Open-string licks, hand-wrenching bends, blazing double-stops, and much more.
- Learn how to incorporate outside notes to a Mixolydian scale.
- Understand how to phrase in both traditional and modern country settings.
- Create a deeper vocabulary over dominant chords.
How many times are you paralyzed by the sheer number of options you can play over a dominant chord? It’s probably one of the only chords where nearly anything works if you land correctly. One of the most common sounds to use is the Mixolydian scale, which is simply a major scale with a lowered 7. But let’s add on to this sound by expanding our musical Mixolydian palette with a few blue notes and some chromatic embellishments.
The first four examples will be played over a “train” beat. Think more old-school and traditional country. We will look at a few modern applications later on. In Ex. 1 we are thinking C Mixolydian (C–D–E–F–G–A–Bb) over a C major chord. It’s very common to treat major chords as dominants. Other than the hammer-on to the 3 on beat 3 the entire lick falls nicely within the scale.
Ex. 2 is a nice way to incorporate open-string ideas over a major I chord (in this case, C). The back half of the lick has a nice chromatic passing tone that leads nicely into the next chord (F). Make sure to let each note ring out as long as possible.
Connecting chord tones is a crucial element of country guitar. In Ex. 3 I start with a double-stop that directly outlines the essential notes of an F7 chord (Eb and A) before I slip into another double-strop phrase that hints around that same sound. In measure 2 I approach the chord tones of a G major triad (G–B–D) chromatically before winding things up with a trademark country bend.
Ex. 4 is an alternate way of approaching the same two chords (F and G). This would be more how a pedal-steel player might phrase the line. The string of sixths gives the pre-bends a connecting theme. Make sure to hold the last bend, hit the G on the 1st string twice, then release. This creates cool tension that resolves nicely back into the C chord.
You now have several ideas that work well over a 1–4–5 progression on a train beat that’s common to more traditional country. Let’s move to a different groove and vibe that might be considered more modern.
Ex. 5 is played over a E7 chord. This one gets to the heart of using chromatic connecting notes or passing tones. You can really hear the tension the extra possibilities add to this slippery lick.
This lick (Ex. 6) reminds me of how Larry Carlton might approach playing over a E7 chord. Once again, using notes not found in the Mixolydian scale offers a different texture to the musical line, especially the slides in the first measure and the chromatic approaches to the root and 3 in the second measure.
Same groove, different chords. In this case (Ex. 7), one measure of G and one of A. I approach the 3 of the G chord by a half-step right at the top and then repeat it an octave up in the next beat before immediate descending back down to the open 3rd string. The double-stops in the second measure offer a hint of tension before resolving on beat 3.
Ex. 8 is a “no frills” approach and sticks entirely within the A Mixolydian scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G). The entire second measure reminds me of the main lick to Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”
So, there you have it. More note options will lead to more possibilities to choose from. Some examples just add one extra note, others much more than that. The most important thing is finding what works for you. Until next time!
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Steal inspiration, vocabulary, and picking techniques from legendary acoustic players.
- Improve your alternate picking.
- Discover how to use the “country” scale.
- Create a deeper understanding of chord shapes across the neck.
There have been many bluegrass guitar icons, from the pioneering Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice, to such modern masters as Bryan Sutton and David Grier. Today, younger players like Molly Tuttle and Carl Miner keep the genre alive.
Traditionally, bluegrass is played on acoustic instruments. Some people will tell you that putting the words “electric” and “bluegrass” in the same sentence creates an oxymoron, like “baroque jazz.” Although those purists have a valid point, electric bluegrass and newgrass are accepted genres that take influence from the early pickers and apply it to more modern instrumentation. And that’s exactly what we’ll do right now.
This lesson will focus on the fundamental techniques and note choices you’ll need to unlock the essence of flatpick guitar. Once you digest the basics, you’ll be ready to steal endless amounts of vocabulary from the masters of the style. The first thing to discuss is alternate-picking technique. Traditional flatpickers exist in a purely acoustic world, and being heard over loud banjos, Dobros, and fiddles is extremely important. The best way to achieve this is with a strong picking hand that’s capable of projecting each note to the audience.
