The tasteful application of open-string licks is a cornerstone and hallmark of polished country lead-guitar playing, right up there with chicken pickin’ and bending the strings of a Fender Telecaster.
Every great country picker, from Chet Atkins to Brad Paisley, has a cache of open-string licks that they can employ at the drop of a hat in various guitar-friendly keys (namely the ones without “sharp” or “flat” in their name).
Owing a considerable debt to the rolling banjos and cascading fiddles of bluegrass masters like Earl Scruggs and Kenny Baker, country guitar legends like James Burton and Albert Lee seamlessly wove open strings into the fabric of their technique, crafting blistering open-position runs and complexly layered melodies filled with chiming open notes.
These cool-sounding techniques have influenced many other modern country lead guitarists, such as Brent Mason and Vince Gill, who have used them to create tastefully dazzling licks of their own.
In this lesson, we’re going to dive into various approaches to harnessing open strings, including bluegrass-style 1st- and 2nd-position runs and the incorporation of open notes into patterns and shapes played past the 5th fret.
Be sure to pay attention to the fret-hand and pick-hand fingerings indicated here, many of which are essential to performing the line as intended.
Some exercises use basic flatpicking while others incorporate hybrid picking, in which certain notes are flatpicked and others are picked with the bare middle or ring finger, as indicated by the traditional Spanish abbreviations from classical guitar notation: m = middle finger, a = ring finger.
The Open Position
Before we start learning licks, let’s establish a solid foundation of open-string scale patterns, to better understand what makes the licks work musically and to give you the necessary point of reference and framework upon which to build your own country-style licks.
We’ll start with what many guitarists refer to as the “open position,” which can be loosely defined as any fretboard shape or pattern that falls within the first four frets and includes the use of open strings.
It’s the bright and sparkly timbre of the open strings, paired with the nearly-as-bright-sound of notes played within the first few frets, that creates that signature bold, “twangy” tone that is so appealing to many listeners’ ears.
Using your electric guitar’s bridge pickup with a clean-ish amp tone, some reverb, and compression is another contributing factor.
Examples 1a-e show a series of open-position major pentatonic scales in the keys of C, A, G, E, and D, using open strings wherever possible and closely overlapping the shapes of the corresponding open “cowboy chords” that are commonly associated with country music.
The five-note major pentatonic scale is a subset of the seven-note major scale, as it includes the latter’s 1st (root), 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees. (The perfect 4th and major 7th are purposely omitted.) And the corresponding major chords, or triads, represent an even smaller subset of notes, made up of just the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees.
Country lead guitar – including acoustic bluegrass and electric playing – is as much about playing around the aforementioned major pentatonic scales, by adding chromatic passing tones, in the creation of smoothly contoured and memorable lines, similar to what you would also hear in jazz and blues.
Examples 2a-e take the five major pentatonic patterns presented previously and add tones commonly used by country guitarists to embellish them: namely, the 4th and minor, or “flatted,” 7th (b7), which are derived from the Mixolydian mode (intervallically spelled 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7), and the flatted 3rd (b3) and flatted 5th (b5) “blue notes” from the minor blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7).
Each of these embellishing tones work well over another cornerstone of country music, the dominant 7th chord, which is intervallically spelled 1, 3, 5, b7.
One scale that goes particularly well with a dominant 7th chord is the aforementioned Mixolydian mode, which, as you can see, includes all of the dominant 7th chord tones. And so, the C Mixolydian mode “works” over a C7 chord, G Mixolydian with G7, and so on.
In country lead guitar, as in blues, often the trick is to use the dominant 7th chord as a framework to build your phrasing around, adding chromatic tones to provide expressive melodic tension and resolving that tension by moving to the more stable chord tones.
This type of sound is fundamental to country guitar, so you’ll be seeing it throughout the remaining exercises.
Example 3 is a thoughtfully contoured run that begins with a simple “C lick” that ascends the C major pentatonic scale (C, D, E, G, A) with the added b3, or #2, degree (D# in this case, which is the same note as Eb).
