I immediately started getting into other great chicken pickers, including Ray Flacke, Steve Morse, James Burton, Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins and all those guys. It was kind of a backwards way in, but then rock players are always getting into stuff the backwards way—pagans!
Now, why would you want to get into chicken pickin’? Well, first of all, it’s great for blues players. That’s how you get all those snappy Albert Collins sounds. But really, no matter what style you play, the thing with chicken pickin’ is that it adds all kinds of tasty nuances to your attack. This is what separates someone from just playing “piano notes” on a fretboard and having their own personal signature stew, if you know what I mean. You play guitar—it’s gotta be greasy.
People sometimes have a hard time understanding chicken pickin’ technique at first, so this is how I generally introduce it [Ex. 1]. First, mute the A string by touching it with your index finger somewhere near the bridge pickup. Now, pluck the same string with your thumb [p] further up toward the neck. You want to hear a satisfying thud [denoted by an “X” in the tablature and notation], and you’ll have to pluck it pretty dag-blamed hard in order to get it. Next, pluck the open string with the nail of your index [i]. Repeat, build up some momentum, and next thing you know, you’ve got chicken pickin’ fricassee.
Now, try it on the A blues scale [Ex. 2] in an ascending fashion [Ex. 3]. Realize that you don’t always have to do the thud first. You can do it note-thud-note-thud instead, like this [Ex. 4]. Finally, try it in triplets, pulling off to each open string [Ex. 5]. Later, like many chicken pickers, you’ll probably graduate to using your pick in place of your thumb, and your middle finger instead of your index—the ol’ “hybrid” approach. Either is fine, but the pick/middle attack can be more rewarding because it allows you to get wide interval sweeps from one string to the next—which Steve Morse, quite depressingly for us mortals, is able to do with the pick alone. In a sense, we’re cheating by using the pick and fingers—we’re getting that fluidity without having to live with our metronome and nobody else.