauge or two when learning country guitar. When you try this example, you’ll see why.
The bluesy half of this example (Ex. 14) is straight out of the Texas blues handbook. My first guitar hero was Stevie Ray Vaughan and I wore his stuff out. I play this lick very much in the SRV style. To countrify it, I throw in double-stops and, of course, hybrid picking (Ex. 15). This country lick is some of my favorite stuff because of how it blurs the line between major and minor pentatonics. We’re using that claw-style approach again and once you get this going, you’ll be well on your way to converting all of your blues vocabulary into bona fide country twang.