Merle Haggard’s right-hand guitar man for years was the late, great Roy Nichols (1932-2001), a teen prodigy whom Haggard first idolized from afar. Nichols was a multifaceted jazz and country player who brought his progressive playing into a straight-ahead country-rock setting, and he’s considered one of the founders of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound,” which, along with Merle Haggard and the Strangers, includes Buck Owens, Don Rich, Dwight Yoakam, and Brad Paisley.
Though Haggard’s music has often been pretty meat ’n’ potatoes as far as chords and grooves are concerned, you never quite knew what to expect from his lead guitar player. The Tele-twanging Nichols would rip out reverse bends, bluegrass flatpicking runs, bendy steel licks, and fluid swing-jazz arpeggios—all in the context of a I-IV-V country song.
One of Haggard’s biggest hits was “Mama Tried,” a typically Haggard-esque hard-luck song that includes the line “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole/No one could teach me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried.” The opening lick (reprised just before the guitar solo) is a great example of Nichols’ innovative playing. He drops in a bluesy stop-time reverse-bend phrase that leads into a ’grassy open-string vamp just before taking off into the single-note solo.
The example here captures that spirit, including the opening reverse bend. As with all reverse bends, you have to pre-bend the string to the desired pitch (in this case, a whole-step above the sounded note) before striking it. Doing this successfully—meaning, getting the note perfectly in tune—is a combination of feel and visuals. You have to “learn” through trial and error what the correct tension of the bent string is.
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