The path from ripping electric blues to snappy twang is shorter than you might think. An in-demand Nashville player dishes out a few hands-on tips for getting your country chops together.
• Learn how to transform stock blues licks into twangy country riffs.
• Create solos and phrases that outline the changes.
• Supercharge your hybrid picking. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
“I grew up playing blues, but now I want to play country!” These were my exact words in the mid ’90s. Back in the day, I remember surfing TV channels and breezing by a country music show called American Music Shop. I was exposed to some country music in my youth, but I mainly listened to and played blues, R&B, rock, and metal. I didn’t stay tuned into the show for very long but, one particular night I stumbled onto an episode just as Brent Mason was annihilating a blazing chicken pickin’ solo. I had never heard playing like that before and my life was forever changed. To get a taste of what I heard that day, check out the clip below of Mark O’ Connor’s tune, “Pick It Apart.”
The quest to play country guitar had begun. But here was the problem: I was a hardcore blues-rock guy who idolized Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Clapton, and the Allman Brothers. True, I could play major pentatonic ideas because I loved the Southern rock guys who could really navigate that stuff. Little did I know that would be the jumping off point for me.
I started to dig into Brent Mason, Albert Lee, Ray Flacke, and Jerry Donahue via instructional video tapes. (YouTube, online lesson resources, and streaming services weren’t around yet!) I got lucky and ended up working at a music store that rented Star Licks videos. I grabbed the Flacke, Lee, and Steve Morse videos and dove in. I ended up buying Brent Mason’s Hot Licks VHS too. I still own it.
I immediately took away some really important things from those videos. The biggest by far was hybrid picking. If you’re not familiar with hybrid picking, simply put, it’s the technique that involves attacking the strings simultaneously with a flatpick and your fingers. Hybrid picking is also the vehicle for chicken pickin’—a style that’s synonymous with country playing.
What came with hybrid picking was … fingernails! I’m a chronic nail biter and I could never grow mine long enough. I found out that it’s a common practice for guitarists to use acrylic fingernails, so I went to Wal-Mart and bought a package of Lee Press-On Nails. Voilà—my chicken pickin’ chops increased by leaps and bounds. I used to carry a nail kit with me at all times until I found a good nail shop to hook me up for less than 10 bucks.
When it comes to playing country, technique is huge—and that’s not only for chicken pickin’. As I watched Brent’s video he would go into these insane Western swing licks using the same hybrid picking technique he did for the country stuff. A light bulb went on: I’m going to try that too! Hybrid picking increased my speed and control so much that I’ve never looked back. As a guitarist who fancies himself able to cover multiple genres, I can honestly say hybrid picking is the single most important part of my personal style. And I owe it all to country guitar.
The next part of the journey involved learning vocabulary. I digested some of the licks in the videos I mentioned and then went on a hunt to find the records these masters played on. I then sought out their influences, just like I did with my blues heroes. SRV had Albert King. Clapton had Freddie King. Brent Mason had Roy Nichols and Don Rich. Albert Lee had James Burton and Scotty Moore.
From there, I really started to get a taste of where these guys were coming from. However, I was still having trouble getting around the songs. These country players were so melodic and could masterfully weave through the chord changes. When they weren’t playing a fast open-string lick, they were playing a beautiful solo that really honored the song. In rock and blues, we can sometimes go overboard with our solos (pointing a finger at myself). In my experience, that’s not the case with country players. The best of the best players are subtle and tasteful. I wanted to get to that place, but I was still handcuffed by my blues mentality.
If you’re a blues player looking to get into country, have no fear—those minor and major pentatonics are going to come in handy. Once you pair up some of your blues licks with hybrid picking, you’re well on your way to getting some twang happening.
Here’s a basic course of action:
1. Make sure you have a solid foundation of major and minor pentatonic scales in all keys.
2. Try to immediately incorporate hybrid picking into your scale playing.
3. Transcribe a few licks from recordings that really excite you and try to transpose them as much as possible. Chicken pickin’ riffs, pedal-steel bends, and a few open-string licks make a great foundation for your journey into hot-rod country guitar.
4. Find some songs to jam over. Backing tracks are great, but to simulate a real-life situation you really want to play with something that has a vocal. In the country genre, you might get lucky and have an eight-measure solo, but you may only get four before you trade off with the next soloist.
