Behind every radio hit is a group of guitarists who've created ear-catching parts. Check out these tips and tricks used by some of Music City’s most in-demand sidemen.
• Learn how to use "box" patterns to create licks in different keys.
• Understand how to use open-string drones to create signature parts.
• Hone your ability to play melodic slide-guitar textures.
I feel a little embarrassed when people ask me about my guitar influences. I can't claim expertise of Hendrix, I haven't spent hours woodshedding Eric Johnson, and I couldn't tell you the first thing about how to play like David Gilmour. My influences are more behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows of the music industry. They don't have big names, but they are monster players. I'm talking about the number one, most honest influence on my guitar playing: Nashville session guitarists.
In case you don't know, Nashville session guitarists are the cream of the crop—they have to be. Their job is to listen to a song once, write a chart for it during that single listen, step out onto the tracking room floor and simultaneously create, react, and execute a guitar part at a radio-perfect level in one take. I've figured out some tricks by studying the work of musical sharpshooters like J.T. Corenflos, Kenny Greenberg, and Tom Bukovac, and now I get to apply it in my own career when I'm called in for a session. Now, let's steal some tricks.
“Kiss You in the Morning" Box
An important thing to remember throughout this lesson is that the goal is to sound perfect. A dead note on your guitar solo should not be the reason that one of your fellow session players is late to pick up his daughter, so this is no time for finger tapping or seven-fret stretches. I call this the "Kiss You in the Morning" box because it's similar to the signature lick in Michael Ray's song of the same name.
You want the song to sound good, which means you need to sound comfortable. That's why this pattern (Ex. 1) is a great home base for your chord-based riffing. This is a segment of a diagonal major pentatonic scale that only uses your first and third fretting-hand fingers. You don't have to stretch or remember complicated patterns, and it's almost impossible to sound bad here. Place your first finger on the chord's root, which falls on either the low 6th or 5th string, and slide your third finger up two frets to access the rest of the pentatonic notes. It's a closed shape, so you can move it all over the fretboard to whatever key or chord you need, which comes in handy when you're scanning down a Nashville number-style chart in real time and having to come up with a hook or rhythmic motif.
The “All About Tonight" Box
This one is a little tougher, but more rewarding. I could do an entire session just using this box and rearranging the notes in different ways to make my melodies and textures fit the mood of the song. You can hear hints of this pattern in Blake Shelton's "All About Tonight." This is a natural extension to the previous example, but in Ex. 2 we start to introduce double-stops (playing two notes at a time). Low notes on the lower strings sound thick on their own, but as you move up the neck it's a good idea to start using double-stops if you want to keep the guitar sounding thick. In this box, your first finger is always in charge of the same fret, and your third finger oversees hammer-ons two frets higher. To play the double-stops I'm talking about, barre the 5th and 4th strings with your first finger and pick them. Then hammer on the 5th string with your third finger. Boom. You can do the same trick with different string sets.
Open for Business
You've got some lead chops built up, but somebody will be singing for 90 percent of the song, so what do you do? In keeping with our rule that we want our playing to sound comfortable, the answer is open chords. Full barre chords give you a lot of strings to keep track of, and if your dynamics, sustain, and muting aren't spot on, then the producer is going to have to hire someone to redo your parts after you leave, and that doesn't bode well for your session career.
Throw on a capo because only five keys are generally acceptable for playing guitar in a session: G, D, E, C, and A. Is the song in Db? Put a capo on the 1st fret and play in C. How about F#? Place a capo on the 2nd fret and play in E. Even if a song is in A, 95 percent of the time the acoustic guitar player will opt to play with a capo on the 2nd fret so he or she can move around comfortably in the key of G. Ex. 3 shows some of the special open chords that session players use all the time.
Wide-open chords aren't everything, though. Songs need to have structure and flow, and the band members need to be on the same page about where the song is going. If you watch a session with guitarists Derek Wells and Jerry McPherson both playing guitar, they aren't clashing. They both know how energetic the song needs to be at any given moment. Chances are you'll nail it if you play the verses a little lower in energy and the choruses a little higher in energy. You can palm-mute the lowest two strings of an open chord, or you can palm-mute a power chord, or you can palm-mute thirds that fit inside of the chord. Check out Ex. 4 for an example. Any of those routes will work to get you from the intro to the chorus. And when it comes time to do a "fill" at the end of the measure or progression, all you really need to do is unmute what you're already doing! Fish in a barrel.
