One of my first YouTube bluegrass guitar lessons I ever made was called Why You’re Practicing Bluegrass Licks Wrong and it was not a good video. Mostly because you can hear the filter on my turtle’s tank running in the background the entire time; don’t worry I forgave him and didn’t turn him into guitar picks. YouTube user ‘Skip Lee’ summarized the experience brilliantly with the comment, “Every time I listen to this I have the sudden urge to pee…“
Sadly, this is not the only problem with the video. The video also spends far to long on one topic, YouTube user ‘Lance Clark’ summarizes the video brutally with this comment, “TL;DW: If you learn a lick, learn to play it in all positions on the fretboard.” You got me, it took me six minutes to say that one sentence. Luckily, that video is now three years old and I’m older, smarter, faster, and a little overweight if I’m being honest with myself but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about a few more ways you might be practicing your bluegrass guitar licks wrong.
The Bluegrass Guitar Lick
Let’s revisit that same old Tony Rice guitar lick from three years ago. This is a classic bluegrass tag lick that I talk about all the time. It was one of the first bluegrass guitar licks that I learned and still is one of the first licks I teach my students. If you don’t know it, I highly recommend you learn it.
Hopefully, we all know you can play this lick in different positions up and down the neck (if you still don’t know that, see terrible video above). With that out of the way, let’s move on to digesting the lick, breaking it down into its core components, and including those techniques into our playing. Now the first thing you might notice is that this bluegrass lick is almost entirely built from the major pentatonic scale, that is well spotted but let’s dig even deeper (don’t know the pentatonic scale? I got you.)
1. Sequencing Licks
The first thing I see, beyond the pentatonic scale is the sequencing. The first measure of our Tony Rice guitar lick is built of a scale sequence: descend four, start a note lower, descend four, start a note lower, descend four, etc. This might not be obvious because we only see two steps of the pattern. By the way, a lot of times these types of patterns are called backstepping. Let’s see what would happen if the pattern continued.
Now this is some digestion if I’ve ever seen it. We’ve taken a small part of the original guitar lick and blown it up. This shows we’re beginning to understand the core concept. There’s more work to be done though. The pattern could have been: descend three, start a note lower, descend three, start a note lower, descend three, etc. You could find a million variations of this backstepping pattern, but don’t take my word for it. Go find them yourself!
2. Blue Notes In Your Licks
Remember when I said our example bluegrass guitar lick was “ALMOST entirely built from the major pentatonic scale“? Well let’s dig into that ‘almost’ and see what comes up. The note that stands out to me is third fret on the G string. That ain’t in no G major pentatonic scale I ever seent. This is a blue note in the wild. So let’s see how Tony used it! It’s sandwiched between two other notes, the open B string and second fret on the G string. Keeping that context in mind can we improvise pentatonic lines that include that note? Think something like this:
Mmm-mm-mm, you’re digesting now. This time instead of sequencing, we’re looking at note choice. This blue note is the minor third and has a lot of flavor to it. Why not add it to phrases that are your own and not Tony’s? The important thing is to be aware of context, just because an individual note was used over a chord doesn’t mean that note always works over that chord. Think about how players get in and out of things, how they frame their ideas.
3. Bluegrass Tag Phrase Length
This one is my favorite one. Let’s think about when Tony would use this guitar lick. He tends to use it to end breaks or even songs. It is a “tag” phrase. One of the things that makes it feel that way is the phrase length. So, what if we used the same note choice but instead tried to make derivative phrases of the same length. All of my students have done this before, you should try it too. Check out the first two derivative phrases I thought of when I wrote this article:
The first line is rather linear, you can think of it as kind of an inverted version of the original lick. Whereas the second line plays with the blue note and the idea of sequencing or creating a pattern. There are an infinite number of ideas to be created here and I look forward to hearing them all. Stop playing the tired Tony Rice tag. Instead: gut it, break it down, digest it, and give me something new. This will make your bluegrass guitar licks more interesting and more personal.