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.
• 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An iconic bass design undergoes a subtle yet significant refresh, both inside and out.
Recorded using a PreSonus FireStudio and PreSonus Studio One 3.
Clip 1 - Treble boost, mid boost.
Clip 2 - Treble boost, bass boost.
Clip 3 - Treble, bass, and mid dials dimed.
Well engineered. Exciting new ground for an iconic bass.
EQ could use a little frequency adjusting for the top end.
Music Man StingRay Special
When the Music Man StingRay burst onto the scene in 1976, it brought with it a midrange attack that shifted the bass-universe curve rather abruptly. It was the disco era, so it may have been a perfect storm of players, style of music, and engineers that helped the StingRay soar, but I’d like to think the bass spoke for itself. We started hearing it cut through the mix from the likes of Louis Johnson, Tony Levin, and Flea, among countless others who used the sweet sonic punch of this model to craft signature tones.
Forty years is a long time, however, and with the many advances in technology, electronics, and instrument building, perhaps the engineers at Ernie Ball decided this would be the year to change the formula. The changes will be welcome for some, not for others, and the purists might possibly be left crying on their Michael Jackson albums. Or will they? That’s why we’re here: to give a proper once or twice over to Ernie Ball's re-imagined Music Man StingRay.
A Ray of Light
Before we go forward, we should always look back. The original StingRay, in all its glory, did have some issues. It was a heavy beast. It was sonically limited, and although the onboard active pre was a welcome breath for players, not having control over the mids did turn some away because of too much point in the tone.
So, what is a modern design team to do? When I opened the hardshell case, an audible “whoa” escaped my lips. My eyes didn’t know where to go first: the spectacular ’burst finish or the new roasted-maple neck. When I picked up the bass, my arms were greeted with a lighter instrument than I’m used to with my vintage models. It turns out the engineers managed to shave a full pound off the new incarnation of this bass, which weighs in at just a hair under 8 1/2 pounds.
The little design changes really make a difference on the StingRay Special. A die-hard follower will notice a difference, but to the first-time user, the bass will likely feel right at home. First, there is a belly scoop on the back and a rounded arm contour for added playing comfort, and it does its job well. Tuning up—and this may sound silly—felt slightly different as well. There are new lightweight, ergonomic Music Man tuners onboard, which means your fingers actually have something to grasp other than a thin slice of metal—again, subtle, but noticed. Some other changes include a 5-bolt neck design, a lighter bridge with a smaller footprint, and a compensated nut.
Highs, Lows, and That Thing In-Between
So, we have all these new things to talk about, but at the heart of every instrument is its tone: the thing we should really be most concerned with. The company has made some changes to the StingRay’s electronics as well. First, the preamp system is now 18V, which is intended to provide longer battery life and more headroom. A 3-band EQ handles boost/cut for treble, mids, and bass. The redesigned humbucker on the StingRay Special features new neodymium magnets and the pole pieces have a new spacing layout to align perfectly under the strings. Again, small touches that amount to big things.
I plugged the StingRay into my trusty Eden CXC210 combo, which gives a very accurate sonic reflection without coloring tone. With the StingRay’s EQ set flat, the bass was, well, flat. It had mid point, but not much else. In other words, the bass needs the pre. I added a bit of top end and bass to give it some help, and that really did the trick. The StingRay started to give me more of what I wanted: thunder and lightning. The inevitable slap runs were exhilarating—with tight precision and a low-end attack like an anvil—and felt fantastic thanks to the silky-smooth, gunstock-oil-and-wax-finished neck.
The fingerstyle attack point was there as well, and it kept the bass where a StingRay should be—sitting in the mix just right. One thing I noticed that’s different from earlier models is that the treble control’s range won’t allow the tone to get super crispy, which can be good or bad, depending on the application. The top end is there, but I felt like the tone frequency needed to open up a hair more.
One great thing about the StingRay’s preamp is the ability to dime the controls and still have the bass sing. If you are a one-tone kind of player, this would be that tone—set for stun. All the great tone is there with punch, clarity, and low-end rumble, and all without being overbearing. The StingRay’s new incarnation was fine with a plectrum or my fingers, and had the same authoritative tone either way.
