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In part 1, we talked about how to add fill-in licks, either behind a vocalist, or between the phrases of the melody. In Part 2, we talk about how to replace part of the melody by using licks that match the chord of the song instead.
“What song is this again?”
Let’s face facts. Great bluegrass guitar players don’t always play the melody to the song. In fact, I might go as far as to say they usually don’t play the melody to the song. In this article, we are going to break down a way of thinking about bluegrass licks to help you go from a basic melody break into something that is a more exciting to listen to and play.
What we are going to do is replace part of the melody with a lick. We can choose almost any lick, as long as the lick matches the chord that happens at that point of the song.
I’d like to show you some of the more creative ways to play major scale patterns. Every competent guitar player at some point learns scale patterns and uses them as building blocks for improvisation. There are literally countless scale patterns and countless ways to incorporate them into your playing. This lesson touches on playing all of the different interval possibilities that show up in a major scale. I chose to arrange these examples in open C position to relate them to bluegrass flatpicking. I find the guitar open position to be a worthwhile mystery to unpack. If you take the time to master scales, patterns, and licks in open position you will be able to incorporate the ideas into your existing bluegrass language. These ideas, for example, will remind you of C position fiddle tunes such as “Billy in the Lowground.”
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.
This is a three-part series on how to use licks in bluegrass songs. Part one focuses on fill-in licks, and how they can be used to add energy and style to a melody. In part two, we abandon the melody altogether and learn how licks can be used instead when they follow the chord progression. Finally, in part three, we will study how to make small changes to licks to make them fit into a song better.
Have you ever been told to learn a song in every key? It’s often talked about but rarely done. Few things can improve your knowledge of the fretboard more than working out all your favorite licks and tunes in as many keys as you can. For this article I’ve taken a simple melody version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and arranged it in literally EVERY key!
Sometimes when I play a slower song, a single-note melody can seem pretty sparse. Chord melodies are a great way to fill out a tune. Sometimes we bluegrassers might think of chord melody as a complex jazz guitar technique, but once you’ve learned the process, you’ll find that it’s not difficult to create rich-sounding chord melodies on bluegrass, country, and folk songs.
The concept of chord melody is simple: you add a chord, or sometimes just a part of the chord, to the melody of the song. In the jazz tradition, the melody is always the highest-pitched note, and I find that this practice works well for bluegrass too.
We’ll create a chord melody to the song, “The House of the Rising Sun.” This song is familiar to most, and has an interesting chord progression. You need two things: the melody under your fingertips, and knowledge of the chords. For this example, I wrote a lead sheet with both melody and chords, available here.
I’d like to share an incredible flatpicking style lick that can be used in countless songs and tunes. This is a phrase that opened up many doors for me as a flatpicking guitarist. Should you want to master this idea you will have to transpose these ideas into other keys and octaves. Each one of these variations showcases a different way of inventing the phrase. The ideas vary in length and note choice but are all based on this one idea. Once you work through the following variations I’m certain you will be able to come up with more of your own and find endless situations to use this classic phrase.
In 2015, Marcel and I were having lunch at a local pizza joint during his scheduled 45 minute mid-day break. Half-way through the meal, he blurted that he wanted to quit his full-time retail job to do music. I’ve never met someone who could convince me to take such massive leaps blindly in life, but I nodded my head and we started planning the beginnings of what would become Lessons with Marcel.
A few weeks later, we had an “exit strategy” in place and Marcel started a YouTube channel in order to establish legitimacy and networking.
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