My Kinda Drones
"Box" playing is great, but I'm sure you want to have more than just boxes in your toolkit. One of the best tricks for coming up with melodies that don't sound boxy is by using what I call "My Kinda Party" drone lines. The signature lick in Jason Aldean's song, "My Kinda Party," is a wonderful example of this. Come up with a melody and play the whole thing on the 2nd string. Don't get too complicated, and don't make it too fast. Make it a nursery rhyme, a simple, hummable jingle that a drunk Bonnaroo crowd could sing back to you.
To allow the 1st string to ring out as you move along the neck, you need to fret the notes on the 2nd string using the very end of your fingertips. Now pick through both the top two strings while sliding from note to note (Ex. 5). This adds thickness and texture to the melody and helps make it sound like music, so someone like super-producer Justin Niebank doesn't have to spend time adding effects to your guitar to fill out the mix. As with the open chords, make sure you have the capo in the right spot so the open 1st string fits the song's key.
The opposite of that approach is using a technique found in Luke Bryan's tune, "We Rode in Trucks." With this trick, you place the root of the chord on one of the lower three strings and build your melody on the string above it (Ex. 6). My favorite application of this is when you hammer-on to a 3, which puts your hand right in the "All About Tonight" box we talked about earlier if you need to launch into a solo. This trick can only be done if one or more of the low open strings works with the song's key, so you'll have to do some quick mental math and capo accordingly.
Swell into It
This technique is one of the physically easiest to perform, but requires some mental energy to get right. Sometimes the song needs an ambient volume swell to hold things together over chord changes, and this requires choosing your notes carefully. Let's say the progression is Em–C–G–D, with two chords per measure. Look for the notes that both chords share in each measure. Em and C both share E and G notes; G and D both share D notes.
That's the safe route, but you can also swell into notes or pairs of notes that challenge the chord a little bit and make an extension out of it. Swelling into a D over the Em and C turns them into Em7 and Cadd9, respectively, both very cool sounds. And G to D is a pretty strong chord change in this key, so you'll probably want to stick the landing and end up on chord tones here. To change things up from just a D note you can swell in a pre-bent G note and let it down to an F# when the D chord comes in. Or do the same thing, but pre-bend a B note and let it fall to an A (Ex. 7). You can nail this approach if you know your chord tones. Note: You'll need a good amount of delay and reverb to make the most of your swells. Most players do this with a volume pedal, but with the right guitar—a Strat, for example—you can also accomplish this manually.
Now that we're in the mindset of thinking about what our notes do to the chords we're playing over, adding higher extensions can introduce complexity and texture to a song. I have fond memories of sitting with a friend in high school, both of us holding acoustic guitars, and playing different triads and double-stops over each other's open chord strums—just to hear how one person's triad could affect the other person's chord.
The idea is that you'd pick notes that might not be within the basic triad and use these additions to alter the song's principle chords. If a bass player plays a C, and the acoustic guitar plays an open C chord, and the other electric guitarist plays a C power chord, but you play a B and D double-stop high on the fretboard you just made the entire band sound like a Cmaj9 chord, which is really pretty sounding. If you pick G and Bb, then you made the band sound like a C7 chord, which is bluesy and sarcastic sounding. Session players know what note extensions to add to chords, what these extensions will sound like, and when it's appropriate to use them. Ex. 8 illustrates how to use this trick over a basic progression.
On most sessions, slide is used for texture and not for Derek Trucks- or Sonny Landreth-inspired shredding, so it's mostly limited to chord tones and a couple of simple lines. It is a very cool color, though, and it's well worth learning how to navigate a melody with a slide on your pinky. Slide sounds more like a human vocal than fretted notes, so this technique can really lend itself to making memorable, catchy, singable hooks. This is part of the reason guitarist Rob McNelley is on so many records—he's able to really make slide sing. Just be very careful about not letting strings ring unless you want them to. To come up with a simple, catchy, single-note slide line that soars over the arrangement, tap into the same melody-creating brain space you used for the "My Kinda Party" example, as well as the chord knowledge required for swells and extensions. Chord tones are always safe, extensions can be really cool, and make sure you stick the landing (Ex. 9).