That initial one-bar phrase is typically used to end a bluegrass tune in the key of C and melodically outlines the final C chord right before the whole ensemble plays it together in unison. But the run can also be found in countless electric country guitar solos, as a keen reference to country’s bluegrass roots.
Bluegrass runs have many variations and can be played in any of the open major keys. There are numerous G runs, D runs, etc. In bar 2, we perform a pair of half-step legato finger slides on the B string, from the 3rd fret to the 4th (the notes D and D#), followed each time by the open high E string.
Pitting the open string against the fretted notes adds another half step to the chromatically ascending line and also creates an interesting tension when the open E note rings out against the fretted D#, as the two notes briefly overlap and clash.
This tension continues in bar 3, as we pivot on the B string’s D# note before sliding up to 6th position in bar 4, where we then descend what looks like an Eb major triad (Eb, G, Bb).
But we’re actually still implying a C7 sound here, with an added chromatic approach tone, D#, preceding the open high E string. The lick ends after this with a slick, pedal-steel-style oblique bend on the G and high E strings.
Although the B string is not played here, you’ll want to barre your 4th finger across the top two strings, to ensure a solid “footing” for the high C note.
Example 4 is based around an E7 chord (E, G#, B, D) and the embellished open E major pentatonic pattern from Ex. 2, additionally using notes from the parallel E Mixolydian mode (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D) and E minor blues scale (E, G, A, Bb, B, D).
The first half of the phrase is a descending pattern that incorporates the use of hammer-ons and pull-offs to and from the open high E, B, G, and D strings to frame and decorate the E7 chord sound, working our way down to the E root note on the D string’s 2nd fret.
In bar 3, we repeat a three-note grouping, sliding from the 1st fret to the 2nd on the A string (A# to B) then playing the open D string.
After this, we hammer-on from the low E string’s 3rd fret to the 4th (G to G#) then pull-off from E to D on the D string. The run concludes satisfyingly on the low E string, with a descending legato finger slide from G to F# followed by the open low E, which is picked.
Example 5 embellishes a G7 chord sound (G, B, D, F) with several chromatic inflections borrowed from the parallel G minor blues scale (G, Bb, C, Db, D, F) and G major blues scale, which is G major pentatonic with the b3 blue note added (G, A, Bb, B, D, E), plus another “outside note,” which we’ll address momentarily.
We begin by pivoting off the 5th of the chord, D, played on the B string’s 3rd fret, which alternates with higher notes on the high E string (G, F, and E). This is followed in beat 4 of bar 1 by a half-step-below approach to the D note, from the b5, Db (written here as C#, the equivalent #4, to minimize the use of accidentals).
Bar 2 starts on that same D note, then drops down to Bb (the b3) on the 3rd fret of the G string, after which we hammer-on from the open B string back up to D. After playing open high E, slide down the G string from Bb to A (3rd to 2nd fret) and pull-off to the open G note.
Bar 3 takes an interesting turn. As indicated, use your fret hand’s 1st and 3rd fingers to fret a parallel, descending minor 3rd shape on the D and A strings, as you perform a chromatically descending arpeggio pattern that includes the open G string as a ringing common tone. Start by sliding from the 4th fret to the 5th on the A string to frame G7 using the notes D, F, and G.
When you drop down a half step, you will play the notes C#, E, and G, briefly describing an A7 chord sound (A, C#, E, G).
In bar 4, we drop the two-finger shape another half step and add the 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the G string to play the notes C, Eb, and A, which imply a melancholy Cm6 sound (C, Eb, G, A).
We finish and resolve the line with an upward legato slide from A# to B on the A string (1st to 2nd fret), followed by the bright-sounding open G note. These three exercises are indicative of the kinds of licks that work well in the open position. Use them to inform your explorations in this territory.
Now it’s time to look beyond the open position. One of the most interesting and mind-blowing approaches to incorporating open strings into melodic licks and runs is the use of “cascading” open notes that ring out as you play fretted notes, bringing to mind the sound of a harp, or a piano with the sustain pedal engaged.
