8 Licks With Open Strings Up The Neck

8 Licks With Open Strings Up The Neck

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I know, I know. You might be saying to yourself, “Open strings up the neck!? That just means floating!” You’re not wrong, however I did avoid that word when I titled this article because ‘floating’ isn’t an agreed upon term in the flatpicking community. Some folks still call these licks ‘open string licks’ as opposed to ‘floating licks’. Even more confusing is the idea that some pickers might confuse this ‘open string floating’ with the way some people describe an unanchored pick grip as a ‘floating right hand’.

So whatever you call it, be it floating licks, open string licks, or the thing that Pat Flynn from New Grass Revival always does, that’s what this week’s article is about. As I always say, this article is by no means a complete list or methodology to how your favorite players might use open strings. Rather these licks were plucked from the account I help run on Instagram, Jazz and Grass which promises a new guitar lick everyday. These licks come from late last year when I was on a real floating kick. I’ve embedded my favorites down below and I’ve done my best to explain them.

8. Escape Notes

Floating can be used in several different contexts when you’re flatpicking. I think one of the most useful applications for those that don’t float at all is the inclusion of open strings to facilitate shifting between positions. I call these ‘escape notes’, one of my students recently said at a lesson that she thinks of them as an escape hatch to go to a new part of the neck. Let’s analyze the moments I ‘escaped’ in this lick. 

To spot these I like to look for big jumps in fret positions. A great example is the last two 8th notes in the first measure, I’m using my open E string to ascend up to my B string, 8th fret. In the end of the 2nd measure and beginning of the 3rd measure you can see me doing the reverse. I’m using my open E and B strings to get back down to play part of a G run and end the line.

You can find more about escape notes in my very first YouTube lesson and this video on New Grass Revival’s In The Middle Of The Night.

7. Consecutive Notes

One other reason you might use floating is to play a melody, this will let the open string melody notes ring out. Now I’m not playing a melody per se in this lick, but I am backstepping through some consecutive diatonic notes with the help of some crosspicking. Which would be very useful if we did want to tackle a melody. Don’t believe me? Check out the wild crosspicking in this weird version of Salt Creek I played!

If you’re wondering what’s going on here though, I’m making continual use of the E string in order to play three note groupings from the G major scale. Those groupings are G-F#-E, F#-E-D, and E-D-C. As I descend through those with a modified crosspicking approach, I end up making a backstepping pattern.

6. Pseudo-Crosspicking

So one of the other big benefits of floating is the opportunity to take advantage of, what I’m going to call, pseudo-crosspicking. The idea that even if it’s not perfectly crosspicking, I can still get in a down-down-up pick pattern to help with groupings of adjacent strings.

For instance, in the first two measures of this lick you can see multiple moments where I’ve created a small ascending string grouping. The first is A string, D string, G string. The next is D string, G string, B string. The last is G string, B string, E string. These can really create a unique flow.

5. Consecutive Notes (For C)

So in every key there is a group of consecutive notes using an open string that is particularly easy to access. This lick demonstrates twice how easy it is to play E-D-C utilizing the open E string and high fretted C note on the 5th fret of the G string. You can find those examples in measures one and three. 

Also, shout out to the escape note in the middle of the second measure that allowed me to shift up before escaping again on that open E string.

4. Escape Notes (For C)

So unlike the key of G or D, the key of C has no string tuned to the tonic or root. So we can’t escape to a real consonant sounding note. We have to work a little harder instead and use the escape notes to shift rather than resolve.

In this lick, I use the open A string in measure three to shift my hand and then my open G string as part of a melodic phrase. You could potentially escape on any string in the key of C, the open B string being arguably the most difficult to get away with.

3. Consecutive Notes (For D)

This lick makes great use of some consecutive notes for the key of D that I can use with some modified crosspicking. Take a look at the second measure. By now I’m sure you can see what’s going on there. Instead of using a fretted E note, I’m using my open E string and later in the lick, measure three, I use that same string to escape.

2. Escape Notes (For D)

In the key of D it would be quite easy to escape on a number of open strings. This lick demonstrates me using my open E string to shift (measure one), my open B string to shift (measure three), and my open D string to shift (also measure three). Believe it or note, everything else in-between is pentatonic with some minor thirds thrown in for good measure.

1. Triplets

Alright, you got me again. This is a silly way to end but I know you all like the flashy licks! 

Here’s an idea for combining your new found floating skills with some good old hammer-on triplets. Notice in the first measure, the open D string gives us time to shift and in the fourth measure, the open G string is an escape back down the neck to get back to rhythm or more picking.

Now go have fun with some open strings already!

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