Dot … Dot … Dot
You made it all the way to Ex. 10, so give your brain a break and let a pedal do all the work. Delay is a powerful effect, and when you sync that delay to the song tempo, the pedal can play notes for you. If you see guitarist Justin Ostrander doing something simple, chances are there's a timed delay happening to carry the simplicity. A dotted-eighth is equal to three 16th-notes, and a dotted-eighth delay means once you play a note, that note will come around again three 16th-notes later. And if the repeats are turned up, it'll keep repeating every three 16th-notes to create a cool syncopated feel (Ex. 10).
If you play something completely straight against the syncopated pattern the delay will be creating, the delay fills in the notes between what you're playing and makes an otherwise boring figure sound incredibly interesting. To make this trick work, you'll need a delay with programmable or tap tempo. For best results, tap the tempo for quarter-notes, play eighth-notes, and have the delay set for dotted-eighth-notes.
These guitarists stay mostly out of the spotlight, but with the growing world of media they are starting to get a little more exposure with great programs like Premier Guitar's Rig Rundown with Kenny Greenberg (shown below) or Zac Childs' Truetone Lounge episode with Derek Wells.
Videos like these let you inside the world of the pro session player, and are great resources for learning more from the best in the business. Next time you hear some tasty guitar on a radio hit, you'll know it's tasty for a reason and you're one step closer to being the guitarist who gets to play it.
On Antipodes, Jones’ sophomore release, she pulls out all the stops, including a rack full of incredible guitars, a New Zealand-made Weissenborn-style lap steel, a lineup of special guests including Joe Bonamassa, and an impressive combination of fingerpicking and slide techniques.
Country singer-songwriter Caroline Jones names her guitars. Her current go-to, a Collings I-35 Deluxe, is “Ruby.” Her Taylor Custom GS 12-string is named “Big Mama.” There’s a 1963 Strat on loan from her coproducer, Ric Wake, that she calls “Heaven.” And you’ll also see her with a 1961 Fender Esquire—called, “Tenny”—that also belongs to Wake.
“Ric lets me borrow his Esquire,” Jones says about using the instrument in the studio and sometimes at shows. “He is very sweet about it. What’s the point of having it sit at home on the wall? You want people to hear it. You want to play it. That’s what it’s for. I know it’s extremely valuable, but I just feel, what is the value if you can’t play it?”
Jones is a player, and from a young age she’s been on a quest to create the sounds and parts she hears in her head. That’s resulted in her learning multiple picking and slide techniques, tunings, and instruments. The Connecticut native spent time in the Gulf Coast where she collaborated with Jimmy Buffett and Zac Brown, but eventually she relocated to Nashville. In Music City, she has a rack of guitars to choose from in the studio, and she’s very picky, often choosing a specific guitar for just one melody, and then using another for an accompanying line or different part of the song.
Caroline Jones - Big Love (Fleetwood Mac Cover)
On her 2018 debut, Bare Feet, Jones played every instrument except bass and drums—and she spent weeks honing parts, layering rhythms, and doubling leads. But for her follow-up, Antipodes, which was released last November, she brought in a few Nashville pickers, like Danny Rader, Jason Roller, and Derek Wells, as well as special guests like Joe Bonamassa, Zac Brown, and Matthew Ramsey (Old Dominion). The initial sessions were recorded in Nashville, although most of the vocal and guitar overdubs were cut on the other side of the world in New Zealand (hence the name, “Antipodes,” which describes two locations on opposite sides of the earth), where Jones was living at the height of the pandemic.
Antipodes is an excellent showcase for Jones’ prodigious talent and versatility. The album features barnburners, like the twangy, chicken-picked single, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable),” and also more subtle, acoustic fingerpicked songs like “No Daylight.” She also composed two songs on a New Zealand-built, Weissenborn-style lap steel: “So Many Skies,” which features Ramsey, and the earthy and bluesy, “Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Tiffany,” featuring a somewhat restrained Bonamassa playing slide (as well as Jones on harmonica).