Being iconic is not easy—especially when it comes time for redesign. The Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special is both a mouthful and a handful. One side of me loves this bass for the redesign, the great new features, and the balanced, strong tone. My selfish side misses a little of the mass and the “nastier” EQ settings I could achieve with the older models. The new StingRay will likely soon be found in the hands of famous players and will inspire new generations of MM fans as well—of that I don’t doubt. I just hope they also get to play the original models and be reminded why they purchased the lighter and more versatile new incarnation.
Watch the Review Demo:
A closer look at how, or if, an acoustic cutaway affects your tone.
One of the questions I’m often asked as a guitar maker is if a cutaway changes the sound of an acoustic guitar. I think this is often a polite disguise for a different question: “Do I lose any tone by having a cutaway?” To better understand this, it helps to be familiar with a few of the factors involved.
Of the many variables that create an acoustic guitar’s sound, two significant elements are akin to lungs and vocal cords. The air inside a guitar’s body is like lung capacity. This air mass has a resonance determined largely by its size and the size of any openings. Scientists know this as the Helmholtz resonance. The effect can be demonstrated by blowing air across the top of a bottle. The larger the cavity is, the lower the pitch will be. So, as a beverage is emptied from the bottle, blowing across the top will result in progressively lower frequencies.
The top and back of the guitar are like the vocal cords in a voice box. Their sound is largely governed by their bracing and shape, which affects the tautness and motion to make vowel sounds and syllables, or the notes we play. And just like vocal chords, the tighter or stronger a guitar is, the higher the frequencies it will tend to emphasize. It’s easy to imagine the internal braces changing the stiffness of a top, but the perimeter shape is also significant. As a rule, the more extreme the curves are, the stronger and stiffer the parts become. To get a better picture of this effect, imagine a sheet of paper held on edge with a gentle horizontal curve. Placing the smallest amount of pressure on the paper causes it to wrinkle or flex. If this gradual curve is made tighter, it can withstand far more pressure. If the curve is made even tighter by rolling the paper into a tube, it can withstand a great deal of pressure without crumpling, even if something proportionately heavy were to be placed on top of the open tube-end. This is one reason why the more extreme curves of a jumbo-shaped guitar typically produce a brighter sound than the deep and warm sound of a more broadly curved, dreadnought-shaped guitar. The tight-radius curves of a cutaway on either of these guitar shapes will result in extra strength on the guitar’s upper bout.
When a player’s repertoire contains a lot of high-note passages, the music will be better if the performer has the dexterity and high-note fretboard access a cutaway instrument allows.
These two primary aspects of a guitar’s sonic signature—the lungs and voice—work in tandem with each other. When a portion of the guitar’s body is removed to form the cutaway shape, the air in the guitar body’s lungs is made a little smaller. As long as the size of the soundhole remains the same, the pitch of this air will rise a little compared to the same guitar outline without a cutaway. At the same time, the sharper curves of the guitar’s silhouette make the top and back a little stronger—like vocal cords pulled taut—which further emphasize a higher tonal range.
Now, let’s revisit the question of whether a guitar with a cutaway loses tone compared to an identical instrument without one. No: The tone simply changes a small amount in a way that is perfectly appropriate for what a musician wants to do with the instrument. Practically speaking, a cutaway encourages easy fretting of the highest notes on the fretboard. Meanwhile, the slightly smaller lung capacity and extra vocal-cord tautness from the cutaway guitar body shift the guitar’s frequency response up, which helps to make those high notes sound good. By comparison, a non-cutaway guitar with the same outline will tend to shift its preferred frequency range down to the lower notes on the fretboard.
I feel a more helpful question for a player to ask is, “What will result in the best music?” After all, you could say we hear the relationship between the player and the guitar. So, when a player’s repertoire contains a lot of high-note passages, the music will be better if the performer has the dexterity and high-note fretboard access a cutaway instrument allows. If a player’s style focuses most heavily on low, open-position sounds and chords, the music may sound better with a non-cutaway instrument.
For those who simply want to know how big a difference there is, well, the change is small—small enough that other factors, such as the exact pieces of wood each guitar is made from, the strings, the pick a player uses, and how much coffee they drank that day all seem to matter more. In the end, there is no loss of tone—only a small change. The cutaway option gives players a choice based on their preferences, how they play, and what they like to hear.