• Understand the basic elements of hybrid picking and double-stops.
• Create ringing licks using open strings.
• Develop phrases that combine major pentatonic, Mixolydian, and blues scales.
It’s hard to believe that Brent Mason’s three decades of guitar innovation were almost cut short when he riveted a hole through his thumb in his early 20s. Having played on countless hit records, Mason effectively reinvented country guitar throughout the ’90s with punchier tones, stellar solos, and catchy hooks. His astounding output has earned this Telecaster Titan a whopping 14 awards from the Academy of Country Music.
In this lesson, we’ll examine some of Mason’s techniques—concepts and moves that have inspired countless budding session players. I’ve kept most of the licks in the key of E for ease of analysis and transposition, and you can relate all the ideas we cover to their parent scale shapes.
Learning guitar solely by ear from age 5, Mason started out by setting an acoustic on his lap while using a kitchen knife as a slide. The Ohio native’s unconventional approach evolved into a mechanized picking system, and he now heavily relies on a thumbpick and acrylic nails in alternation for a consistently even tone and fast, precise attack. For all the Mason lines you’ll encounter, if you don’t already use a thumbpick and are dead-set on using a standard pick, hybrid picking (flatpick and fingers) is a must for snap and fluidity.
The first ear-twisting idea we’ll examine from Mason—most notably featured on the title track of his solo album Hot Wired—is his use of open strings to create a cascading cluster of harp-like sound. Fig. 1 is the root-position fingering of an A Mixolydian-blues scale (A–B–C–C#–D–Eb–E–F#–G, or 1–2–b3–3–4–b5–5-6–b7). Made by combining the Mixolydian mode with the blues scale, this hybrid pattern is classic fretboard fodder for modern country.
Fig. 2 shows that same scale taking advantage of the guitar’s open strings for a flowing A7 line. Be sure not to cut off the ringing strings too early, as the desired effect will be lost. p>
Drawing inspiration from Jerry Reed’s “The Claw,” Mason’s phrases are often filled with solid double-stops. Mason’s solos in Alan Jackson’s “Summertime Blues” and Ken Mellons’ “Workin’ for the Weekend” illustrate this double-stop approach.
Fig. 3 starts off by chromatically connecting E and D triads from the 4th and 2nd positions, firming an E7 harmony. (This whole-step down approach works great for adding interest to your dominant lines.) Keep in mind that the muted 2nd- and 3rd-string notes are more rhythmic devices than note choices. From measure three, the double-stops are used as unexpected rhythmic accents along a descending E Mixolydian (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D) blues line. The slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) are employed for moving to a chord tone or de-emphasizing a strong beat for a jazzy feel. Technically, economic fingering and hybrid picking dexterity is crucial for a smooth and convincing country execution, so take note of the picking directions and fingering suggestions.
Fig. 4 exploits the use of muted notes to their utmost limit (heard in licks from Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” and Keith Whitley’s “Heartbreak Highway”—which Mason cowrote). In this example, the target notes outline an E7 arpeggio (in order: E–B–E–G#–D) while the muted notes serve as accents toward the chord tones on beats 1 and 3 of each measure. Trial and error shows that palm muting strings 6–4 while fret-hand muting strings 3–1 falls naturally under the hands.
As most unique guitar players draw inspiration from other instrumentalists—Charlie Christian and Larry Carlton longed to sound like sax players, Chuck Berry listened to pianists, Eric Johnson’s long search for tone has the violin as his North Star—Brent Mason respects the pedal-steel sound. The mechanics of the pedal steel allow inside notes of chords to move while outer notes ring, so its translation to the guitar is through bends underneath, and sometimes above, stationary notes. The first two measures of Fig. 5 have a descending sequence of bent E7 inversions, while measure three has a deceptively challenging move that emulates a B-bender (let the D note ring while releasing the C#–B pre-bend).
And lastly, here’s an example of how to combine all the ideas, in numerical order (Fig. 6). The first line hammers home the E7 harmony with a 5–b7 (B–D) double-stop, propelling a descending line of 10th-position chromatics through E Mixolydian-blues with a droning, open 1st string added for sonic spice. The muted descent concludes at the 7th-position b7, but an A major pentatonic (A–B–C#–E–F#) walk-up approaches the double-stop, half-step bend (G#–B) that starts measure three. Here, triplet rhythms intensify the proceedings with a double-stop motif that outlines the 3–5 of E (G#–B, beat 1) and the root–3 of D (D–F#, beat 3). Capping the lick is an ascending E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#) sequence to a G#–E pedal-steel bend.
Learning licks from records is a great way to sound like your heroes, but it shouldn’t be the end of your musical pursuits. Absorbing multiple influences within cohesive phrases to create solos is what will make you a unique guitar player. After consistently studying your influences over a seemingly long gestation period, you’ll start combining them in unique ways—in other words, you develop your own style. And that’s what my monthly column is about: to help you play lines your favorite guitarists play. You’ll learn to think the way they do, and in time better express your own guitar voice with effortless passion. Good luck, and enjoy the journey.