Hot Tele Pickin’

July 14, 2008

If you want to start a long, controversial, and irresolvable argument, assemble a group of guitarists and lob this one into their midst: “What is the quintessential rock guitar?” Then step back and watch the fireworks as people stump for the Strat, lobby for the Les Paul, and vie for the V. Opinions will vary, but if you ask that same group what the best guitar is for hot country pickin’, there will be unity and head nodding all around. It’s the Fender Telecaster, of course. In fact, the Tele is the only guitar that not only spawned its own adjective—twang—but also an entire, bona fide genre: hot Tele pickin’, the wild style popularized by Jimmy Bryant, James Burton, Albert Lee, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, Vince Gill, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, and other twang titans.

Weapon of Mass Construction

Launched in fits and starts under previous incarnations, the Telecaster we know today came into production in 1950. It is the world’s oldest production solidbody and was the first truly mass-produced guitar, having a bandsaw-cut slab body, drop-in electronics, and a separate, bolt-on neck. Leo Fender’s modular approach to guitar making allowed the parts to be made separately, coming together at the assembly line—just as Henry Ford had done with the automobile. Mix-and-match components also made for easier repairs and replacements.

The affordability of a mass-produced electric guitar enabled the Telecaster to find its way into the hands of all sorts of working musicians, ensuring it a solid place within the playing community, even during periods when other notable guitar models were threatened with extinction. And though refinements have crept in, the Telecaster’s basic design has remained unchanged since its inception.

Part of what gives the Tele its unique sound is the pickup configuration: It has two single-coils, as different in construction as they are in looks. The neck pickup is encased in a chrome cover, while the bridge pickup is exposed. Because the pickups are widely spaced—and because the bridge pickup is angled toward the saddles to accentuate the high frequencies— dramatically different tones are produced, making it suitable for everything from mellow jazz to crispy country. The bridge pickup has extra windings, increasing its output and further sharpening its already bright and cutting tone. As a solidbody, the Telecaster also resists feedback—which was undesirable in any form before the British Invasion—and so made for a very practical instrument to have on the bandstand.

The Tele also emerged as the ideal country lead guitar because of simple physics: Compared to, say, a 24.75"-scale Gibson, the 25.5"-scale Tele has slightly stiffer strings, making it better suited for twang. Why? Because if two strings of the same gauge are tightened to produce the same pitch, the one with the longer scale length will have higher tension. Tighter strings produce sharper notes that decay faster, thus making them that much more suited for rat-tat-tat flatpicking and lickety-split chicken pickin’. And compared to a typical Stratocaster, the Tele has at least one more trick up its sleeve: a fixed bridge, which adds sustain and allows for perfect string-bending intonation. This stability is critical in an oblique bend, where one note is bent while another is held stationary. (On floating vibrato systems, the unbent string drifts flat as you bend the other string.)

In the early and classic rock eras, guitar models weren’t so tightly coupled to music styles, and you found jazz, country, blues, and R&B players all donning Teles. But gradually, the Tele became the weapon of choice in country, though the twangy plank also made its mark on other genres, thanks to help from Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Andy Summers, Prince, and other Tele-totin’ badasses.

Twang On!

Example 1 starts this lesson off with a good low-note workout that draws its mojo from open strings droning against unison fretted notes à la Vince Gill and Albert Lee. Dig the half-step bend from F to F# in the third complete bar—Tele players like to bend on the low strings too, not just on the high strings.

Inspired by session ace and super-picker Brent Mason, Ex. 2 opens with a bluegrass-like run-up to a bluesy lick, which then, in bar 2, chromatically weaves its way up to bar 3’s oblique bend involving the first and second strings. What’s interesting about this bend is that after the second string is pushed up a whole-step to B (by the 3rd finger) and allowed to ring while a higher note sounds, it is re-struck (and of beat two), but with a twist—it’s been allowed to slip a half-step. One beat later, it’s been fully released back to its original pitch. Slippery!

Hot country playing goes with the Telecaster the way barbecue sauce goes with spare ribs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other guitar models that suit the style nicely. Albert Lee is one of the best known hot Tele pickers, and these days he’s playing a three-pickup Ernie Ball Music Man Albert Lee signature model.

In the Heads, Hands & Feet recordings, where Lee first made his mark as a Tele terror, Lee seamlessly combines so many techniques, it’s hard to list them all. He plays rapid-fire alternate-picked lines all over the neck, handling position shifts and steel-like bends with aplomb. When you hear Lee’s facile fretboard mastery, you may be tempted to put on ultra-light strings, as he was known for doing. Just remember that even though Lee told GP in March 1998, “I found it easier in the old days when I used a .008-.038 set,” he also shared that “lighter strings didn’t seem to work on certain guitars, so I gradually upped the gauges. I’ve been using the same gauge on all my electrics: .009, .012, .015, .026, .032, .040.”

Example 3 shows two of Albert Lee’s trademark double-stop licks, both bluesy and bend-y. Bar 1 features the oblique flavor of a double-stop bend, and bar 2 mixes up a few types of double-stop moves, including a double-stop pull-off (beat one), an oblique hammer-on (and of beat three), and a descending slide (and of beat four). It also covers a wide area of the neck (from 9th position down to 4th and back up to 6th), which is another thing Lee pulls off with grace and zeal.