This approach is difficult not only because it requires looking at the fretboard in a nonlinear way, but also because, most of the time, we guitarists are trying so hard to keep strings from ringing out that it feels almost counterintuitive to just let them ring out in our melodic phrasing.
The best way to start working these ideas into your vocabulary is to integrate them into your scale routine.
Examples 6a-b depict a series of major scales – in the keys of C, G, D, and A, respectively – with a bit of a twist. Each descending pattern is played with cascading open tones replacing fretted ones wherever possible.
Notice in each one-bar example the use of hybrid picking when skipping strings, with the plectrum picking the fretted tones and the middle finger picking the open strings.
Be sure to practice these scale exercises slowly at first, making sure you let any open notes ring out as long as possible without inadvertently muting them.
After you learn these patterns, feel free to experiment with substituting open strings for fretted notes in any other scale patterns you know. Now let’s look at some licks that explore these ideas.
Example 7 uses the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) in an ascending pattern that starts out in 5th position with any available open note used.
Notice, in bar 1, the appearance of the decorative chromatic approach tone D# (A string, 6th fret), which precedes the E note at the 7th fret.
In bar 2, we hold and arpeggiate the fretted notes D and F on the G and B strings’ 7th and 6th frets, respectively, and let those notes ring with the open high E string, creating a tensely dissonant melodic cluster that resolves going into bar 3, as we let go of the F note on the B string and let the open B note ring as we slide from C to E on the G string (5th fret to 8th fret) and cap off the line by adding a high C note on the high E string’s 8th fret.
This open-string “harp” technique works particularly well when applied to arpeggio-based patterns, as demonstrated in Example 8, which is based around an E7 arpeggio.
Beginning in 7th position, we descend the arpeggio from its 5th, B, played on the 7th fret of the high E string, and proceed to move across the strings in a sort of zigzag pattern, using the open high E and B notes in place of their fretted counterparts and additionally adding the open G string as a chromatic b3-to-3 approach to the G# chord tone, played here on the 6th fret of the D string.
Sweetly framing an A7 chord sound, Example 9 is a bluesy lick that begins in 5th position. After starting on the A root note on the high E string’s 5th fret, we perform a half step pre-bend and release, from G to F#, on the 7th fret of the B string before using the open high E as a pivot tone between a pair of chromatic hammer-ons played on the G string.
In bar 2, we use the open B and G strings in a mostly chromatic sequence that leads into a shift up to 7th position, where we describe an embellished D major chord (D, F#, A) in the melody, using the chromatic approach tone and lower-neighbor, F, before F# (8th fret to 9th on the A string) to add bluesy color.
We then play octave D notes, using the open D string, before resolving to the A major chord tones A, C#, and E in bar 3.
Our final offering, Example 10, revisits the key of G and features an interesting and technically challenging hybrid picking pattern that brings both the middle and ring fingers into play, along with flatpicked downstrokes and upstrokes, to perform a one-note-per-string pattern that’s loosely based on what some refer to as a forward banjo roll.
Again, note the incorporation of ringing open strings into the line, as well as chromatic approach tones and passing tones, which lend a bluesy quality to the melody while giving it a nice, smoothly rolling contour. This is a common hybrid picking pattern employed by country guitarists.
The twist here is that we’re using our middle finger to pluck open strings throughout, and so each phrase begins with two fretted tones played on descending adjacent strings. Again, be sure to let each string ring out as you move from one grouping to the next.
Practice each of these examples slowly at first and with a metronome to ensure rhythmic accuracy. Feel free to experiment and string various runs and melodic fragments together to fit over a single chord or chord changes.
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Mainstay country guitar-playing techniques include flatpicking, fingerpicking and hybrid picking (pick-and-fingers technique); the exploitation of open strings and licks played in the “open position,” which have a characteristic “twangy” tone; and lots of string bends and finger slides.How do you practice guitar licks? ›
- Learn the Lick in Different Keys. ...
- Learn the Lick in Different Positions on the Neck. ...
- Don't Just Start the Lick on the 1st Beat. ...
