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Pickin’ Like Paisley: Use Those Open Strings!

Advanced

Intermediate

Country
  • Learn how to incorporate open strings all the way up the fretboard.
  • Build velocity in your playing without practicing speed exercises.
  • Discover an easy way to steal licks from the pros using YouTube.
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It’s universally known in the guitar community that Brad Paisley isn’t just some guy that strums a guitar and sings country songs. He’s widely respected as one of the best players in the country music scene and takes an unusual approach to achieve the sonic insanity that spills out of his guitar. From Telecasters, G-benders, and cranked Dr. Z amps to instrumental records and wild guitar solos getting mainstream country radio airtime, Paisley has solidified his place in the discussion of all-time greats, and not just in the country world. In this lesson, we’ll dive into one of the cornerstones of Brad’s playing that makes him so unique: open strings.

A couple of prefaces:

Most of the licks in this lesson are exponentially easier when hybrid picked.

And in case you didn’t know, YouTube allows you to alter the speed of videos. This is a massive tool to take advantage of when learning licks, practicing them, and getting them up to speed. Simply click the Settings button in the bottom right corner of the video player and select Playback Speed. This will allow you to speed up or slow down the video to your liking without any changes to pitch. Transients will become an issue the farther away from the original speed you go, but not enough to keep you from slowing a solo down 50 percent to really learn and nail the nuances.

We’ll start by just dipping a toe in the water for Ex. 1, looking at a small part of the solo from Brad’s song “Ticks.” This section is found at the 3:06 mark of the video below. Brad really likes to use open strings to provide color to licks, usually with the note falling outside of the established scale. This little nugget is entirely in the E major scale (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D#) with exception of the open 3rd string. The use of the open string throws a b3 into the mix, while making it feel faster with little added effort. If you were to play this lick at half speed, the open G string does not sound great—but that’s the whole idea behind what Brad is able to do with open string licks. At tempo, the open string sounds like a natural inflection and the lick has more velocity than if it were omitted.

Ex. 1

Ticks

In Ex. 2 we’re still looking at the “Ticks” solo but focusing on the back half. This entire section of the solo is a smorgasbord of open strings. The first phrase uses sliding and open strings to create an almost bouncy and circus feel. The use of the open G string allows Brad to travel up the fretboard with some very interesting flair. Then he uses the open 1st string in measure 2 to create momentum again, but in this instance, the open-string pull-offs fall inside the E major scale rather than acting as color tones. It’s much easier to connect this section of the lick to the previous by using the third finger to execute the bend and the fourth finger to start the new descending phrase. Lastly, Brad takes the solo home with a simple descending three-note-per-string pull-off lick that combines inside and outside notes.

Ex. 2

If you’ve ever listened to Paisley’s “Time Warp,” you know that it’s a gold mine of licks to steal. In Ex. 3, I’m focusing on a lick Brad plays on the “Live on Letterman” version, which occurs after the piano solo at the 1:23 mark in the video below. It’s worth noting that this is not the same line featured on the album version from Time Well Wasted. This lick is a perfect example of how Brad uses open strings to create velocity and really get going downhill at breakneck speeds. The lick is not overly complicated, but it is extremely fast, especially if you are new to hybrid picking. I’m playing it at roughly 75 percent speed so that the notes are intelligible and not just a blur. The lick is mostly based in the A Aeolian mode (A–B–C–D–E–F–G), with flatted second being the exception.

Ex. 3

Brad Paisley - Time Warp (Live on Letterman)

In this example (Ex. 4), we tackle a fantastic phrase from the solo to “Water.” The lick I’m breaking down falls around the 1:43 mark in the YouTube video. What’s so interesting is that while the song is in F major, Brad utilizes the open A, D, and G strings to navigate the fretboard vertically and create energy. My favorite thing about the descending pull-off section of this lick is that it’s a tame bluegrass-style lick in G, but it’s the placement of the lick over the chord changes that makes it sound interesting.

Ex. 4

Brad Paisley - Water

Ex. 5 is where things get really exciting. It’s from a live performance of “Water” during the 2010 ACM awards. At the 3:40 mark Brad uses an open-string lick to build tension and work his way up the fretboard that caught my attention. As before, it sounds monstrous at tempo but really doesn’t make a ton of sense when slowed down. It’s a fairly simple pull-off lick that isn’t too difficult if you’re already used to hybrid picking, but it creates a ton of movement and excitement when sped up. I’m guilty of stealing both this lick and the idea behind it for “wow” moments in solos.

Ex. 5

Brad Paisley - Water (live ACM Awards 2010)

It’s undeniable how freakishly good of a guitar player Brad Paisley is (try grabbing some of the monster licks from the outro of “Water”). Because of how many tricks he has up his sleeve, he’s nearly impossible to replicate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that everyone can take from Paisley’s bag of tricks. Use this concept of using open strings in unconventional places to add spice, speed, and mystique to your playing.

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