bluegrass

The happy reunion of Mark O'Connor and his old Martin resulted in a sequel to his foundational 1978 acoustic guitar album, Markology. Back then, he was already a star violinist and a mandolin player of note. Photo by Maggie O'Connor

Photo by Maggie O'Connor

When an injury sidelined his 6-stringing 20 years ago, he committed to violin superstardom. Now, O'Connor returns to his 1945 Martin D-28 for the rapturous, virtuosic Markology II.

In 1997, Mark O'Connor faced every guitarist's worst fear. He was teaching at his O'Connor Method String Camp that summer when he developed a debilitating case of bursitis in his right elbow. "Doctor's advice was that I limit or discontinue some of the activity that caused the bursitis, as the condition wasn't going to disappear entirely," O'Connor explains. As a multi-instrumentalist with a high-level violin career, he had a choice to make. "I sacrificed the guitar and mandolin to preserve my violin playing. I was very sad to see it go, but I needed to preserve my ability to play the violin, because it was the thrust of my career."

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Understand everything you need to know about how to use the "country chromatic scale" and create some of the most finger-busting licks this side of Brent Mason.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how chromatics can make your lines more interesting.
• Learn the ins and outs of the “country chromatic scale.”
• Develop phrases that outline the chord changes.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Have you ever tasted red-hot, super-spicy buffalo wings that make your lips feel like they’re on fire? The chromatic licks in this month’s lesson are the guitar equivalent to those sweat-inducing bits of poultry. These are so hot your fingers will feel like they’re on fire when you play them. Listen to guys like Steve Morse, Brent Mason, and Albert Lee play over a super-fast, train-beat groove—it’s mind-blowing. They know how to use chromatic passing notes to fill in the gaps between scale tones to make licks sound like they just don’t end, and that’s what we’ll explore in this lesson.

But first, let’s back up a second. The chromatic scale is simple—it’s all 12 notes that we use in Western music. In our quest to outline the chords we’re playing over, we’ll fudge this chromatic scale a little. We’ll just outline the most important scale tones and leave a few passing tones out that don’t sound as good as the others.

This style is reminiscent of bebop and swing jazz in the sense that you are addressing each chord as it goes by, instead of playing one scale over the entire progression. That said, we need to choose the notes that best outline the chords and make sure these notes fall on important beats in the measure. The most important notes in a dominant 7 tonality are the root, 3, 5 and b7. As you’ll notice, these are all chord tones. In Fig. 1, you can see an example of what I’ll call the “country chromatic scale.” The formula for this scale is 1–2–b3–3–4–#4–5–6–b7.

The lick in Fig. 2 really outlines the 3 by including the chromatic note below it and above it in three octaves. This type of lick lies really well under your fingers, which makes it easier to play at quick tempos. It’s very important to have a handful of licks that can get you through in a pinch when the drummer kicks off a smokin’ fast train beat.

Sometimes it’s fun to take a simple lick and add to it. Fig. 3 is an extension of that lick with a few more chromatic passing tones that outline both the 3 and the 5. Treat all these licks as templates. The purpose here is to show you ways to incorporate chromaticism into your licks. Take these ideas and add to them or invert them. Or take part of the lick and go in a different direction.

In Fig. 4, we start on the b7 and end on the root below it. Again, this lick is built for speed. The chromaticism leads from the 5 to b5 to 4, and then to the b3. This is very prevalent in blues licks. When the lick gets down to the low register, it slips back into a country sound with the b3-to-3 move. First play through it as written, then take it to the stratosphere.

This ascending lick (Fig. 5) starts out like an arpeggio and then incorporates some chromatic passing tones to spice it up a little. The chromaticism starts towards the back side of the lick, moving from the 2 up to the 4. Then it descends chromatically in thirds.

Here’s another idea (Fig. 6) that starts out like an arpeggio and blends in some cool chromaticism to really grab your attention. The chromatics occur halfway through the lick, starting on the 2 and going up to the 5 and b7. Next, we descend chromatically from the 5 to really let the listener know you are resolving it here. Then it skips the major 3 and comes from a half-step below up to the major 3 before resolving to the root.

Our next lick in Fig. 7 goes all chromatic at the top and keeps winding back through the same chromatic passing notes in different ways to bend your ears. That b3-to-3 move that resolves to the root at the end brings it all back home. This type of lick sounds like it could be played on a big ol’ flattop in a kick-ass bluegrass group blistering through a fiddle tune at breakneck tempos. That’s the great thing about this approach—chromatic licks translate so well to bluegrass. With all the chromaticism we are incorporating, you could easily play this in a jazz-fusion setting or even if you wanted to take a blues tune into a completely different direction. Imagine the savage power you will wield in a rock context playing a Les Paul through a dimed Marshall half stack. Hearing players like Steve Morse playing bluegrass through a cranked up overdriven amp is what turned me on to country guitar in the first place.

Now, let’s take a progression and weave some of these lines together so they outline the chords. Again, when you lead your lines into the next chord you can really hear the chord changes going by—even without having anyone play rhythm for you. Remember, the most important chord tones land on the first beat of the measure. You can keep either a straight-eighths or 16ths rhythm (depending on how fast your tempo is) and seamlessly weave through the chords. Always be thinking about the chord that is coming up and how you’re going to introduce it within your lines.

