15 Variations on a Common Phrase

15 Variations on a Common Phrase

Picture of Mickey Abraham

Mickey Abraham

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.

Example 1: The Main Idea

We are using a C major scale to construct a lick that sounds inspired by the language of a fiddle player. This line does not sound like blues or jazz, rather it sounds like a line that is found in many bluegrass songs and fiddle tunes. One of the reasons it sounds great is because we are landing on all the C chord tones on all the down beats. The root, third, and fifth sound stable against the C chord because they are the notes in the C chord. Make sure to locate the chord tones in Ex. 1 and try to hear how they create strong landing points.

Example 2: Just a Few More Notes

Here is the same phrase with a few additional major scale notes added. Just because this example has more notes does not mean it’s better. You will find that these two first examples are interchangeable. Sometimes you will have to use the opening of Ex. 1. Playing the lick in the Key of E in the low octave for instance. In this case there is no note to dip down one fret below the root as the first couple notes of Ex. 2 demonstrate.

Example 3: With 2 Pick-Up Notes

In this example we are adding two eighth note pick-up notes. This is found in almost every bluegrass song and fiddle tune. Once again, these ideas are interchangeable. 

Example 4: Adding the famous b7th

One of the most common notes to add the major scale is the b7. The b7 will always add a bluesy spice to your major scale licks. It’s nice to know where the b7 lives on the fretboard and hear how it adds a great bluegrass sound to our major scale based fiddle lick. Take note how our lick construction is basically the same but we are just adding a slight variation to include the bluesy flatted seventh. I trust your ear when it comes to choosing to employ the b7 or not.

Example 5: Adding the Not Quite As Famous 6th

The lesser utilized and oh so sweet 6th shows up in this variation. To me, the 6th is one of the coolest notes to emphasize in a bluegrass line. The 6th is smooth and rich. This example also includes a great chromatic approach note into the 6th. It’s amazing that notes that are traditionally dissonant will sound great when used as passing tones. If you are looking for great flatpicking flavor and feel that the b7 is too bluesy I think you will like using the 6th.

Example 6: Adding a b3rd and b5th

What is important to gain from this example is how we are using the b3 and b5. These great blues notes are being used as a half step behind the 3rd and 5th. We use them to dip down and back up to the chord tones. Notice how the line sounds like our first example but now we are beginning to get that red neck jazz humor that is characteristic of great flatpicking lines.  

Example 7: Let’s See What We Have So Far 

This example combines some of the ideas we have done so far. It is important to try to combine these ideas together to see how they fit together musically. The beginning, middle, and end of the phrases can be swapped out with one another to create many other variations.

Example 8: Let’s Start on the 5th

For the first time we have an example that begins our phrase somewhere other than the root. Even though we are starting on the 5th this is still a variation of the first example.

Example 9: Let’s Start Again on the 5th and add a b7

By now I hope you are beginning to see how many ways we can play our lick.

Example 10: Lots Of Flavor 

Beginning this variation by chromatically leading up to the 6th and then using the b5th we are achieving lots of flavor but still using the original major scale based lick as our guide.

Example 11: Keep the Lick Going

What is great about this four measure phrase is how it combines many of the ideas from the first ten variations. It’s important to note that we can easily make the line longer if needed. This four measure phrase would be great over jam session tunes like “Sweet Georgia Brown” where each chord lasts for four measures.

Example 12: “Cotton Patch Rag”

This variation is from the opening line of “Cotton Patch Rag.” Notice how this line uses the b5 that we have used before. Make sure you transpose all of our examples to other keys and octaves. If you learn these ideas in F and G you will be able to play over simple tunes like  “Cotton Patch Rag” for days.

Example 13: “Cattle in the Cane”

While the opening lick of “Cattle in the Cane” is traditionally played in the key of A I have transposed the opening lick of “Cattle in the Cane” to C to fit in with our other examples. “Cattle in the Cane” is a great example of a tune that uses this style line as the melody of the tune. Can you think of any other tunes that use these lines as the melody?

Example 14: “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”

Vassar Clements’ “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” is a great jam session standard to employ some of these ideas. In fact, the A section melody is the lick over Dm and C. I have taken our original C phrase and transposed it to Dm. If you flat the 3rd and 6th you will get the minor version of the lick and it sounds great! This lesson does not go too far into converting the ideas to minor but seeing the idea over a Dm chord will certainly help you on your way.

Example 15: One More Minor Example

As you can see, our lick works great over minor chords as well. I highly recommend using this lick over an A minor chord in a bluegrass flatpicking situation.

These fifteen examples are just the beginning. To get the most out of this article you will need to spend the time learning these ideas over all the common chords used in bluegrass and fiddle tunes. Begin by trying to play the ideas in G, D, A, and F. Eventually learn them in every key but begin with the chords that show up the most. For minor chords try learning Dm, Am, and Em — this will pretty much set you up for life with at least one great idea to play over chords that will make you sound like a flatpicker. A topic for another time will be how to smoothly connect all these ideas from one chord to the next. I believe you will be able to find many places to try these ideas and they will become part of your flatpicking vocabulary.


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