5. Find some easy I–IV–V based songs. Check out a few of my favorites:
- “Workin’ Man Blues” – Merle Haggard/James Burton/Roy Nichols
- “Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash/Scotty Moore
- “Two More Bottles of Wine” – Emmylou Harris/Albert Lee
- “Milk Cow Blues” – Ricky Nelson/James Burton
- “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues)” – Alan Jackson/Brent Mason
- “Little Sister” – Dwight Yoakam/Pete Anderson?
Because these songs are blues-based, your current vocabulary of blues licks will work well over most of them. Notice how each of these great players don’t overplay. Pay special attention to the restraint they use and how it seems like they almost never repeat themselves. Heck, steal some of the licks in these tunes—I sure did!
Now let’s explore eight blues licks that I morph into country licks to highlight techniques like double-stops, pedal-steel bends, and chicken pickin’. The goal here is to get you to hear and see how the blues and country vocabularies aren’t too far apart. It’s all about technique, approach, and attitude.
In Ex. 1, I take a mid-tempo shuffle lick in the key of A and change it to an up-tempo country lick with a straight feel (Ex. 2). This lick is based on A minor pentatonic (A–C–D–E–G) with a major third (C#) thrown in. This sound is one we’ve come to know and easily crosses over from blues to country. Notice how I’m “clawing” the strings with my middle and ring fingers to get those notes to really pop out.
B.B. Goes Country
Once again, we’re in the key of A, but this time in an area of the fretboard B.B. King favored—one that offers great opportunities to blend the major and minor pentatonic scales. Blues and country are perfect vehicles for using both sounds. In Ex. 3, I start with a mid-tempo shuffle lick and then increase the tempo while straightening out the feel (Ex. 4). On the country version, muting the strings a bit allows you to get that choked sound you hear from great country players. The muting happens in the middle of the lick; you’ll release it as you release the bend. As always, pay attention to the right-hand fingerings.
Thirds and Muting
Here’s a cool lick featuring thirds and some chromatic movement. I’ve also set this lick up to take you to the IV chord in a 12-bar blues or a I–IV–V country song. The last measure of each lick will be the one that takes you to the IV chord. Ex. 5 is over a shuffle feel and starts out with a classic saxophone-inspired line. This lick’s country counterpart (Ex. 6) is full of some fun muting and alternate picking. The lick is virtually the same harmonically, but the country techniques really take it to a traditional place.
Here’s a lick out of the D minor pentatonic scale (D–F–G–A–C) that features the usual suspects, like pull-offs and double-stops (Ex. 7). Use this lick as an exercise to really get that alternate picking happening. As I mentioned earlier, this type of playing has infiltrated everything I do, and a lick like this will help you put some twang in your playing, too (Ex. 8).
Country Pickers Like Triplets
So much of translating blues lines into country lies in rhythmic phrasing. Country pickers often craft lines using triplets, and that’s what we’ll try next. First, we’ll hear an E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#) lick (Ex. 9). The line cascades through the scale shapes for a classic-sounding major lick. In Ex 10, I increase the tempo while keeping the shuffle feel, and alter the lick to include triplets that yield cool clusters of notes. All of the masters do this, so really check this one out.
Bend Through the Changes
Country players really know how to outline the chord changes. In Ex. 11, we’re shuffling again in the key of E while playing some bends that weave through the E7–B7–E7 chord changes. I’ve gone back to the muted attack in the country lick (Ex. 12) and thrown in some pre-bends halfway through each measure. These licks are going after that steel guitar sound, so pay close attention to keeping them in tune while bending.
Hope You’re Using Light Strings!
Let’s build off the previous lick and focus on some quintessential country bending and double-stop ideas. Again, I’ve crafted these double-stop bends to work over the chords in their respective measures (Ex. 13). One of the biggest challenges of these kinds of bends is having the strength and callouses to keep the notes in tune and the double-stops sounding strong. I recommend going down a string gauge or two when learning country guitar. When you try this example, you’ll see why.
The bluesy half of this example (Ex. 14) is straight out of the Texas blues handbook. My first guitar hero was Stevie Ray Vaughan and I wore his stuff out. I play this lick very much in the SRV style. To countrify it, I throw in double-stops and, of course, hybrid picking (Ex. 15). This country lick is some of my favorite stuff because of how it blurs the line between major and minor pentatonics. We’re using that claw-style approach again and once you get this going, you’ll be well on your way to converting all of your blues vocabulary into bona fide country twang.