Ex. 1 is a simple ascending and descending G major pentatonic scale (G–A–B–D–E). This is played with strict alternate picking: Begin with a downstroke, then follow it with an upstroke, then play a downstroke, and so on.
The problem with alternate picking will always be when you cross strings. (Note: Entire books have been devoted to this subject—we’re just scratching the surface here.) The two aspects we’ll examine right now are “inside” and “outside” picking.
Outside picking is what happens when you pick a string, and then while targeting the next one, you jump over it and swing back to pick it. The flatpick attacks the outside edges of the two strings.
In Ex. 2, play the A string with a downstroke, then the D string with an upstroke. This is outside motion. Each subsequent string crossing motion uses this outside picking technique.
Most players find the outside mechanics easier than the more restrictive inside motion. As you may be able to work out, inside picking technique is where your pick is stuck between two strings.
The following lick (Ex. 3) uses only this inside motion. Play it slowly and then compare how fast and accurately you can play it relative to Ex. 2.
You won’t have the luxury of structuring all your phrases to eliminate one motion or the other, so it’s best to accept this reality and develop the skills needed to get by with both approaches. The best of the best didn’t make excuses, they just played down-up-down-up over and over for decades.
Ex. 4 features one note per string. This fast string-crossing motion requires a good level of proficiency with both inside and outside approaches to build up any sort of speed.
The secret to alternate picking isn’t to always alternate pickstrokes between notes, but to keep the motion of the hand going. In short, the hand will move in the alternating fashion whether or not you strike a string. If you have a stream of eighth-notes, they’ll be alternate picked, but if there are some quarter-notes thrown in, the hand won’t freeze and wait for the next note. You’ll play the note with a downstroke, move up and not play anything, then drop back onto the strings and play the next note with a downstroke (Ex. 5).
This way all your downbeats are played with downstrokes and upbeats are upstrokes. You’ll see people refer to this as “strict alternate picking.” With that out of the way, it’s worth looking at the note choices of a typical bluegrass player.
A quick analysis of some bluegrass tunes will reveal this isn’t harmonically complex music. Nearly all of the chords you’re going to be dealing with are major and minor triads, so note choice isn’t going to break the brain.
One approach would be to play a line based on the major scale of the key you’re in. For example, if you’re playing a song in G, the G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) makes a good starting point.
A more stylistically appropriate approach would be to use the “country scale,” which is a major pentatonic scale with an added b3. In G that would be G–A–Bb–B–D–E. Ex. 6 shows this scale played beginning in the open position and moving up on the 3rd string.
Let’s put all this into practice. Ex. 7 shows a line built around a G chord using this strict alternate-picking motion applied to string crossing mechanics in both directions. This sticks closely to the country scale, but there’s also an added C in the third measure to allow the 3 to land on the downbeat of measure four.
This next line (Ex. 8) uses the same idea, but now beginning up at the 5th fret area and moving down over the course of the lick.
It’s worth looking at each string crossing to categorize it as inside or outside. This will help further your understanding of the importance of these two picking techniques.
Here’s another idea around G (Ex. 9), but to create some smoother motion, this time we add notes from G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F), as well as a bluesy Db (b5) as a chromatic passing tone. The trick here is nailing all the position shifts as you’re going from the 3rd fret up to the 10th fret.
Our final example (Ex. 10) takes what we’ve learned about approaching a major chord and applies it to two different chords. First, we have two measures of G, then C, and back to G.
When playing over the C, your note choice changes to the country scale, but now built from C (C–D–Eb–E–G–A). Switching between these chords poses a technical challenge, along with a visual one. Take your time with a lick like this, and make sure you’re able to see the underlying chord at all times.
We will be thinking of dominant chords as they relate to a diatonic major scale. All our examples will be based in the key of G major (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#), but first let’s learn how to make a dominant 7 chord from scratch.
