** As featured in issue 53 **
So, while this series is on country guitar, I’m veering off the straight path a little into bluegrass territory. What’s great about veering off musical paths is evolving your playing and style. Modern country today uses bluegrass licks, but maybe played in a different way; say, with some compression, overdrive and/or delay. Keith Urban is one player who comes to mind who does this unapologetically. He even goes as far as playing the gango; a six string banjo tuned like a guitar on many of his songs. Most banjo traditionalists scoff at this notion, but it gets the job done; and it’s technically a different instrument. I’ve even read an interview where Dann Huff reportedly uses a bouzouki tuned like a guitar to do mandolin parts on many country songs that’s he’s been involved with. So in essence, this lesson can be for both guitar, as well as for the gango if you own one, or want to get one.
There’s a few techniques and “disciplines”, for lack of a better word that will help you get a more organic, fluid sound, but by all means, nothing is written in stone, so if you can achieve these licks and phrases using just flat picking or another way, explore that route too. In this specific lesson, we’re going to be in standard tuning on the guitar.
The first technique is a form of hybrid picking called, “the claw”, or claw hammer. It’s a form of hybrid picking but your hand is shaped in a claw-like position and you use not just your middle finger, but your ringer too, along with your flat pick. For those who use a thumb pick, it’s the same principle, but it’s now your thumb, pointer and middle finger. When you use this way of playing, you can get a sick amount of articulation and speed. It took me the good part of a month on a summer break when I changed my picking technique over to this type of hybrid picking, so if you don’t get it at once, don’t worry. It will come to you. Just keep at it!
The second technique in sounding more banjo-like, is playing ponticello on your guitar. It’s not necessary, but the tonality lends itself to sounding more percussive and brighter than playing in a regular position. Ponticello simply means, “On the bridge”. The term comes musical terminology, indicating that stringed players (usually orchestral), are to bow or pluck very near to the bridge.
When you play closer to the bridge, the string’s tension is a lot tighter. Be mindful how you attack the strings, because there is a rare chance you could break one, especially if your bridge doesn’t have high quality saddles on it.
The first thing I’m going to show you is a forward banjo roll. (See example 1) I’ve heard it also called the “down-down-up”, because of the picking technique. Basically, it’s usually a 16th note pattern. Here we’re playing a down strike with our thumb on beat one, then a hammer-on, on the 2nd 16th note. The next is another down stroke with the thumb, or pick; usually on an open string that mimics the same note as the last string played. The last 16th note in this pattern is an up-stroke or plucked with your middle finger using the hybrid technique. It’s a pretty simple, but effective pattern. This one is in the key of G.
In the same key and position, we can also play a reverse banjo roll. (See example 2) Here, we have a three, 16th note pattern being played in descending order. I’m playing a C7 chord shape, which would be the IV chord in this scenario going to an open string lick over the “I” chord, G.In the pattern, the highest string is plucked with the ring finger, the next string down with the middle finger and the bass note with pick, or thumb.
is a combo of both, forward and reverse banjo rolls with an “outside/in” approach.
I’ve heard this ascending lick, along many variations played by Martin Tallstrom, Jerry reed, Johnny Hiland, and many others. Here’s a couple of ways to go from the “I” chord in G to the “IV” chord (C).
Here’s a lick of mine inspired by Steve Trovato. It’s another ascending lick in G that goes well from the “I” to the “V” chord. It also can be played with rolls or clawed.
Remember: Take these licks slow at first to build muscle memory and dexterity in your fingers; especially if you're not used to this type of picking technique.
For more inspiration on banjo licks played on guitar, check out guitarists like Jerry Reed, Martin Tallstrom, Steve Trovato and Doug Seven, just to name a few.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time with a new country guitar lesson!