12 Traditional Bluegrass Licks for Today

12 Traditional Bluegrass Licks for Today

Picture of Mike Riedman

Mike Riedman

In the current world of bluegrass music we see tons of players who are stellar at their instruments, and of course Marcel looks at these players and their work regularly on YouTube. Modern bluegrass guitar players, specifically, play lead and are pros at improvisation. But lead bluegrass guitar wasn’t always as common as it is now.

Hey, I’m Mike. I’m obsessed with first generation bluegrass and help Marcel with a lot of behind the scenes work on his website. I wanted to spend some time talking about essential traditional bluegrass guitar licks that Marcel’s been helping me learn and incorporate into my playing. First generation bluegrass guitar breaks were the exception, not the rule for many years. As bluegrass guitar has evolved through the decades, it seems we hear less and less of the first generation guitar licks and language. Let’s jump in and explore some early flatpicking lines and keep that language alive.

Example 1

Source: Bill Napier – Black Mountain Rag
Key: G

In this rendition of Black Mountain Rag, Bill Napier plays a versatile lick that’s best played at high speed. It can be played on the D string or the G string for use over the corresponding chord. For example, in the B part of Ralph’s Banjo Special as performed by James Stiltner he first plays the lick over the 5 chord then over the 1 chord then over the 5 chord and so on. If you’re moving from chord to chord the last two notes of this two measure lick may need to be adjusted to best transition.

This one is an example of pattern based thinking our first generation players use to navigate the fretboard at high speed. We’ll see more of this in other licks.

Example 2

Jack Cooke – I’ve Always Been a Rambler
Bill Napier – Mountain Dew
Bill Napier – Over in the Gloryland
Key: G

Here we see what is essentially a modified G run that includes a walk up the low E string. You’ll recognize this technique with several first generation players like Jack Cooke and Bill Napier. Remember, this lick has a pick-up, so if you’re used to starting your G-run on beat one of a measure you’ll need to start this lick earlier for it to lay correctly. We hear this lick most often at the midpoint of a break.

You’ll also see that this lick has a repeated note on the A string. This isn’t something that we normally see in modern flatpicked lines but we see quite often in first generation players. Watch out for this in future licks!

Example 3

Source: Bill Napier – Mountain Dew (Second Break) 
Key: G

This is a great lick that you can use as a turnaround over the 1-5-1 change. With practice, you can work this up to be pretty quick, but be sure to abide by the proper pick stroke directions. As mentioned before, you can see this lick is pattern based and includes repeated notes. Our fret choice on the D and G strings is identical (3-2-0) and the G string and the D string are both repeated at different points. However, unlike lick number one this lick utilizes blue notes, specifically the minor third and dominant seventh.

Example 4

Source: (Nearly every traditional guitar break…)
George Shuffler – Long Journey Home
George Shuffler – Pig in a Pen
Larry Sparks – Long Journey Home 
Key: G

Here we have a great, essential, and easy-to-learn lick. It’s also an example of pattern based thinking. It’s a lick used over the 5 chord as you come back to the 1 chord at the end of the song. I’ve heard people use it in fiddle tunes but in my listening experience it is much more common at the end of traditional guitar breaks over vocal tunes.

If you shift this lick back one string you can use the same fingering and play it out of the key of D. Even if all you can do is G, C, or D runs, you can throw this lick in at the end to make it sound like you know what you are doing.

Example 5

Source: George Shuffler – Riding That Midnight Train
Key: G

If you have a hard driving song with a melody walking up to the D, (think songs like Riding on the Midnight Train, Lonesome Road Blues, My Little Girl in Tennessee) this is a great lick to kick into your break. This example is our first lick that makes use of double stops, which is a classic first generation way to make more noise and fill more space in the competitive soundscape of bluegrass around a single condenser.

Example 6

Don Reno – Redwing
James Stiltner – Redwing
Key: G

This is an example of using the open, third, and fifth frets on the high E, B and G strings. You get a lot of mileage out of this technique. It’s worth noting that the same pattern is repeated on the E, B, and G strings in this example but we couldn’t  find a first generation source for someone using these all in a row as suggested. Normally they’re used one at a time.

Example 7

Source: Bill Napier – Mountain Dew
Key: G

To me, this is a first generation “Tony Rice lick”. It makes use of both the flat fifth and dirty third. It’s surprising to hear first generation players get so close to the hot licks sound that was innovated by players in the 60’s like Tony Rice and Clarence White. Despite the similarity in the note choice, players like Tony Rice pioneered a much smoother picking style, whereas proto-hot style licks in first generation players appear much more staccato.

Notice that both blue notes serve as leading tones into chord tones. The flat five resolves upwards to the fifth and the minor third resolves upwards to the major third.

Example 8

Source: (Classic Doc Watson Tag)
Key: C

If you’re playing in the key of C this is a fantastic lick to utilize. Doc Watson used it everywhere in his work but you’ll frequently hear it at the end of his breaks. This lick has found new life in the hands of modern players like Billy Strings.

This could be one of the most varied licks presented in this collection. We’ve presented a bare-bones interpretation but a quick look through Doc Watson’s catalog will reveal many other interpretations. Unlike a lot of the other licks included this one was never “lost to time”, most likely due to the longevity of Doc Watson’s recording and performance career.

Example 9

Source: Keith Whitley – Rock Bottom
Key: G

It’s a classic move to play over D going back to the G. It’s usually used in the middle of a break rather than the end. This works over an A chord, going to D, then finally moving on to G. You’ll notice in the written example notated, both possible chord changes.

Try playing this lick and then immediately moving on to one of the many G licks.

Example 10

George Shuffler – Nobody’s Business
Don Reno – Freight Train Boogie 
Key: G

There are two versions of this lick worth including. Both have a massive octave displacement but one is another proto-hot lick while the other is more of a major pentatonic lick.

The bluesy minor pentatonic version comes from a live version of George Shuffler playing Nobody’s Business with the Stanley Brothers while the major version serves as the kick for Freight Train Boogie as performed by Don Reno.

Example 11

Source: Dave McLaughlin – Going Back to Old Virginia
Key: C

A modern first generation player may seem like a typo but Dave McLaughlin is highly proficient in this style. He is also well known as the mandolinist from the legendary Johnson Mountain Boys.

This lick is a creative variation of a C run that is best played at high speed.

Example 12

Source: Dave McLaughlin – Going Back to Old Virginia
Key: G

Let’s get one more from Dave McLaughlin; this lick will not only close out this article, but is a great way to close out any break in G. You’ll notice this lick does extend the form of the break. Leading to the addition of extra measures of G before the vocalist enters again. It’s often called a trail-off. Trail-offs became popular after Bill Monroe’s fiddle players began over-playing during breaks to give the lead vocalist enough time to recenter in front of the shared condenser.

You will notice that we pulled many of these licks from a relatively small set of songs. It was less common back in the day for lead guitar to be featured, so guitar breaks were fewer and farther between. 

Listening to these songs in their entirety is a worthwhile endeavor. Each of these tunes provides a masterclass in first generation flatpicking! It’s especially interesting and educational to pick up on the difference between the styles of the early practitioners. Together, early players innovated the use of guitar in bluegrass and developed a wealth of licks and devices for the guitar to keep up with the rest of the band. For continued study, check out these players:

Important First Generation Guitarists:

  • George Shuffler
  • Don Reno
  • Bill Napier
  • Jack Cooke

Modern Day Practitioners of the First Generation Style:

  • James Stiltner
  • David McLaughlin
  • Kody Norris
  • Larry Sparks
  • Alex Leach

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