Keith Urban’s Country-Rock Wizardry
There’s more hiding behind those perfect locks and designer jeans than you’d think. Let’s break down some of the country superstar’s signature techniques.
• Learn the basics of chicken picking.
• Understand how to phrase rapid-fire licks with pull-offs.
• Improve your hybrid-picking technique.
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If you haven’t heard, Keith Urban can play guitar. He can play really, really well. This fact is lost on many because aside from his ability to deliver hit after hit, the focus is always on him being an American Idol judge, his marriage to Walk-of-Fame actress Nicole Kidman, and his still-perfect hair at age 49. But as guitar players, we aren’t distracted by the many things that make Keith a perennial award-winning vocalist and magazine cover boy, we’re here for the licks. Let’s discover some of Keith’s playing secrets and make them our own.
Keith started his journey playing bars in New Zealand and Australia doing the countriest of country things on guitar. In interviews, he’s said that he tried getting a rock gig in the ’90s but got fired because all he could do was chicken pick. Ex. 1 is an example of his style of chicken picking. Tuck the pick by holding it in your index finger, and use your thumb and middle finger to pluck at the string. The flesh of your finger will mute the string a split second before the new note sounds, giving it a staccato, choppy feel.
Most guitarists use their first, second, and third fingers to fret fancy lines. Keith, however, is not shy about making his fourth finger do a lot of heavy lifting. For example, when playing an A minor pentatonic (A–C–D–E–G) lick in the 2nd position, he’ll use his first finger to handle notes on the 2nd fret of the 3rd and 4th strings, while his fourth takes care of notes on the 5th fret. He’ll even bend those fourth-finger notes—and that’s with an .011 set! Not only does this give you access to sounds that other guitarists can’t make, it also gives you a workout.
One of Keith’s main influences is Mark Knopfler, who is known for making the most out of hammer-ons and pull-offs on the high frets. Keith takes that idea even further in some of his most epic moments, by unleashing a flurry of notes while keeping his hand in one spot on the fretboard. In Ex. 3, your 1st finger grabs the 10th-fret notes, your 2nd finger handles the 12th-fret notes, and your 4th finger takes care of the 14th and 15th frets. By the time Keith was doing stuff like this, any questions of him “only being able to chicken pick” were out the window.
Not everything in country music is about lead guitar, though. Most of Keith’s success is due to his ability to combine relatable lyrics with catchy melodies, and to sell those songs he needs to be great at creating rhythm guitar parts that sit comfortably underneath the vocals. One way he takes this concept and makes it interesting is by using a drone string and playing something directional or melodic along with it. In Ex. 4 we use the open 4th string paired with notes on the 3rd string to create a Mixolydian sound.
Many guitarists have a tough time with phrasing, but Keith has that down. One way to avoid the “running-up-and-down-through-scales” sound is to create a snippet of a melody and play it back-to-back in two different octaves. Beyond that, treat the two parts independently when it comes to articulation, so both feel as natural as possible. In Ex. 5, the first two measures use double-stops. When we shift down to the lower strings, it doesn’t make sense to keep the double-stops—the low strings sound thick enough on their own. Also, make the bend a little shallower because lower strings can sound hokey when you quickly bend them all the way up to a whole-step. It’s important to make informed decisions about how you want to play the melodies you come up with. Nashville pros like Keith typically place a melody somewhere on the fretboard that feels natural and comfortable, in a location that allows them to inject the most emotion into each phrase.
Grab your acoustic guitar and capo it on the 5th fret. This is a tried-and-true trick to make things sound cool and Keith uses it all the time. If you’re stacking a bunch of guitars in a recording or playing with other guitarists, it can be advantageous to capo an acoustic guitar up high and play out of an easy open key. Ex. 6 is in the key of D and we’re capoing at the 5th fret, so we’re treating it like the key of G. Plant your third finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string (relative to the capo) and never move it. Let your second finger handle the root notes, and use your first and fourth to make the melody happen.
For the more delicate guitar parts, Keith ditches the pick altogether and lets his picking hand do the talking (Ex. 7). Softer dynamics and warm tones become available to you when you use your fingers, but be careful. If you aren’t controlled, you might hit the strings too hard and end up sounding clucky.
When Keith really lets loose on his instrumental tunes, he doesn’t shy away from chromaticism. Many guitarists think that playing chromatics involves hitting a bunch of notes that are one fret away from each other, but you can make an endless string of chromatic notes by putting your 1st finger on the 2nd string, and your 3rd finger on the 3rd string three frets up from it, then sliding that position up and down. Ex. 8 does a descending version of that and culminates in an arpeggio that under normal circumstances would require sweep picking, but Keith would seek aid by hammering-on from an open string and attacking the rest with a banjo roll. He is a country picker, after all.
Switching between areas of the neck is another technique to explore when you’re chopping away at a solo. In Ex. 9, we start with something comfortable in the open position that Keith uses all the time, and then we swoop up to the 12th fret to start a descending pull-off run on the 3rd string (something else Keith has been known to do). Pulling-off like this allows speed to come more easily. Keith isn’t a traditional machine-gun-picking shredder. To keep his picking hand from having to do all the work, he figures out ways to let the fretting hand contribute note attacks.
Now that you have a bunch of Urban-inspired notes under your fingers, we’ll do one last move that isn’t about notes at all. The end goal of playing guitar is to make music that sounds cool, and sometimes sounding cool can’t be notated on paper. Keith does a move where he picks a note, shoots it up the fretboard, hits a couple dead notes, and repeats the pattern on the next string and the next string. It’s like Michael Jackson’s vocal ad-libs in guitar form. Make Ex. 10 feel natural, don’t over-think where you start and where you finish when you’re shooting up the string, and then land the bit by finishing off on some good, rock-solid notes. Tension only works when it is resolved.
Now we can see beyond the stardom and $500 jeans, and realize that every bit of Keith’s fame has been earned with his musical talent.