Initially intimidated, the French rocker slowly worked out the Southern-fried chicken pickin’ guitar crash course and picked up multiple techniques—hammer-ons, pull-offs, ghost notes, double-stops, and open strings—that still feed her need for speed.
Rocker Laura Cox is a born southpaw, but damn right she can country pick with the best of them—using the typical right-handed guitar setup and approach. In this new episode of PG’s Hooked, Laura rip on Brad Paisley’s fleet-fingered riffs to his song “The Nervous Breakdown,” an instrumental from his 1999 debut album Who Needs Pictures. The tune helped define Paisley’s identity as a player to be reckoned with. But no Tele for Cox. She burns it up on an Epiphone Cornet.
Laura recounts that when she first heard the tune, “It was so fast I thought I would never be able to play it.” But then she decoded Paisley’s approach and learned that he was using multiple techniques to make it easier to execute: hammer-ons, pull-offs, ghost notes, double-stops, open strings, and a helping of Southern-fried chicken pickin’. In short, it’s all in the fretboard hand, as she explains.
Why Was ’90s Country Guitar So Cool?
The riffs, the fills, the tones. What's not to love?
- Understand how to craft melodic licks in the style of Brent Mason, Pete Anderson, and others.
- Create flowing open-string licks.
- Learn how to combine blues with bluegrass.
Mainstream country music in the '90s was a guitar-lover's dream. Nearly every tune on the radio was full of tasty fills and ripping—but short—solos. The most prominent session player during this time was Brent Mason, whose car primer gray Tele became as iconic as the parts he crafted.
In this lesson, we will take inspiration from a few of the classic licks from the era and twist them around to make new ideas to add to your arsenal. We will cover double-stop licks, open-string lines, bending licks, and chromatic lines. Phrasing and timing is important and I will breakdown the key components to why they work and what chord to use them over. We will be using hybrid picking with all of examples.Since we are working specifically in the '90s country vein, I picked four tunes with lots of guitar work and rather long solo sections.
Vince Gill - Liza Jane
It's always great to learn exactly what the player did on the recording. Signature licks are what define the song and are important, especially if you're playing the tune live. But what happens if the tune is extended, or you are the only lead player that has to cover more territory and time? Some of these tunes have a long ending that vamp and fade out on the recording. What do you do then? You can always improvise a solo. These examples are a great launching pad for attacking those vamps.
Ex. 1 is a great way to kick off the beginning of the solo to "Liza Jane." It starts with an A7 arpeggio (A–C#–E–G) before chromatically approaching our comfortable blues box pattern. This lick ends in a very "Vince Gill" way with the unison bends and landing on a double-stop. Strive for the silky smoothness of Vince's phrasing.
Ex. 2 covers the C and D chords in the solo section. Using bluegrass ideas over both chords gives you a cool open-position lick for the C chord. Make sure to bend down on the D# note. Over the D chord we do an oblique bend ending the phrase on the b7, a very hip Vince-ism.
Alan Jackson - Chattahoochee (Official Music Video)
The intro to "Chattahoochee" is an all-time crowd pleaser, so make sure you get that under your fingers. Brent Mason's licks on this song are iconic and, in some ways, have become cliches—but in a good way. Ex. 3 is over the C chord and is a great way to work down the neck using double-stops.
There's a very cool II-V progression on the back half that fits perfectly with Ex. 4. Notice how I keep all the notes ringing through the first measure before adding a "dead" note and an element of chicken pickin'. Don't forget to really pluck that Bb on the 3rd string before resolving to the G.
Dwight Yoakam - Fast As You (Video)
Pete Anderson was another twang king that made waves in the '90s. During this time, he was the one behind nearly all the snappy riffs on Dwight Yoakam's albums. Ex. 5 has a B-Bender sound to it and should be given special attention. Notice how the second G on the 2nd string is only bent up a half-step. This is a simple and effective way to jam on the I chord in "Fast As You."
Next up we use a few open strings for a bluesy lick (Ex. 6). I can totally hear a bit of SRV in this one. Plus, the cool rake at the end is a signature Pete Anderson move.
Joe Diffie - Pickup Man (Official Music Video)
Ex. 7 uses a motif from the intro lick of Joe Diffie's "Pickup Man" and twists it around a bit. It's a nice way to reference the lick while using an open-string concept. Generally speaking, this riff uses G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) along with a b3 (Bb). What a great way to combine blues with bluegrass.