The term chicken pickin’ has two meanings these days. It can either refer to fast, banjo-style fingerpicking or the percussive, string-muted strikes that imitate a chick-en’s clucking. Ex. 4 features a must-know descending approach over the V7 chord (E7 in A). Perhaps the trickiest move is going from the sweep-picked muted arpeggiated triplets (second complete bar, beat four) directly into an alternate-picked triplet on a single string at the downbeat of the next bar. A pre-bend lick on beat three of bar 3 keeps things from sounding too cliché.

Example 5 is purpose-built to emulate a pedal steel. The bent note on beat one of the opening measure is milked for three full beats before the line moves on to D (beat four). In bar 2, a series of short, one-beat oblique bends occur. Bar 3 projects the V chord’s harmony, and the capper is the closing grip in the last bar: an oblique move featuring two stationary notes on the highest two strings and the bend occurring on the third string. Extra credit: Apply a volume-knob roll (you’d have to pre-roll it down at the previous beat—which is why that beat is marked staccato) and then roll it up starting just after the pick strike.

Some of the sweetest Tele sounds ever were recorded by James Burton, who has played with Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. For all the developments and improvements Burton has seen in the electric guitar, he still finds the versatility he needs right within the controls of the Tele. “I’ve found through all these years of playing on records that you don’t really need a lot of guitars to do a lot of different things,” Burton said in the January 2006 GP. “Back in the old days we used a lot of treble, and the original Tele was very bright—you could cut a tree down with the lead pickup. That was the Buck Owens sound, and I used it on some of the Merle Haggard stuff we did in the ’60s and ’70s. But if I didn’t want that real edgy sound, I’d roll the tone control back a little. I’d still get the brightness, but not that real high, piercing sound. Plus, I could switch back and forth between the pickups, and I still had the tone knob to adjust the highs and lows. That worked really well for me because, depending on whose record I was playing on, I didn’t always want that same edgy sound.”

Example 6 is a bluesy double-stop riff that has elements of Burton’s rockabilly rhythm approach. You could use this in a rhythm setting or as part of a lead break. The lick in bar 2 sounds a lot like Chuck Berry, but being that it has a twangy, oblique quality in places, it’s a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll—just like the great James Burton.

Because it’s not too demanding on the picking-hand fingers, Ex. 7 is a good way to break into hybrid pick-and-fingers technique, the approach that allows you to seamlessly shift from fingerpicked patterns to alternate-picked single-note lines—but only after you’ve cultivated the use of your middle and ring fingers as plucking digits.

Roy Buchanan was known for his pinch harmonics (as is his blues-rock counterpart Billy Gibbons) and for his expressive bending—in particular, reverse bends [Ex. 8] in which he’d pre-bend a note, pick it, and then release the bend. This trick creates the illusion of bending downward, an effect that’s otherwise impossible to do on a hardtail guitar. Though it’s not notated in this phrase, if you like, let the pitches overlap (i.e., let ’em ring) and you’ll hear a series of oblique reverse bends.

If Albert Lee and James Burton were hard to tag for exactly one talent, Danny Gatton was just plain uncategorizable, period. The ridiculously gifted Tele wrangler played blues, rock, country, and slide (he was better with a beer bottle than most players are with a fancy store-bought slide) with equal ease, and he could swing hard over jazz changes. “I’m sort of a curator of guitar styles,” said Gatton in the March ’89 GP. “I appreciate Link Wray playing ‘Rumble’ as much as I do Les Paul playing ‘How High the Moon,’ in the same way that an artist could appreciate a rock painting as opposed to a Van Gogh. They’re all art forms, whether they’re crude or advanced, and in order to appreciate them or re-create them, you have to put some study into them to figure out where the person was who did it.”

Gatton had a wonderfully sophisticated harmonic sense that he brought to a down-home groove, and Ex. 9’s V7 walkdown in the key of C (starting on G7) invokes shades of his lap steel playing as well as his ap-proach to chord voicings. This is a useful, all-purpose chord maneuver, so, for maximum versatility, transpose the first two bars to the second, third, and fourth strings.

Example 10 is a “super hybrid” lick, and can be played very quickly, because there’s relatively little fretting-hand movement. This particular hybrid passage melodically intersperses fretted notes with open strings, creating a cascade effect often referred to as “harp style” guitar. Look at the tab and notice that the lowest notes of each two- and three-note sequence should be picked; the higher ones plucked with the middle and ring fingers, respectively. An interesting property of this four-bar lick is that it’s entirely pentatonic—in this case G major pentatonic. As your theory wheels turn at the implications of this, you quickly realize (don’t you?) that this could therefore be played over an E minor progression or even an E blues. This is one of my favorite Tele-pickin’ hybrid licks, and you can find almost unlimited uses for it. Enjoy!

Jon Chappell is the author of Great Country Riffs for Guitar, Vols I & II [Cherry Lane].

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