“Fingerpicking was the first thing that I ever learned on guitar, so it’s very natural to me. It’s probably the home of my style.”
“My now-husband wanted to get me a guitar in New Zealand to commemorate our time there,” Jones shares. “It was his idea to get the Weissenborn made by this Kiwi luthier named Paddy Burgin, and it’s beautiful. It’s made from this wood that he had sitting around for a long time. It’s really one of a kind.”
When Jones writes songs, she usually hears a version of the production in her mind that she wants to bring to life and evolve in the studio. A big part of that process also involves working with Nashville session players, who she says challenge her, and force her to up her game. “It’s extremely hard to get to that echelon of musicianship,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize that only a few musicians are playing on almost all the Nashville records, and their level of musicianship is off the charts. For you to be comparing yourself to those people is, at times, disheartening. But I think you get a realistic picture of where the bar is for musicianship, which is something I always want to hold myself to, even though I’m very far off.”
The title of Caroline Jones’ sophomore album, Antipodes, refers to two places on opposite sides of the world. The initial sessions for the record were done in Nashville, but Jones recorded most of the vocal and guitar overdubs in New Zealand.
Not that she’s that far off. The cornerstone of her right-hand work is her exceptional, yet unorthodox, fingerpicking style. She wears plastic fingerpicks on three fingers, as well as a thumbpick, which is a technique she started on banjo. It’s a style that transferred easily over to acoustic guitar, and—with a little more effort—to electric guitar as well.
“I couldn’t get any sustain or ring from my fingers,” she says. “I don’t like having long nails. I feel really dirty—although a lot of my guitar heroes have long nails or fake nails—and I just don’t like that. The picks that I use, Alaska Piks, mimic the nail. They’re not steel like banjo picks. They’re plastic, and they’re just mimicking what a long nail would be. I wear it on my ring finger—as well as my index and middle fingers—which I know is not as traditional, but I do use that finger. Fingerpicking was the first thing that I ever learned on guitar, so it’s very natural to me. It’s probably the home of my style.”
Jones also prefers fingerpicks because they have more attack, which became more important as she got deeper into country music. She uses them for chicken picking, as well as when she’s going for a cleaner, indie-type sound. Although recently, after the death of flatpicking legend Tony Rice, she’s been doing a deep dive into his catalog and figuring out those techniques.
Caroline Jones’ Gear
Caroline Jones’ main acoustic guitar is “Sweet Annie,” a Collings OM1 that she pairs with her must-have Barbera Transducer Soloist saddle pickup. “I am an acoustic-pickup freak,” says Jones.
Photo by Tyler Lord
- Collings OM1 named “Sweet Annie”
- Beard Custom Resoluxe electric named “Blaze”
- Burgin Guitars Custom Weissenborn-style
- Collings I-35 Deluxe named “Ruby”
- 1961 Fender Custom Esquire (sunburst) named “Tenny”
- 1963 Fender Stratocaster Hardtail (sunburst) named “Heaven”
- Gretsch G6120-HR Brian Setzer Hot Rod named “Loretta”
- 1947 Martin 0-18 named “Rosie”
- Martin 00-21 Kingston Trio named “Surfer Dude”
- Nechville Universal 5-String Banjo named “Starfish”
- 1958 Rickenbacker Model BD Lap Steel (1958)
- Taylor Custom GS 12-String named “Big Mama”
Strings, Picks, Slides & Capos
- D’Addario Nickel Bronze .012–.053 Regular Light Set, .013s for lower tunings (acoustic)
- Ernie Ball Super Slinky .009s or .010s (electric)
- D’Andrea custom CJ V-Resin flatpicks in Trans Aqua (equivalent shape/gauge as Fender 351 Medium)
- ProPik Metal-Plastic Thumbpick
- Alaska Pik plastic fingerpicks
- Scheerhorn Stainless Steel Bar Slide (for lap steel and resonator)Dunlop 212 Pyrex Glass Slide (electric)
- Dunlop 220 Chromed Steel Slide (electric)
- Kyser capos
- Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III
- 1964 Fender Bassman AA864 head
- 1980s Yamaha G100-210 II 100-watt 2x10
- Vox AC50CP2 50-watt 2x12
- Rivera Silent Sister 60-watt 1x12 Isolation Cabinet with two Celestion V30s
- Fishman Aura Jerry Douglas Signature Imaging Pedal
- EV-1 Volume/Expression
- Peterson StroboStomp HD Tuner
- Vertex Effects Boost
- Boss FV-500H
- Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer with XTS Mod
- Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe Compressor
- Xotic EP Booster
- Nobels ODR-1 Overdrive
- JHS Pedals Bonsai
- JHS Pedals Muffuletta 6-way Fuzz
- Klon KTR
- Electro-Harmonix POG2
- Electro-Harmonix Mod Rex Polyrhythmic Modulator
- Boss RT-20 Rotary Ensemble
- Eventide H9 Max Dark
- Strymon Mobius
- Strymon TimeLine
- Strymon BigSky
- Electro-Harmonix 1440 Stereo Looper
“Tony Rice is one of the godfathers of flatpicking,” she says. “I’m forcing myself now to learn more flatpicking because it’s a very different sound. Even if some of the patterns are very similar—or they might sound in the same family—they’re totally different skill sets.”
