Though known for his fiery chicken pickin’, Flacke began his guitar career as a rocker. “I’m a Richie Blackmore freak,” he explains, “going back way before Deep Purple. I was 17, gigging at an American army base in France, when I saw my first country band. These were GIs, not pros, but they played songs like ‘Hello Walls’ [Faron Young’s 1961 Number 1 hit written by Willie Nelson], and I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, this is different. Maybe there’s something to it.’ I suppose Roy Nichols, Merle Haggard’s lead guitarist, was my first country Tele influence. In England, I saw Albert Lee playing with Heads Hands & Feet—not a traditional country band by any stretch—but Albert was playing what he plays now. Later, when I was doing the country pub circuit in England, he used to come and sit in with us. That was inspiring. Blackmore would be the first to tell you how great Albert was in London, even back then. Albert was influenced by Jimmy Bryant, who had that speed.”
One of Flacke’s signature moves involves fretting intervals on the bass strings while stretching the third string toward the floor. “I think of it as pulling a note, like a pedal steel,” says Flacke. Executing a pull bend involves contracting your fretting-hand muscles to draw your 1st or 2nd finger closer to your palm. Contrast this with a typical blues bend, in which you push the string up toward the ceiling.
“Pulling the third string away from the bass notes lets them keep ringing against the bend,” details Flacke, as he picks Ex. 1, a moody progression in dropped-D tuning. In bar 1, the bend raises E to F#, creating a 2-to-3 shift relative to the underlying D chord. Be sure to hold the bend for two full beats against the sustaining sixth, fifth, and fourth strings. Bar 2’s bend is much quicker: Bend up to F# and release it to E, creating a 2-to-root shift against E7. The two-stage, root-2-b3 bend in bar 3 is cosmic. First pull E to F#, then up to G to create a rich Em7/D harmony. Though Flacke uses his 1st finger for both bends, you may want to plant your 2nd finger on the 9th fret and use your 1st and 2nd fingers to pull the third string a total of three frets.
“Here’s another set of ‘pull-bend’ voicings [Ex. 2],” says Flacke. “Try slipping these into a song intro.” The 3-4-3 and 5-6-5 shifts for D and A7, respectively, are classic pedal-steel moves. The sequential bends in bar 3 sound monstrous, but are actually fairly easy to play once you understand the maneuver. Here’s the trick: First bend into D from C#, then, after releasing, slide into D to set up the subsequent whole-step bend. Use your 1st finger to fret all six notes. “I just pluck the third string once,” Flacke adds, “and coax the bends and releases from that single attack.”
Flacke uses a hybrid picking technique, attacking the strings using a flatpick and two fingers. “I play everything this way,” he explains. “I use the pick for downstrokes and play upstrokes with my middle [m] and ring [a] fingers. Once you get the hang of it, you can rip through double-stops like this [Ex. 3]. It creates a tight, punchy sound.”
In this example, palm mute the flatpicked open strings to create a percussive thunk, and vigorously yank the double-stops for a snappy twang. Notice how the notes are grouped: The recurring pick-fingers-slide attacks set up an elliptical three-against-four rhythm Flacke often uses for his stuttering riffs. “Start slowly,” he advises, “and try to feel the train-like beat. To my ears, country guitar is very staccato. It should spit at you. You get this effect by alternating between muted and ringing sounds at high speed. Over time, the muting becomes instinctive.”
Ex. 4 expands on the surging double-stop concept, applying it to a V-IV-I progression in the key of A. Bars 3 and 4 are drawn from one of Flacke’s uptempo tunes, “Double-Stop Me If You Can.” The double-stops spell out an A7 chord (A, C#, E, and G, or 1, 3, 5, b7). “Those half-step slides into the chord tones make them funky,” states Flacke.
A hybrid attack and fretting-hand muting are crucial to Flacke’s chicken pickin’ solos. “You get the clucking sound by fretting selected notes only halfway,” he says, tearing through Ex. 5. “Those first, Jimi-style ascending bends [beats 1-3] get three attacks. I’m hitting the third string with the pick and then following with a pair of semi-fretted notes plucked with the ring and middle fingers. It creates a galloping rhythm.”