- Try Different Tempos and Timings. ...
- Know What Scale the Lick is In. ...
- Practice Connecting Your Licks. ...
- sdrawkcaB kciL eht nraeL. ...
- Add Repetition to Your Licks.
Country guitar has its own unique sound that is often described as twangy, and is produced by using a variety of techniques including bending the strings, using a slide, and playing with a light touch.What are the chords for the lick? ›
To get a bit more technical, “The Lick” is played over a minor 7th chord. It starts on the root note of that chord, walking up the minor scale, before jumping down to the 7th note (in this case C) and finally resolving on the D. And that resolution is really pleasing to the human ear.What are the 3 main chords in country music? ›
The most common chords we'll be using in country music are the I, IV and V chords, which are all major chords, which are all major chords. It's not uncommon to throw in a minor VI chord for some texture or even to change the dynamic of a section.What makes the twang sound in country music? ›
In plain English, this is basically saying: Above your vocal cords is a set of membranes and cartilages that make the shape of a funnel. When you bring that cartilage in and warp the shape of the funnel to be even more horn-like, you get twang. The sound is less breathy, more clear, and louder.What makes country guitar twang? ›
The first word that gets associated with country guitar tone is twang, a word that evokes both plunky banjos and wailing steel guitars, and usually means bright, clear, and punchy. Gear wise, this means single coil pickups and clean guitar amps.What is the secret to playing guitar? ›
Consistent practice and repetition of different notes and chords can help you develop your ear, learning to correctly identify notes and patterns in your playing. Learning to play guitar becomes much easier when you are able to pick out which notes are in a song, what key that song is in, and what chords are involved.What is the difference between a riff and a lick? ›
While a riff is designed to set the vibe, a lick is used to showcase the skills of a guitarist by standing out. Unlike riffs, licks allow a guitarist to perform solos or improvise on an established melodic line of the song. While riffs go down as memorable, licks might not necessarily have the same staying power.Is it good to learn guitar licks? ›
Good licks can add magic, excitement and drama to your solos. Learning, memorizing, dissecting, rebuilding and incorporating licks into your playing is such a great investment in your guitar learning process. It will enhance, expand and upgrade your soloing in many ways. The variety of licks is infinite.
- Editor's Choice: Gibson Acoustic J-45. ...
- Deep Base: Martin HD-28. ...
- Value For The Money: Taylor 224ce-K DLX. ...
- Budget-Friendly: Yamaha FS800. ...
- Onboard Electronics: Fender Tim Armstrong Hellcat. ...
- Great For Looks And Sound: Washburn Bella Tono.
The Fender Telecaster is one of the most iconic guitars across genres but is well known for creating that signature country music sound. A telecaster is a classic and straightforward solid-body electric with two single-coil pickups.Which country made guitar is best? ›
China. China is one of the most well-known countries for guitar manufacturing. Many good quality entry-level and affordable acoustic and electric guitars are produced in Chinese factories. Popular brands which produce guitars in China include Epiphone, Squier, Ibanez, ESP, Gretsch Jackson and Yamaha.What is the secret chord? ›
The 'secret chord' is a biblical reference. David was a King from the Hebrew bible, and although we all mostly remember him for being the underdog who defeated Goliath, he was, first and foremost, a musician. So we know David played a 'secret chord', whatever that may be.What is the hardest music chord? ›
The six-string F chord is one of the hardest standard chord shape to play on the guitar. When many people try to play the F chord on guitar (and often succeed), it's with far too much struggle and effort than is actually necessary. Even extremely influential guitarists can have a hard time with barre chords.What is the formula for The Lick? ›
What are the notes to “The Lick?” To play “The Lick” starting on any note, use the following formula: 1–2–♭3–4–2–♭7–1. For example: D–E–F–G–E–C–D.What is the best country guitar tuning? ›
Nashville tuning is a popular guitar tuning that is used by many country and pop musicians. It is a variation of standard tuning, with the addition of the high E string being tuned to the same pitch as the B string. This gives the guitar a brighter, more twangy sound that is perfect for country and pop music.What country song should I learn on guitar? ›
Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver. Thank God I'm a Country Boy by John Denver. The Fightin' Side of Me by Merle Haggard. The Gambler by Kenny Rogers.What are the most used guitar chords in country music? ›
The 12 country guitar chords you'll want to focus on at first include the following: C, D, E, F, G, A, A7, B7, C7, D7, E7, and G7.What are the 3 magic chords? ›
The I, IV, and V chords are the three most common and arguably the most important harmonic elements in the musical universe. Built off of the first, fourth, and fifth notes of any major or minor scale, these three chords form the basis for much of the music found in several genres.
