Twang 101: Vince Gill

Very few country stars have the chops, skill, and taste of this award-winning picker, singer, and songwriter. Here’s a look at how to cop his cosmic Tele vibe.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn a few classic country licks that outline chords.
• Create licks that emulate the pedal steel.
• Learn the secrets of combining open strings and sixths. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Very few can claim they’re highly successful singer-songwriters and respected guitar players, but Vince Gill is one such musician. As a recording artist, Gill has a nearly endless list of awards, including no fewer than 21 Grammy Awards. At the same time, he’s not afraid to pick up his guitar and play, and there are countless examples of him tearing it up on his own recordings, as well as with many other legends.

This lesson will focus more on his hot country playing, but he’s an accomplished blues player and has a great Western swing band, the Time Jumpers, so if you want to dig further into his playing there’s a lot to explore.

As you might expect from someone with Gill’s level of success, he has a lot of gear at his disposal. He’s prepared for any sound that might be required, and that makes imitating his sound a little trickier. Saying that, it’s country music, so a Telecaster on that bridge pickup and a relatively clean amp with a compressor will do the trick. I went for a Dr. Z Z-Lux on the audio.

Like many country guitar players, Gill’s soloing vocabulary is based around bigger chord forms. Some might call this the CAGED system, but how we identify it is irrelevant. Here’s what’s important: Our focus should always be on the underlying chordal sound.

For example, here’s a 7th-position G7 arpeggio (G–B–D–F or 1–3–5–b7) with the notes of the G Mixolydian scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) surrounding the chord tones. Each note, whether a chord degree or scale degree, is numbered relative to the root, which is 1. Mentally constructing a similar fretboard map in your mind is a great way to keep track of which notes are available for soloing.

For more information on this approach, check out my article, “Beyond Blues: Understanding CAGED and the V Chord.”

With that under your belt, try out our first lick (Ex. 1), which takes place over an A chord. We start down at the 2nd fret and then use a series of melodic unison bends to shift up the neck.

The 2ndfret area fits around the “G” CAGED shape, meaning that when the bends carry us up to the 16th fret, that’s also the G shape, but an octave higher. The lick ends when we shift down two frets to the “A” shape to play some classic country double-stop ideas.

When analyzing the way Gill might play over these chords, you’ll find he tends to use a hybrid of the Mixolydian scale and the minor blues scale. We’re in A, so this yields A–B–C–C#–D–Eb–E–F#–G.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 outlines an A chord again, this time beginning higher up on the neck and moving in a downward direction. As with the previous example, it makes sense to understand each section in relation to the underlying CAGED position. Measure 1 features a double-stop bend with the 4 bending up to the 5, and the b7 being held on the 1st string.

The following measure shifts down to the “C” shape—that’s the same one we used in our initial G7 fretboard illustration, only this time we’re using it a whole-step higher. You need to take this lick slowly, as it requires bending the 2nd string and keeping it bent while moving from the 12th to the 10th fret.

The next measure shifts down to the “D” shape and uses it as a transition to descend to the “E” shape. The latter feels like home for most guitarists. In fact, you’ve probably spent a lot of your playing life in this area.

Click here for Ex. 2

Ex. 3 moves to a G chord, which makes it easier to use open strings because the open 3rd string is now the root of the chord. This lick begins around the “E” shape before transitioning into some diatonic sixths on the 5th and 3rd strings. These 6ths are common in Gill’s soloing style and are a staple of country and more sophisticated blues phrasing.

Click here for Ex. 3

Ex. 4 also features these moving sixths, again using a pull-off to the 3rd string to facilitate shifting positions. The second part of the lick moves back to the “C” shape, but adds the b3 (Bb, notated here enharmonically as A#) while approaching the 3 (B). There’s also a chromatic walkup from the B to the D on the 1st string—another melodic idea commonly used in country and jazz music.

Click here for Ex. 4

Ex. 5 is in the key of E, and we begin in the “E” shape at the 12th fret. As with Ex. 1, there are some simple double-stops here that help to add a bit of grit.

The best way to look at this is to view it as a combination of phrasing with the E blues scale (E–G–A–Bb–B–D) around the 12th fret, then moving this general pattern down three frets to the C# minor blues scale (C#–E–F#–G–G#–B), which is closely related to E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#). This mix of major and minor is a staple of country and blues; taking one pattern and moving it down three frets—as we do here—is a simple and time-honored way to achieve this.

Click here for Ex. 5

The final lick (Ex. 6) is also in E, but now around the open position. The first two measures are a nice blend of that open-position hybrid country scale, which looks a lot like the blues scale, but with an added 3 (G#).

The second half of the lick continues with the same theme, but works up the neck to resolve in the “C” shape with a cool pedal steel-inspired bend.

Click here for Ex. 6

As with any artist who has such a large recorded catalog as Vince Gill, this handful of licks is just a small snippet of what he’s capable of as a player, so I’d encourage you to dig into his work to unearth more.