How To Play Like...Dickey Betts

April 19, 2005

Betts injected the band with a healthy dose of jazz and country, and was the major architect of the Allmans’ extended in-concert improvisational forays. Protracted instrumentals such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica” showcase Betts’ stellar mastery of theme and variation.

Not content to merely race stepwise up and down scales, Betts harnessed simple phrases and expanded them hypnotically through the use of repetition, variation, and rhythmic displacement. Ex. 1—based on a repeating four-note E major pentatonic shape that would be a hackneyed rock cliché in the hands of a less inspiring guitarist—is a perfect demonstration of burn à la Betts. Using restatement, elongation, and the shifting of rhythmic accents, this and other of Betts’ cohesive leads sustain interest, build drama, and allow band mates to ad lib groovy counterpoint lines.

The Allmans were also one of the first rock bands to use modes as a launch pad for uncharted musical exploration. Ex. 2 stakes out a theme using the A Dorian mode, a favorite of Betts. Dig the original four-bar phrase and how its adaptation in measures 5-8 works in a “call and response” manner. For more inspiration from Betts, be sure to spin Eat a Peach, Brothers and Sisters, and the timeless live album At Fillmore East.

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