The formula, or numerical representation of a dominant chord, is 1–3–5–b7. Simply, take every other note (starting on the root) and then lower the 7 by a half-step. If we base this formula over our G major scale, only one dominant 7 chord appears naturally: D7 (D–F#–A–C). It also implies the D Mixolydian scale (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C), which is the fifth mode of the G major scale.
Ex. 1 starts off with a single-note line played at a moderately fast tempo. Right off the bat, I outline a D9 sound by adding in the E. Slide down with the index finger on the 3rd string from the 7th to 5th fret to achieve the proper fingering. You will also use your index finger on the 4th string for the slide down from the 5th to 4th fret. I recommend playing a D7 chord before and after each lick to help connect your ear with the sound of the line.
Incorporating double-stops and fragmented parts of a D7 chord are central to Ex. 2. Notice how the passing notes of B, G, and E quickly shift the ear to an Em triad (E–G–B). Passing notes add a nice element to your phrases just by using different note and intervallic choices found naturally in the Mixolydian mode.
In Ex. 3 I outline several descending triads in a phrase that reminds me of how bebop musicians would approach outlining a dominant chord. I start with a Bm7 arpeggio (B–D–F#–A) before sliding down into an Am7 arpeggio (A–C–E–G). (Another great idea is to take just the first two beats of this example and work in out in different keys all over the neck.) I then jump down an octave and hit a Bm arpeggio (B–D–F#). I end with a little open-string pull-off before sliding into a D7 chord.
Ex. 4 is a great open-string lick played in only two positions but has so much going on with it. I like the back end of the lick where the rub of those major and minor seconds clash together. I picked most of the notes and let them ring as long as possible. Using a bit of delay at 250ms helps the notes sustain more and “bleeds” the notes together, but each note needs a separate attack.
Ex. 5 is another great open-string sequence. The fingering can be really tricky here, so start with your index finger on the 2nd string and your pinky hitting the F# on the 3rd string. After the pull-off, use your pinky for the A on the 2nd string. After that, the rest of the lick lays out nicely. With any type of flowing, open-string idea make sure to hold the notes as long as possible.
Since we are approaching these licks from a country angle, it was only a matter of time before we got our hands around a pedal-steel lick. Ex. 6 is one way to navigate a D7 sound—but it’s a real finger twister. The key here is to make your bends surgical and really nail the pitch. Take it slow and try to match the recording.
Ex. 7 is a triple-stop chordal idea with some rhythmic syncopation. If we break down the chord shapes, you can see that they are familiar patterns. I start with an A minor triad and slide into a B minor triad before hitting two G triads—all in the first beat! Knowing how the diatonic harmony works in terms of triads is invaluable for phrases like this.
Players like Brad Paisley and Brent Mason are absolute masters of using open-string pull-offs to navigate all over the neck. Ex. 8 is my take on something they might play. Make sure to nail the “cluck” right before the bend as it adds an element of chicken pickin’ to the lick. Grab that bend with your ring and pinky for more strength and control.
As you can see there are lots of ways to be creative with just seven notes. Take even just a tiny piece of these phrases and see if you can work them into your own playing. Until next time!
It doesn’t have to be all cowboy boots and yee-haws!
• Learn how to comp using hybrid picking.
• Add nuance to your playing by combining pick and finger string attacks.
• Add speed and fluidity to your lead playing.
The first thing most guitarists think of when they hear the phrase “hybrid picking” is undoubtedly twangy Telecasters. While that may be the most common use of hybrid picking, it is far from the only application. Diving into hybrid picking opens a whole new world of control, timbre possibilities, ideas, speed, and more.
