How to play country guitar Part 5 – Putting it all together
In the final part of his intro to country guitar, Nashville sessioneer David Henricksson puts it all together with a pair of solos to master.
Image: Kevin Trimmer / Getty Images
In the very first part of this, I talked about the ingredients that I think are most essential to get into country guitar playing. There were a few examples from each of these categories: open-string licks, doublestop ideas and the use of pedal steel-inspired bends. Of course, we also discussed the importance of the hybrid picking technique. Some people think that’s the same as chicken picking, but to me they are different things. For me, hybrid picking is just the technique of playing simultaneously with a flat pick and the finger/s of your picking hand. This is used in many styles. Chicken picking is more of the percussive effect that happen when you start to add ghost notes and certain accents in your playing, and is more unique to country guitar.
However, this is a debate we could lose ourselves in quite easily, so instead let’s put everything we’ve learned together and see what we can do! To round off this series I’ve composed two solos, the first one in a more traditional style over a country shuffle. This is not too hard to play, especially if you’ve already worked your way through the rest of the material. The second solo is probably more of a challenge, it’s more of a country-rock style over a train beat – here I’m using a slightly dirtier tone. Let’s get started!
Traditional country solo over a shuffle – key of E
Bar 1-2 – E7
We’ll start this solo by outlining an E major triad pedal steel-style, bending into the third from a whole step below. Pay close attention to the articulation as the contrast between the longer notes and the staccato and muted ghost notes makes this lick come alive. In 2 bar there’s an ascending group of diatonic thirds that leads us to the next chord. As mentioned earlier in this lesson series you can try to invert the intervals and play this as diatonic sixths instead, sounds great as well! To do this you change the octave of one of the notes in each double stop, for example lowering the G♯, A and B so they’re below E, F♯ and G♯.
Bar 3-4 A7-E7
After targeting the root and third of A7 in the ascending lick that started in bar 2, we continue with a couple of ghost notes and a pedal steel move that outlines the transition back to the I chord. By releasing the bend from C♯ down to the B and keeping that high E we’re highlighting the third and fifth of A7 and fifth and root of E7. Traditional, laid back and suits very well over a country shuffle like this.
Bar 5-6 – E7
In this section we’re sticking to the pedal steel vibe and using strictly the major pentatonic scale. Well, almost at least. The very last note is a chromatic passing note leading up to our V chord in the next bar. The focus here should be to get a nice and swung timing in the bends.
Bar 7-8 – B7
Here it’s all about the use of sixths on the D and B strings. We’re sliding into the first two sets of sixths and letting the notes ring out together while adding some more intensity in bar 8 by pulling off to the open B string in a series of eighth note triplets which targets the flat seventh and fifth of the B7 chord.
Bar 9-10 – E7
Now we’re starting to add a bit more spice here; this phrase uses three open strings and combines an E7 arpeggio and the E blues scale. Sometimes it can be confusing to add open strings when you’re playing a bit higher on the fretboard. Our ears, eyes and fingers tend to not really agree with one another and it can be hard to nail the fingering. The best quick tip I can give in this specific scenario is to recognize the fact that each open string is preceded by a note one string lower, i.e. before you hit the open E you play a note on the B string and so on. It’s also a major benefit to use hybrid picking and pluck the open strings with your middle finger here. Check the details in the tabs/notation. In bar 10 there’s a major pentatonic triplet line followed by some doublestops leading us towards the IV chord, approaching the third and fifth of A7 from a half step below.
Bar 11-12 – A7-F♯7
After a few intense bars, let’s slow it down a bit again. We’re mostly outlining the A major triad but adding a half-step bend to briefly imply a sus4, this is something many pedal steel players do to add movement within a chord. They execute this with one of the foot pedals while guitar players have to use our middle finger to steal this move. Going outside of the key for a moment to the F♯7 we’re sliding into the major third and adding the root on the B string, creating a minor sixth interval. Remember how an inverted major third interval becomes a minor sixth? This is very useful when developing a vocabulary of doublestop ideas.
Bar 13-14 – E7-B7
Sliding into the fifth and third of E7 from a half step below and adding the root on the open high E string really help establishing that we’re backing into our ‘safe zone’, meaning the key of E major. To outline the transition between the I chord and V chord we use another idea stolen from pedal steel. Usually we’ve been bending the lower note in these double stops but now we’re keeping the B note on the D string while bending and releasing the 11th fret of the G string. Over the B7 chord we’re playing a short phrase that mostly emphasize the major sixth of the chord. This gives it a harmonically sweet sound, but we’re adding some edge to it by also using several ghost notes to really raise the ‘chicken’ factor.
Bar 15-16 – E7
We’re ending this solo with a descending melody (E-C♯-B-A-G♯) with the E staying on top to give it a fuller sound. You can also see a connection to what a lot of people would call ‘Hendrix-y’ rhythm playing, but these kind of ideas, essentially embellishing a major triad with notes from the major scale, works in a lot of different styles.
Country rock solo over a train beat – key of G
Bar 1-2 – G7
In this first phrase we’re using several pull offs to open strings while outlining a G7 chord. A few half step slides that approaches the major third and fifth from a half step below gives this line a nice, fluid sound with a slightly bluesy edge.
