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Twang 101: The Bakersfield Sound

Learn how to cop the trademark sounds of country music’s California rebels.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Create simple, melody-driven solos.
• Learn how to expand major pentatonic scales with bluesy color tones.
• Discover how to repurpose classic country licks. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

From the outside, it’s easy to look at any form of country music and write it off as simplistic, but like any genre, you’ll find more complexity when you dig inside. Just as there’s a world of difference between Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi, there are many sub-genres in country music, and some are fundamentally different from each other.

Nashville has always been one of the homes of country music, but as the music’s popularity grew in the ’50s and began to fill the airwaves, Music City’s record labels and producers began to influence and change its sound with the intention of expanding its audience. While the genre has roots in cowboys, drinking, hunting, and caricatures of men, Nashville began to adopt a softer, more romantic production style that featured strings and saccharine background vocals. Put simply: By the late ’50s, country lacked the attitude of days gone by.

As Buck Owens once put it, “I couldn’t stand all the silky, syrupy stuff that was coming out of Nashville. Everything was oh, so sweet. ‘Don’t play too loud there, Harry, somebody might think you have some personality!’ It was awful to me.”

It was in direct response to this that artists like Owens and Merle Haggard would pioneer the “Bakersfield sound” in the ’60s. (This movement was named after the California city that lies north of Los Angeles.) They were to country music as the Ramones and Sex Pistols were to rock music. There are many guitarists associated with this style, and Roy Nichols, Phil Baugh, Glen Campbell, and James Burton all worked with Haggard on his early records. When it came to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, the contributions of Don Rich can’t be overstated.

For this lesson, I’ve drawn from Rich’s playing on the Buck Owens hit “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” to create three different solos that go through the progression twice. Getting the tone is easy: Select the bridge pickup on a Telecaster and play it through a clean amp with some spring reverb. I used a Mexican Fender Road Worn series with a Joe Barden bridge pickup going into a Dr. Z Maz 18.

Before you dive into the examples, watch Owens perform his classic with Tele-master Don Rich on lead guitar and the legendary Tom Brumley on pedal steel—another essential instrument in the Bakersfield sound.

The progression itself is a simple three-chord affair in E that uses the I (E), the IV (A), and the V (B). Before tackling any solos, first learn the progression with this simple Owens-style strumming part that outlines those changes (Ex. 1).

Click here for Ex. 1

I’ve included a backing track, so you can practice each of these solos and try some of your own ideas. Remember, the secret is to give the chords their due, and using major pentatonic scales is a great way to accomplish that.

Ex. 2 is a solo in the simplest form, but one that still attempts to outline the chords.

Over the E chord, I’ve used the E minor pentatonic scale (E–G–A–B–D). This isn’t a perfect fit for the chord, as the chord itself contains a G#, but it’s something you’ll hear in a lot of country and blues playing. As the chord changes to A (or A7), I’ve changed my perspective a little bit and used notes from the A major pentatonic scale (A–B–C#–E–F#).

When the rhythm section changes to B7, I’ve mainly limited myself to the root note (B) and slid into it from a half-step below. This may be a basic approach to outlining the chord changes, but make no mistake, this is a lot more effective than trying to play one scale over the whole thing and hoping for the best.

Click here for Ex. 2

The second solo (Ex. 3) continues with this same basic idea but uses a few more notes and a bit more range. Over the E, I’m using a combination of the E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#) and the E blues scale (E–G–A–Bb–B–D). This gives you a nice hybrid scale with both major and blue qualities.

For the first A chord, I stuck to the A major pentatonic scale, but in the fourth measure there’s a pedal steel-inspired move where I bend the 2 (B) up to the 3 (C#) of the A chord. On the B chord, again I started by sliding into the root note before shifting to the hybrid E scale, which leads back to the E chord. I kept the same rules on the second time through but added a signature country lick using a hybrid B scale consisting of B major pentatonic with an added b3 (B–C#–D–D#–F#–G#).

Click here for Ex. 3

Covering almost 12 frets, the final solo (Ex. 4) contains a lot more notes and positions. The first lick is a country classic that features sixthson the 3rd and 1st strings. In order to execute this cleanly, palm-mute the 3rd string and slide up from the 11th fret to the 13th, picking with a triplet rhythm, then plucking the 1st string with your picking hand’s middle finger.

Against the A chord, I used a similar hybrid scale as before, but this time in A (A–C–C#–D–D#–E–F#–G). The lick has a bluesy vibe, thanks to the mix of major (C#) and minor (C) tones, and 5 (E) to b5 (Eb, notated here enharmonically as D#) moves. On the B chord, I played the same signature lick from the previous solo, but this time an octave higher. Then I descended through the major pentatonic scale before finally resolving to the E chord.

At the start of the second chorus, and to tie the solo together, I’ve again revisited that signature country lick, but this time in E. Then, inspired by pedal steel, I moved on to double-stops over the A, B, and E chords,

Click here for Ex. 4