As beginning guitarists start to move into the intermediate level, they typically build speed by practicing alternate or economy picking. It makes complete sense–especially to someone who’s new to the journey–that if you’re holding a pick, that’s what you should strike the strings with. I grew up learning how to play taking a slightly different route. Personally, I found it easier to be faster–and cleaner–to hybrid pick phrases, lines, and solos. It clicked with me and therefore was the technique I homed in on when growing from a beginner to an intermediate player. My alternate and economy techniques still aren’t as comfortable as hybrid picking, so here are some ideas from a guy that learned things from a bit of a different perspective. If you feel like your playing has plateaued, this might help you to keep climbing.
Small note: I use the pad of my fingers when hybrid picking and not the nail.
Step 1: Focus on the Small Differences
In Ex. 1 you’ll find what I consider to be one of the main benefits of getting comfortable with hybrid picking. I pick every note of the phrase on the first pass, but hybrid pick it on the second. On the second pass, the root note (open 4th string) is the only note the pick hits. I generally like to approach hybrid picking with an “each finger is assigned a string” method, meaning in this example the middle finger picks the note on the 3rd string and the ring finger picks the note on the 2nd string. Listening to the same two phrases played differently, you’ll note that there’s a tad more feel and nuance the second time through. These are subtle but can make all the difference in the world when it comes to creating, playing, recording, or performing parts. The combination of a mountain’s worth of small differences like this are what sets the pros apart!
Step 2: How to Play Chords with Hybrid Picking
Ex. 2 is how I love to use hybrid picking when comping. In this example the pick is handling everything on the 5th string while the middle finger picks the 4th string, the ring finger picks the 3rd string, and the pinky picks the 2nd string. Not only does hybrid picking this groove allow for a ton of control, it allows the pick to rhythmically separate from the rest of the fingers, creating a faux bassline. Again, using the middle, ring, and pinky fingers give a softer touch to the upper end of the chords, creating a more nuanced feel.
Step 3: Time to Go Low
Taking the idea of the pick handling the low end of the chords and giving the notes focus while the fingers contribute to clarity and softness on the upper end of the chords, we get Ex. 3. The pick only strikes the 6th string, while the middle finger picks the 3rd string, and the ring finger picks the 2nd string. This example of hybrid picking is widely used by guys like John Mayer and allows a player to have a ridiculous amount of control over what strings are being struck when playing something clean such as this.
Step 4: Let’s Get Sweeping
Applying this concept to lead playing, Ex. 4 replaces what would typically be an upward sweep with hybrid picking. The pick strikes the A note on the 7th fret of the 4th string. Then, the middle finger picks the C# on the 6th fret of the 3rd string, the ring finger picks the E note on the 5th fret of the 2nd string, and the pick strikes the F# on the 7th fret of the 2nd string. This is followed by a downward sweep of the same notes in reverse order. To end the lick, I pick the open 4th string. That’s when hybrid picking allows me to play a rolled Dmaj7 chord. These two embellishments are highly useful when both soloing and comping, and once again are a small touch that provides some “spice.”
Step 5: Enough with the Clean Stuff
Ex. 5 is a lick I use (I should probably say abuse) consistently. My sweep picking skills are abysmal. In part because I haven’t dedicated the appropriate time to practice them, but also partly because I tend to hybrid pick as a cheat or workaround. The lick is based on a G major arpeggio beginning at the 10th fret of the 5th string. I then pick the 4th string with my middle finger and the 3rd string with my ring finger. From there, I gather for a few notes with the pick on the 3rd string and repeat the pattern again across the fretboard. However, the second hybrid-picked part of the lick begins by striking the 9th fret of the 3rd string with the pick, then using my middle finger to pick the 8th fret of the 2nd string and my ring finger to pick the 7th fret of the 1st string. To end the arpeggio, I strike the 10th fret of the 1st string with the pick. The last bit of the phrase is a garden variety blues lick ending.
Hybrid picking is an extremely valuable tool that I think every guitar player should have in their arsenal. A player can have more control, feel, and timbral options compared to only using a plectrum, and it’s an easier way to add velocity with very minimal right-hand movement or tension. Try hybrid picking different grooves, licks, arpeggiated chord shapes, and even pieces of lead lines you already know to begin exploring how the technique can work for you.