Jones also says there’s no shame in using a capo. It’s an important tool in her toolbox and enables her to access many guitaristic devices—like drones and harmonics—that don’t necessarily work in every key, especially when it’s in a key that sits better with her voice.
“I’ve been a capo snob in my life, as in, ‘I’m not going to use the capo, because that’s cheating,’” she says. “But then you see the best players on earth in Nashville, capo-ing up their acoustic guitars—because the open voicings just sound better. I’m like, ‘If they’re doing it, then I’m allowed, too.’ In the end, it’s music. It’s about what sounds good. It’s not about forcing yourself to do the hardest thing so you can prove you can do it. It’s about what’s going to serve the song, and sometimes that means capo-ing up, or forcing yourself to learn a different voicing without a capo, or using an open tuning. There’s a reason all the guitar songs are in D and E and C and G and A. Those are the voicings that are natural to guitar. Sometimes we get a little too in our heads as guitar players and forget that we’re trying to make it sound good.”
“There’s a reason all the guitar songs are in D and E and C and G and A. Those are the voicings that are natural to guitar. Sometimes we get a little too in our heads as guitar players and forget that we’re trying to make it sound good.”
Jones often tunes her guitars down a half-step to make it easier to play in keys that work with her voice, and a lot of her songs are in F and Eb. It’s something she’s discovered that the Zac Brown Band does as well. “Their baseline is Eb,” she says. “They tune all their instruments down a half-step, just because it’s better for Zac. All their songs are either in Eb or Db or Gb, for the most part.”
As choosy as Jones may be when it comes to gear, that’s not a luxury she has when playing live, although she makes the best of it. She’s outfitted her acoustic guitars with Barbera Transducer Systems pickups, which she feels is a must when performing primarily on acoustic—which she’ll be doing as a special guest with the Zac Brown Band for most of summer 2022.
“I am an acoustic-pickup freak,” she says, “because that’s all anyone hears. The sound of your guitar matters to a certain extent, but the pickup matters a whole lot more because if you don’t have a pickup that’s doing justice to the sound, even if you have the best acoustic guitar, who cares? We really did a lot of R&D and the Barbera pickups are the latest top-of-the-line for me.”
This borrowed 1961 Esquire (nicknamed “Tenny”) is meant to be played, says Jones. The guitar belongs to her producer, Ric Wake.
Photo by Tyler Lord
She’s been forced to become a minimalist with her amps and effects as well. In the studio, her go-tos are a Fender Bassman and a 1980s-era solid-state Yamaha G100 amp that shines for clean tones, as well as an army of programmable digital pedals and transparent overdrives and boosts. But live, everything, including her acoustics, are run through a digital modeler.
“Live, we usually just recreate those sounds in the Fractal Axe-Fx,” she says. “Especially when I’m singing. When you’re trying to sing and perform and be the frontman, your energy is too scattered—for me at least—to be able to be tweaking and making sounds at the same time that I’m trying to sing and play guitar and entertain people.”