I, IV, V (C,F,G)
These chords are heavily used in country music. A majority of mainstream country songs will use this chord progression, whether for the verse, chorus, or bridge of their hit songs.
What key are most country songs written in? Most country songs are written in major keys like C G F Major using I IV V progressions or variations of it.What are three elements of country music? ›
For the foundation, there are three main things to look out for that characterize country music. These are the chord progression, the bridge, and the story.Who is the best country singer? ›
- Tim McGraw.
- George Strait.
- Johnny Cash.
- Garth Brooks.
- Carrie Underwood.
- Blake Shelton.
- Luke Bryan.
- Keith Urban.
Country music rose from deep and intertwined roots – from fiddle tunes and hymns and from work songs and ballads; from smoky saloons and secluded Appalachian hollows; from barrios along the southern border and the wide-open spaces of the American West.What strings are best for country twang? ›
However, many country guitarists prefer light gauge strings that are easy to bend, such as the D'Addario EXL120 or the Ernie Ball 2221. These strings have a mellower sound that is well-suited to country's twangy, often bluesy style.What effects do country guitarists use? ›
Amp reverb and tremolo/vibrato effects, particularly from Fender amps, are some of the most iconic tones ever. Some of the most famous guitar tones ever recorded have utilized those effects to a large degree.What pedals to get the country sound? ›
- Lehle Mono Active Volume Pedal. ...
- Xotic XVP-250K Volume Pedal. ...
- BOSS FV-500H Volume Pedal. ...
- Nobels ODR-1 Natural Overdrive Pedal. ...
- Danelectro Roebuck Distortion Pedal. ...
- MXR Custom Shop Timmy Overdrive Mini Pedal. ...
- Wampler Ego Compressor Pedal. ...
- MXR M102 Dyna Comp Compressor Pedal.
1. Barre chords. We promise we're not winding you up when we say that barre chords are the hardest guitar technique. The reason most guitarists can do them is because they're essential, not because they're easy.What is another word for guitar licks? ›
Single-line riffs or licks used as the basis of Western classical music pieces are called ostinatos. Contemporary jazz writers also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz.
Why is the Lick so prevalent in music? One reason is that the phrase resolves back to the root of the chord. This a very common tool of tension and release in music. Many composers will write with that idea in mind.Why are guitar licks called licks? ›
It's origins can be traced back to 1932 in reference to jazz but it's very likely it was first used in the 1920's. The word 'lick' can mean “a small amount” so it's possible it was originally used in terms of the guitar as a small amount of playing or small number of notes.Does guitar help your brain? ›
Improved Memory and Cognitive Skills
Guitar playing can improve your recollection and mental skills. Research has shown that playing an instrument can help to improve memory. For example, playing the guitar requires remembering chords, melodies, and lyrics. This helps to improve your memory and cognitive skills.
Although it is not bad to look at your hands or the guitar while you play, in the long term you do want to be able to play without looking at the guitar. One reason is that this habit may affect you negatively in a performance or other situation where lighting is not good.Does playing guitar take talent? ›
Playing the guitar requires talent and skill. Everyone has some degree of musical talent! You need to develop playing skills, no matter how talented you are. Anyone can learn to play with the right approach and enough practice.What is the highest quality guitar brand? ›
Final Thoughts. To sum it all up, the best guitar brands are Ibanez, Fender, and Gibson. The best overall option would be the Ibanez JSM100, based on its overall quality and versatility. The Fender Telecaster is our number one Fender recommendation, while from the Gibson range we would single out the ES-175.What is the No 1 best guitar? ›
Best Overall - Fender Squier Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar
Fender Squier Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar is famous for offering rich and loud sound at an affordable price.
