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Cosmic Country: Ghost (Notes) in the Machine

One of Nashville’s young guns offers a primer on an essential technique.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to use left- and right-hand muting.
• Improve your hybrid picking.
• Understand how to combine chromaticism with double-stops.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

My goal with this new column is to highlight the versatility of country guitar, which is much more sophisticated and rewarding than it’s given credit for these days. To start things off, let’s look at one of the fundamentals of this style, which is playing “ghost” notes. Essentially, ghost notes occur when you mute part of a phrase or rhythm. It sounds simple, but there’s a real art to integrating ghost notes into your licks and lines.

The key thing to remember is that muting occurs with both the right and left hands. Perhaps the simplest example of a ghost-note lick would be in Ex. 1. When playing this, fret the notes with a lighter touch than usual, and let your right hand do the majority of the string muting. Notice how we’re using hybrid picking and attacking the 1st string with the middle finger (m). The triplets are pretty much the starting point for ghost-note licks, and you’ll frequently encounter the implied C#m, Bm, and A harmonies.

Click here for Ex. 1

The lick in Ex. 2 pretty much illustrates all the right-hand techniques you’ll need to fully grasp the ghosting concept, so make sure you can play it well. It’s deceptively simple, but you can take the ideas used in this lick and apply them to more complex passages. For example, you can insert chromatic passing notes, include more strings, and explore subtle rhythmic variations.

Click here for Ex. 2

With ghost notes, you can create powerfully percussive rhythms. For example, I like to take the triplets we saw in Ex. 1 and apply them to the pentatonic scale while adding slight chromatic ornamentation. Check it out: Ex. 3 proves that ghost notes aren’t just for country guitar—they can sound extremely bluesy and funky.

Click here for Ex. 3

One of my greatest guitar idols is the late Danny Gatton, and he played ghost notes in ways that were completely different from anyone before or since. After watching nearly every Gatton YouTube clip I could find, I picked up one of his licks (Ex. 4) that combines ghost notes with double-stops.

Click here for Ex. 4

To build on these ideas, try mixing up the rhythms and experiment with adding ghost notes to help flesh out a melodic line, as shown in Ex. 5. The first two measures feature a very specific picking pattern: Strike the double-stop with your middle (m) and ring (a) fingers, then hit the muted 4th string with an upstroke, and finally pluck the muted 5th string with a downstroke.

Click here for Ex. 5

To put a fresh spin on this and my future columns, I’ll be including videos of me playing live that feature the concepts I’m sharing with you. This will demonstrate how these lessons touch on practical ideas you too can use for soloing, and you’ll also hear more ways to meld and morph these concepts into other musical scenarios.

In the following video compilation of a dozen solos played onstage at Nashville’s Roberts Western World, I strap on my Tele (I’m a Tele freak) or SG, and use ghost notes and hybrid picking to build excitement in a phrase. I usually keep the ghosted notes brief, but I believe that makes them more effective. As with any flashy idea, it’s best not to go overboard.

Ghost notes are more than just an easy country trick. They’re applicable to all forms of lead guitar, and when executed well, they provide depth to your playing. After working through these examples, be sure to apply the techniques to your own licks. New ideas come from discovery followed by a lot of exploration.