Here is an approach in Fig. 8 that you can try that outlines the I, IV, and V chords. This progression, or a few variations of it, is in literally thousands of songs. Learn the notes and fingerings at a slow tempo at first, then gradually speed it up and play it as fast as you can play it cleanly. Don’t try to go faster than you can play it without making mistakes or glitches.

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No longer relegated to beginner-level melodies or open-position chords, open strings can add sonic spice to your solos and make them come alive.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand three ways to incorporate open strings into your solos.
• Create a harp-like sound for scalar passages.
• Learn the bluegrass standard “Bill Cheatum.”

Click here to download sound clips from this lesson's notation.

No longer relegated to beginner-level melodies or open-position chords, open strings can add sonic spice to your solos and make them come alive. In this lesson we’ll explore three ways of incorporating open strings into a solo. To facilitate our discussion, I’m calling these “devices.”

• Device 1: Use an open string as a place to facilitate a position change.
• Device 2: Use an open string as a pedal point.
• Device 3: Use open strings to create a cascading effect.

Let’s begin with Device 1. This is very helpful for creating seamless transitions from low-to-high or high-to-low, depending on the direction of the musical line. In Fig. 1 we have a G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) spanning an octave and a 5th (G up to a high D) where the scale starts in 1st position and finishes in 7th position, with the open 1st string facilitating the shift into 7th position.

Wherever there’s an open-string note that belongs to the key, then there is the potential to make a position change at this spot. In Fig. 2, we find the same G major scale with the shift occurring after playing the open B (2nd string). In Fig. 3, we once again play the G scale, this time a shift occurs after both the open B and E.

Playing scales by combining open strings and position shifts is a great way to break out of any position-playing ruts you may find yourself in, and it adds the sonic variety of open-string and fretted-note combinations.

Device 2 uses an open string as a pedal point. A pedal point is where a specific note—usually the root or the 5th of the key and typically the lowest note in a phrase—is continuously played while other harmonic or melodic material is played above it. In Fig. 4, we simulate the sound of a continuous pedal note by alternating between the pedal note and the melody above it, giving the impression of multiple parts. Focus on strict alternate picking and you’ve got a great picking-hand workout.

The devices mentioned so far are not mutually exclusive. While playing Fig. 4, you may have noticed that it combines both a pedal point and a position change. In that example, the position change is facilitated by an open string on beat 4 of measures one and four.

The sonic variety you can create by combining open strings and fretted notes is something unique to the guitar and other stringed instruments. The final device we’ll discuss showcases this to a greater degree than either of the devices we’ve explored up to this point. Device 3 produces a harp-like sound from the guitar—sometimes referred to as cascades, floaties, or campanella—and open strings play a significant role in producing this sound.

To achieve this sound, we rearrange a passage that may typically be played on a few strings and play it across multiple strings, allowing as many notes to ring as possible. Take a look at Fig. 5. Here you see a descending G major scale played in 1st position, followed by the same scale with a different fingering to allow multiple notes to sustain simultaneously. Because of the refingering, the open strings can continue ringing, and this contributes to the scale’s harp-like quality.

What better way to apply the information we’ve covered than to put it into a tune? I’ve written an arrangement of “Bill Cheatum”—a traditional fiddle tune—that incorporates all three of the devices we’ve discussed. “Bill Cheatum” is typically played in the key of A. However, I’ve notated it in the key of G, so grab your capo and place it at the 2nd fret, and you’ll be in the key of A. Let’s dig into the piece and try out these open-string devices.

In measure five (counting the pick-up measure as one), Device 3 occurs in a descending G major-scale run. The final note (E) of that measure is played on the 7th fret of the 5th string. To get back to 1st position for the next phrase, the open 4th string is used to facilitate the position change (Device 1). Strive to make measures four through six sound as smooth and connected as possible. Keeping the open strings ringing in measure five will help with this.

Measure eight begins with a cascading effect. The third note of the measure (E) provides an opportunity to shift from the 3rd position to the 7th position. To shift back to 1st position for measure nine, use the open E once again.

The phrase that begins on beat 3 of measure 12 and ends on the first note of measure 14 uses both the open 1st and 2nd strings for position changes. The phrase in measure 13 is played out of 7th position and resolves in 1st position thanks to the open 2nd string found on beat 1 of the next measure. By listening to the tone of the last note in measure 13 and comparing it to the tone of the first note of measure 14, we’re able to hear the distinct characteristics of a note fretted higher up the neck as compared to an open string. Considering the tone of notes on various strings plays a part in deciding note placement.

The tune’s B section begins at measure 18. Here, I’ve used a pedal point through measure 23. Measures 24 and 25 use Devices 1 and 2 to wrap up the first statement of the B section. At measure 25, beat 3, the open G provides a point for a smooth transition into the low register to begin the second half of the B section. Beginning in measure 27, we see the longest usage of Device 3, which resolves in measure 29.

Measures 30 and 31 reuse the G pedal point, but this time we vary the texture by playing pull-offs to the open G. The final two measures use Device 3, which generates a cascading effect to close the solo.

The techniques in this lesson will help you to navigate the fretboard outside the boundaries of position playing, challenge your picking hand, and add sonic variety to your arrangements and solos. When arranging your next solo, try adding a few of these devices. Good luck!

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