Bar 2’s opening double-stop bend happens quickly, whereas the quarter-bend on beat three is comparatively lazy. Use a 1st-finger partial barre to fret both the stationary note (second string) and the quarter bend (third string). Pull the bend toward your feet with a slight twisting motion. For Flacke-approved snap, carefully follow the picking hand notation across both measures.
“I love playing triplets on two strings using a pick, ring-, and middle-finger pattern,” says Flacke, as he digs into the sputtering Ex. 6. “The sound jumps out more than with traditional alternate picking, and you get three different timbres in each set of triplets.”
This whining phrase in the key of A outlines a I-bVII-IV-I progression—a country mainstay. The ending A-Asus4-A move in bar 4 is especially sweet. Hit the third string once and let it sustain as you wrangle the sus4 bend and release.
“I’ve come to realize how fundamentally simple my playing is,” reveals Flacke. “You can ’t get much more basic than playing thirds. But to add some excitement, I’ll insert an open-string pull-off like this [Ex. 7]. Played fast, it really gets a listener’s attention. I nicked the idea from Blackmore, and I think he got it from Albert.”
Embellished with pulls and slides, the major and minor thirds (D-F#, E-G, F#-A, etc.) ascend along the fifth and fourth strings, one interval of a third per quarter-note. Once you get rolling, your fretting hand provides every other attack. Sneaky!
When it comes to string bending, Flacke has numerous tricks up his sleeve. Ex. 8 opens with a cool pre-bend and release reminiscent of Roy Nichols and Clarence White. The edgy major second dissonance (C#-B) quickly gives way to more consonant bends of sixths and thirds, but the strong sense of tension and release persists throughout the example. “You develop an intuitive sense for this,” says Flacke. “With a good balance of tension and release, the line just feels right.”
Chimey Open Strings
No country guitar lesson would be complete without a few rippling banjo rolls. “Here’s something from a tune of mine called ‘Long Gone,’’’ says Flacke, plucking Ex. 9. “It’s a great workout for strengthening your attack and developing finger independence.”
As you work through the chimey arpeggios and reverse banjo rolls, notice where the accents fall within the stream of eighth-notes. They create a 3+3+3+3+2 rhythmic subdivision spanning two bars, which you’ll clearly hear when you dig in.
Ex. 10 is the final flourish from “Chasing the Moonlight,” a recent and yet unrecorded neo-classical Flacke composition. “I wrote the piece with the idea of Yngwie Malmsteen recording it,” reveals Flacke. “It’s a challenge for me to play, but I’m sure he could manage it easily.”
The trick with this phrase is to keep both the open strings and fretted notes ringing as long as possible, so that tones overlap to create layers of tangy major and minor seconds. As indicated by the fermata sign (bar 2 , beat four), pause and let the low F# sustain for a moment. If you’re nimble, you’ll still have the open D and A strings ringing along with the F# to create a rumbling first-inversion D triad. “The goal is to sound like a piano,” says Flacke.
Twangy Tone Tips
“I’m a gear minimalist,” Flacke confesses. “I believe you get the best tone from a guitar, cable, and amp. I don’t even use reverb onstage—there’s enough ambience in a room to make a Tele sound great. When you add reverb to room ambience, it’s like, ‘Is there a guitarist up there?’ But I do add reverb to the headphones in the studio because it’s a bit too dry without it.
“When students say they’re having trouble with their tone, I tell them, ‘Dump your pedals, pal, let me hear you coming out of the speakers.’ Then I hand them my guitar, which has pretty high action, and they’re amazed when—boing!—it just rings. If your sound isn’t happening, jack up your action just a quarter turn every month—do it gradually and you won’t feel the pain—and put on some thicker strings. Give yourself some tone to work with. But the real secret? Remember that country guitar—with its fast runs, staccato attack, and wild bends—is fun to play.” g
To watch Ray Flacke explain his trademark techniques and perform with a crack studio band, check out Country Telecaster Virtuosity—a dynamite instructional DVD from Homespun Video. For details on Flacke’s private lessons, visit rayflacke.com.