But despite her success and mastery of many different instruments, styles, and techniques, Jones, at the end of the day, still sees herself as a student. “It sometimes takes me time to find the parts and the melodies that I really love,” she says. “It’s a lot of trial and error. I’ll go home and figure out parts, usually by myself. I’m definitely not in real time like those Nashville musicians. They’re trained to come up with incredible parts in real time, and so they’re very practiced at it. For me, a lot of times, I try a lot of parts that don’t work before I find one that does. Guitar parts, especially rhythm parts, do so much for a track, and it really takes me in one direction or another. That’s what fascinates me so much about production.”
A twisted look at how to up the twang factor on your next solo.
- Develop a more intervallic approach to double-stops
- Create ear-twisting, tension-filled solos.
- Understand how to imply chords with only a few notes.
In this lesson, we are going to cover a super important and very common technique. Double-stops are one of the pillars for defining a country guitar sound. I'll break down ways to approach this technique from an intervallic standpoint. If you feel it will require too much theory, don't worry… we won't go down that rabbit hole very far.
Double-stops are simply two notes played simultaneously. The difference between those notes is defined as the intervallic relationship. The larger the difference between notes, the higher the number or interval. In the following examples I specifically started with the most common and smaller intervals: major thirds and minor thirds. Then we will work our way to fourths, fifths, and sixths.
Any interval is fair game, but I decided to go with more common voicings for these examples. When picturing the sound of intervals just think of the emotion they reflect. Major is a "happier" sound and minor is "sadder," while augmented or diminished create tension. Make sure to use your ear as much as theory to gain your desired emotion when using intervals, especially in double-stop licks. In addition to focusing on double-stops for this lesson, there will also be articulations like slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and of course, bends. Let's get to the examples.
Ex. 1 is an ascending lick using primarily major thirds. There's a little chromaticism on the front end of the lick but it's pretty much a stock bluegrass lick that ends nicely with a slide and "safe" resolution. You could easily play just the lower note and it'd be a cool lick but the double-stop fattens things up considerably. I'd use pick and middle finger on the picking hand until you get to the 3rd and 2nd strings then use ring and middle. Make it snappy and a little muted to really get that "spanky" sound.
Ex. 2 is a descending lick over a D chord that uses major thirds as a focus but we shift gears and add a tritone or b5 interval at the end for some tension. Note the articulations—I'd roll the ring finger on the fretting hand when you're on the 12th fret of the G and B double note moving to the D string.
This "thematic" lick (Ex. 3) uses the same idea and then moves up the neck to do it again. It works best over a Bm chord and uses primarily fourths throughout the lick with major thirds kicking in on the G and B strings.
Fifths have a real open sound to them, and you'll hear that in Ex. 4. As you move up to the 12th fret on the 1st string switch from your index to pinky finger while keeping the middle finger on the 2nd string. I threw in some blue notes or b5 intervals and added a bend towards the end to spice it up. Use your ring finger to make that full-step bend and then use your index for the last slide.
Ex. 5 uses both major and minor sixths. This descending lick also sneaks in an open-string idea to add some rhythm and note displacement. You end the lick on adjacent strings and play a stretched-out fingering using pinky on 7th fret of the 4th string and slide your index from the b3 to the 3 (C#).
Ex. 6 is a bluesy sounding lick over G—and this one has a double-stop bend. I'd use my ring finger to bend both notes and push them down, not up. The end of the lick has a bluesy pull-off that completes the lick quite nicely.
Here's a lick (Ex. 7) that uses an E pedal tone against an ascending double-stop line that works great as a turnaround. Make sure to time the muted note on the 4th string and you'll end this one on the B7 approached from a half-step above. This lick works great over a blues, rockabilly, or swing feel.
This lick (Ex. 8) is a cool walkdown in F. It's a rhythmic sequence that works nicely moving from a major chord to a diminished sound to a dominant chord before resolving. Here, we're going from a I chord to a Idim before hitting a V7 and then a resolution to the tonic. Any way you cut it, this functions nicely going into F.
Double-stops can fatten your sound and add tons of possibilities by creating tension and release from using different intervallic patterns. Obviously, I've only scratched the surface on the possibilities. I encourage you to find some intervals you like and experiment to find your favorite licks. It's a staple of any country player and I highly advise you to follow your ear hear and equate what you're doing to an emotion. The best players tell a story with their solos. So what's gonna be the story you tell the next chance you get a chance to rip a solo?