A deep dive into the unique flatpicking language of the late bluegrass legend Tony Rice.
● Explore Tony Rice's unique voice on the acoustic guitar.
● Understand the basic theory of bluegrass guitar.
● Level up your phrasing with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.
In December of last year, Tony Rice passed away. He was/is my all-time favorite guitarist. Like many of his fans, my love of his playing has likely transcended obsession. In fact, at the time of writing this, I have transcribed over 100 Tony Rice solos. That puts me in a unique position to share with you not only my favorite Tony Rice licks but what I think might be Rice's favorite licks, if the frequency with which he played them is any indication.
These examples can be found in almost every Tony Rice break. They are integral to his sound and they can become part of your sound too. This comes with one small warning though: These licks are not meant to be parroted off this page. A big hallmark of this sound is to use these phrases but to vary them, and create your own versions of them. Let's remember Rice by innovating on his past achievements the same way he innovated on the achievements of the players that came before him.
How to End a Bluegrass Song
One of the most famous and enduring Tony Rice licks is this signature tag. A tag is a common way to end a bluegrass fiddle tune or vocal song, the most generic tag being the ubiquitous "shave and a haircut." In Ex.1, you can see what's called a "double" tag. The first tag ends on beat 3 of measure two, before the open 3rd string on beat 3. The remainder of the lick forms the second tag, which eventually morphs into a variation of the Lester Flatt "G run."
Rice's note choice is predominantly major pentatonic but includes an occasional b3 that always resolve down to the 2 or up to the 3. As I say to my students, "Blue notes need buddies." Playing these pairs of notes with articulations like slides and pull-offs that cross bar lines is an important part of Rice's style.
Tony Rice Ex. 1
Use Your Chords
If you're familiar with triads on the D, G, and B strings, you can turn those into bluegrass licks as well. Rice has used the triads in Ex. 2 in a handful of different and interesting ways. He's used the last two chord shapes to form the main riff for "Me and My Guitar," and employed those same shapes to punctuate the end of his "Cold on the Shoulder" kick-off. Sometimes you can see him expand this idea by using even more chord shapes to descend the neck. He would use something like Ex. 2 in a G major context but would be heavily implying G Mixolydian mode by using the F major and D minor triads.
Tony Rice Ex. 2
That One Lick
I've seen this passage referred to multiple times as "that one Tony Rice lick." He uses variations of this passage to finish breaks in "Your Love Is Like a Flower," "Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," and "Gold Rush." It serves the function of a statement piece to assert his personal voice on the instrument before handing off the spotlight to the next instrumental break or verse of a song with vocals.
As you play Ex. 3 be mindful of how you use your pinky. Every note on the 10th fret is played with the pinky, including a brief pinky barre on the 10th fret of the 3rd and 4th strings.
Tony Rice Ex. 3
This lick has been featured in recordings, but I associate it much more with Rice's live sound. Whenever Rice needs a second to think about what to play next, Ex. 4 seems to come to his fingers first. The note choice here lands firmly in the minor pentatonic camp but he manages to create a little bit of an outside sound with the third iteration of the pattern that brings in the b5 at the 6th fret of the G string.
Tony Rice Ex. 4
Have you ever been stuck up the neck improvising with no idea how to get back down to something more familiar? Me too! So, let me introduce you to escape notes. Sometimes you can find an open string that will continue your line in a linear fashion while freeing up your hand to shift down the neck. Take a look at the F, E, and D eighth-notes in the first measure of Ex. 5. Rather than playing those three notes in position, Rice is using the open 1st string so he has time to shift his hand while continuing his eighth-note line.
There are examples of Rice using variations of licks like this in "Blue Railroad Train," "A Hundred Years from Now," and "Likes of Me." You can use this in a D major context or in a G major context over a D chord.
Tony Rice Ex. 5
It can be done, and in a situation like this we're not necessarily shooting for something perfectly in tune. In Ex. 6 you can see that pulling down on the 4th string at the 3rd fret will bring the note closer to F#, the 3 of the chord, but in practice Rice usually doesn't get all the way there.
Tony Rice Ex. 6
If you asked a random flatpicker at a bluegrass festival to play a Tony Rice lick, they would probably play something like Ex. 7. These types of phrases have endless variations and demonstrate Rice's long-standing influence on bluegrass music. These licks are built from a G minor pentatonic (G–Bb–C–D–F) bone structure but always feature a pull-off from the 2nd fret to the 1st fret on the B string and a slide from 3rd to 4th fret on the G string. This pull-off and slide are great reminders that blue notes need buddies.
Tony Rice Ex. 7
Bluegrass isn't all major tunes though. There are standards in minor keys. We're talking about tunes that are actually minor—not just playing minor pentatonic licks over major chords. With that in mind, it would be wrong of me to not mention Ex. 8, one of Rice's favorite improvisational ideas to employ over minor tunes. This kind of lick is all over Rice's original compositions in minor keys and the recordings he made with David Grisman. The idea is framed in a slightly ambiguous way, so you can find Rice using it in A minor and D minor.
Tony Rice Ex. 8
It's an impossible task to completely distill Tony Rice's playing into a single lesson. I would point you to nearly any album in his discography to get the essence of modern bluegrass guitar right from the source. His touch, feel, tone, and vibe forever changed acoustic music and we all will be eternally grateful.
Essential Tony Rice Videos
Tony Rice liked to perform "Me and My Guitar" with an extended jam in the middle. Many licks from this lesson appear in his guitar break at 6:00.
Tony Rice's "Church Street Blues"
There's very little footage of Tony Rice performing his iconic interpretation of Norman Blake's "Church Street Blues." This arrangement may be one of the most difficult to replicate from Rice's catalogue.
Tony Rice's "Old Home Place"
Tony Rice performs on the definitive recordings of multiple bluegrass standards but "Old Home Place" may be the most important. JD Crowe & The New South's self-titled release is considered by many to be a near perfect bluegrass record.
Tony Rice "Shenandoah"
Most folks talk about Tony Rice's hot-style playing but his melodic chord melody approach to guitar is equally impressive. I doubt we'll ever see an accurate transcription or performance of this era of Tony Rice.