Bar 3-4 – G7
Here we move up to the fifth position and continue our use of pull offs to open strings. There are two things that add some harmonic tension in this phrase: a C major arpeggio superimposed over the G7 chord in the middle of bar 3 and the chromatically sliding minor thirds in bar 4. These double stops start on the fifth and flat seventh and hits the sharp fifth and major seventh briefly before resolving to the major third and fifth of our IV chord.
Bar 5-6 – C7
After sliding into the major third and fifth and applying some vibrato we approach the same notes by bending into the third from a whole step below. Right before resolving back to the I chord we change the fifth to the fourth (of C7) creating a half step rub between the E and F notes and release the bent G string…
Bar 7-8 – G7
…Down to the D note, now having the fifth and flat seventh ringing out together. I love using these kinds of dissonant bending ideas and resolving them to more harmonically stable intervals of the target chord. Really gives it a pedal steel vibe to my ears. Bar 7 continues with a bluesy double stop phrase and bar 8 has a simple three note pattern that repeats twice, I’m playing this without too much accents but try emphasizing the open D string for a different vibe that highlights the rhythmic displacement.
Bar 9-10 – D7
In these two bars we’re implying three different minor thirds. Why three minor triads over a dominant 7th chord? The first one is A minor and these notes (A-C-E) are essentially the fifth, flat seventh and major ninth of the D chord – creating a D9 sound. After a combined blues scale/major pentatonic phrase we start bar 8 by implying a B minor triad – hereby creating a D6 sound. Nothing too weird so far, after all both a D9 and a D6 fits within our dominant seventh/mixolydian tonality, right? But how does a B♭ minor triad fit over a D7 chord? It’s the flat sixth, major seventh and minor third of the D7 so it’s clearly not any typical mixolydian intervals in there. If we wouldn’t resolve this it would sound pretty awful (be my guest and give it a try) but as long as we continue to descend another half step and emphasize the flat seventh and ninth on the strong third beat of the bar we get away with this and it even adds quite a bit of flavour. Don’t be afraid to use chromaticism not only with single notes but also with double stops and triads!
Bar 11-12 – G7
This phrase is very similar to what we played in the beginning of this solo. What changes is that we’re adding a doublestop right at the start of bar 11 and in the next bar we’re playing two ‘banjo roll’-inspired patterns (make sure to utilise your hybrid picking here) before hitting the bend that leads us into the next 12 bar chorus.
Bar 13-16 – G7
Let’s start this chorus with some pedal steely bending ideas. Overall we’re outlining the G7 chord, the cool thing to my ears is the contrast between the smooth, legato feel in bar 13 and 15 and the more percussive chicken picking vibe that appears when we’re playing more staccato in bar 14 and 16. Make sure to work a bit extra on getting these differences to feel natural under your fingers.
Bar 17-18 – C7
After the chicken picked, doublestop bending extravaganza of the last few bars we’ll change mood and go for a longer line of singles notes with quite a bit of chromaticism. Over the course of these two bars we’re playing every note except for D♭ and A♭, in other words covering every interval except for the minor second and the minor sixth. But how come it doesn’t just sound like a random chromatic line then? The trick is to play chord tones on the strongest beats (which are the first and third beat of each bar) and this line is constructed that way with the exception of starting bar 14 on the minor third, but that is directly followed by the major third so it just gives a slight ”delayed resolution” effect.
Bar 19–20 – G7-E7
Now let’s give ourselves a second to breath, the next two bars are probably the most simple part of this solo. No bends, no chromatics, just outlining the chords with some sliding sixths on the D and B strings. Since it’s pretty easy technique wise, we’re adding some harmonic interest instead. This is the first time we’re breaking out of the I-IV-V progression in this solo since we’re adding the E7 chord, built on the sixth degree of the G major scale.
Bar 21-22 – A7-D7
Continuing with sixths on the D and B strings, we’re now also adding some pull offs to the open B string in bar 21. This phrase also has a nice rhythmic displacement since we’re repeating a descending pattern of 3 eighth notes. Transitioning into the V chord we’re sliding into the root and major third from a half step below, this is followed by a descending chromatic line going from the flat seventh to the fifth.
Bar 23-24 – G7
A classic bluegrass inspired line, mostly major pentatonic, and a pedal steel bend outlining a G major triad ends this solo in a very classic way.
And you’re done! I hope you’ll learn a bit from working through these solos, but don’t feel like it’s necessary to play them all the way through from beginning to end. You can separate the different phrases and use them in other contexts as well, the explanations should give you a good idea of how they’re constructed and where you can fit them. Also, please experiment with adding these influences in other styles of music as well. I use ideas I’ve initially taken from country guitar in other genres all the time. It’ll quite likely help you develop a more unique style as well and that shouldn’t be a bad thing, right?
About the author
David Henriksson is a Swedish guitarist that moved to Nashville in 2017. He’s played with Billboard chart-topping artists including Tracy Lawrence and Luke Combs, and has performed at legendary venues such as Grand Ole Opry House and Ryman Auditorium multiple times. In February he released his first course with TrueFire called Elektrik Blues. Learn more about David and follow at: www.linktr.ee/davidhenrikssonmusik