1. The Fender Stratocaster. The Stratocaster is hands down the most famous guitar in the world, still one of the coolest and probably the most copied. First introduced in 1954 as a luxury guitar alongside the Tele, it is noted for its bright, twangy sound from its three single coil pickups.What is the most versatile guitar in the world? ›
Ask any guitarist out there about what the most versatile electric guitar is, odds are they'll say the Fender Stratocaster. It's a fair shout, for sure: the faithful Strat can apply itself gamely to pretty much every genre of music with success. People swear by them.What is the most popular guitar in the US? ›
The most popular model is the Gibson Les Paul, which comes in a variety of versions and has been in production for many years. Other famous Gibson guitars include the SG, Explorer, Flying V, ES-335, and L-5, to name a few.
The guitar was adopted as the Texas state musical instrument on June 19, 1997. It is said the guitar originated from Spain although the looks and string configuration would have been different from today's modern versions.Which country invented the guitar? ›
A plucked string instrument that was first called a guitar appeared in Spain around the turn of the fifteenth century. The instrument was actually called a vihuela, and consisted of four double-strings (paired courses).What brand sells the most guitars? ›
When it comes to market share, these are the top guitar brands in the United States as of 2023. Gibson holds the largest share at 34%, followed by Fender at 30%. Ibanez, Yamaha, Epiphone, and other brands make up the rest of the market.What is a country lick? ›
The country guitar lick played is over a G chord. The main idea here is moving down the G mixolydian scale, using the flatted third (Bb in this case). This first version uses pull-offs on the G and D strings to get both the mixolydian scale and the flat third.What scales do country guitarists use? ›
Despite the melodic complexity of their solos, country guitarists mostly rely on a few choice scales: major pentatonic, the blues scale, and the composite blues scale. The most prevalent of the three scales, major pentatonic, is a five-note scale (1–2–3–5–6) derived from the major scale (1–2–3–4–5–6–7).What is the best open tuning for country music? ›
Nashville tuning is a popular guitar tuning that is used by many country and pop musicians. It is a variation of standard tuning, with the addition of the high E string being tuned to the same pitch as the B string. This gives the guitar a brighter, more twangy sound that is perfect for country and pop music.Why are licks called licks? ›
It's origins can be traced back to 1932 in reference to jazz but it's very likely it was first used in the 1920's. The word 'lick' can mean “a small amount” so it's possible it was originally used in terms of the guitar as a small amount of playing or small number of notes.What is the purpose of the lick? ›
In popular music genres such as country, blues, jazz or rock music, a lick is "a stock pattern or phrase" consisting of a short series of notes used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment. For musicians, learning a lick is usually a form of imitation.What chords are used in Country Roads? ›
The chord progression for this song uses a G major chord, D major chord, E minor chord, and C major chord. Thankfully, we can play variations of each of these open chords with just two fingers, making this song quite easy to start playing.How long does it take to learn country guitar? ›
For someone who practices around 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week, with medium intensity, it'll take roughly 1-2 months to play beginner guitar songs, and approximately 3-6 months to confidently play intermediate and slightly more advanced songs with technical elements.
The 12 country guitar chords you'll want to focus on at first include the following: C, D, E, F, G, A, A7, B7, C7, D7, E7, and G7.What key are most country songs played in? ›
Most country songs are written in major keys like C G F Major using I IV V progressions or variations of it. Playing country progressions isn't overly complex in terms of music theory - the secret sauce is in the songwriting. Country chord progressions are fairly simple but sound great as the backbone of country music.What scale did Eddie Van Halen use? ›
Eddie Van Halen style - Van Halen-Sammy Hagar Era. Storm: This is the major pentatonic scale, a favorite note group for Eddie over major key progressions. And this is the Major Scale, laid out in a three-note-per-string pattern.