Naturally, we can move this open-string idea to a different part of the neck. In Ex. 8, I keep the same tonality, but move it up to 10th position. This frees me up to reach for this idea in another place on the neck, which is invaluable when improvising.
The '90s provided us with so much great playing and ideas on how to approach country guitar. The high-energy playing combined so many great elements and techniques into unforgettable songs. My hope is that these examples will inspire you to dig deeper into the tunes and the players that define this style.
Develop a strategy to methodically work through the changes of Johnny Cash’s classic jam.
- Put a simple country twist on a 12-bar blues.
- Create honky-tonk motifs over chord changes.
- Develop your CAGED vocabulary.
When learning any genre of music, it makes sense to master as much of the repertoire as possible. This will prepare you for the songs that are likely to be called on jam nights with other players. Jazz musicians are all over this concept. Show up to a jam session and you're likely to encounter players who have memorized dozens of standards, such as "Autumn Leaves," "Misty," and "All the Things You Are." When these tunes are called out, you'd better be ready to play them.
Blues musicians have it slightly easier since the 12-bar blues form is so ubiquitous. Often bandleaders might just call out the key and count it off. In this lesson, we'll focus on a country standard, "Folsom Prison Blues." As implied by the title, the form is basically a 12-bar blues, but we'll add a country twist.
Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues (Live)
Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison is one of the most iconic live albums ever. Although Cash originally recorded the album's title song in 1955, this version from Cash's 1968 visit to the California maximum-security facility has become the definitive one. Luther Perkins' twangy solo has become a standard, too.
Here's an example of a basic 12-bar blues:
In Cash's version, you'll notice that the only difference is that you're staying on the V chord in measure 10, rather than going down to the IV.
In Ex. 1, I've written a simple rhythm guitar riff the way someone like Roy Clark might play the song. Hold each chord shape and then pick the strings required using the picking pattern displayed. The key here is not simply remembering where to put your fingers, but the sound of the progression.
The next phrase (Ex. 2) focuses on outlining a melody with diatonic thirds based around each chord change. In measure one, I'm visualizing an "A" CAGED shape at the 7th fret and connecting the double-stop on the 3rd and 2nd strings up to the double-stop found in the "E" shape at the 12th fret.
Thirds are an essential part of country lead guitar. Below, I've visually outlined how the double-stops in the first measure fit between the "A" and "E" CAGED shapes. Of course, all CAGED shapes can be transposed to other keys, so make sure you put the work in!
Ex. 3 uses notes of a hybrid scale, where we add the b3 to a major pentatonic shape. In E, that would be E–F#–G–G#–B–C#, or 1–2–3–b3–5–6. I've played a simple country cliché over the E chord, and then moved this same lick up to each chord to outline the changes. This approach of dealing with each chord as its own musical event creates a more authentic country sound than taking one scale and playing it over a selection of chords.
Ex. 4 expands on the previous idea: Here we play the same basic cliché lick from the previous example, but now add some melodic embellishment in alternating measures. The lick in measures one and two fits around a "C" shape barre chord, while the licks over the A and B7 chord fit around an "E" shape barre chord. It's important to get a grip on this idea, as it will allow you to play licks quickly in any key.
Ex. 5 features the same licks as in the previous example but switches up where you play them. So, instead of starting with the "C" shape, as in the previous example, Ex. 5 launches into the lick around the "E" shape at the 12th fret.
When the chord changes to A, this time we play the lick based around the "C" shape, but higher up the neck to outline an A major chord in the 9th position. (Contrast this to the previous example, where we used the "C" shape to outline E major in the 4th position.) When it's time to outline B7, we shift the same "C" shape idea up two frets.
A full solo covering multiple positions, Ex. 6 is almost exclusively built on the notes of the hybrid scale we mentioned earlier. Measure one plays around an "A" shape before using some diatonic sixth intervals to shift down the neck in measure two.
Measure three continues the E chord, but now in the "C" shape, which transitions down to the open "E" position in measure four. Measures five starts in the open "A" position; we then work our way up to the "E" shape barre chord at the 5th fret in measure six.
Measures seven and eight outline an E chord in the "C" shape, again shifting down to the "E" position in the next measure. When the B7 chord hits, I play a repeating motif around the "A" shape that resolves to the "E" position in the 10th measure.
There's no denying this example will take time to get up to speed, but don't give up, as it's more than possible. The real focus here should be how fluidly you can use these CAGED positions. In fact, when this starts making sense, you should be able to play each of these licks on any chord.