Advanced: Jerry Reed’s “Breakdown” Cascade

People who only read Jerry Reed’s obits in the mainstream press might only know that Reed was a charismatic musician who branched out into acting and shared the big screen with such box office draws as Burt Reynolds and Adam Sandler. Well, this “musician” not only won three Grammy awards, he was so handy with a 6-string that he earned the ultimate seal of approval any Nashville plucker could hope for: a spot on Chet Atkins’ short list of favorite players.
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To celebrate the guitar half of Reed’s larger-than-life personality, we invited Voodoo Lab’s marketing VP James Santiago—a ferocious guitarist in his own right—to share his unique insights into one of Reed’s most dazzling licks. “Several years ago,” says Santiago, “when I was working with some of Nashville’s top studio musicians re-tracking songs for the Chet Atkins section of Line 6’s GuitarPort Online, the great session guitarist Brent Mason suggested we include a tune written by Jerry Reed. The song was ‘Jerry’s Breakdown,’ which was recorded as a duet with Atkins on Reed’s 1972 album Me & Chet. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but since Brent was so into it, everyone agreed. When it was time to record, Brent took out a nylonstring acoustic-electric—the type of guitar Reed used most often when fingerpicking—plugged directly into the console, and began warming up on the most jaw-dropping cascading openstring runs I’d ever heard. He told me that he was ‘just playing some Jerry Reed riffs,’ and I was instantly hooked. I spent the next half-hour watching him track ‘Breakdown,’ and though I was able to pick it up from him, playing it at tempo was another thing entirely. “I could play the lick with my usual hybrid pick-and-middle-finger approach, but getting it anywhere near Brent’s tempo required I drop the pick and pluck it fingerstyle with my thumb, index, and middle fingers, which is a variation on how Reed played it. While both Mason and Reed used fingerpicks—which take years to master—playing it with just your fingers works well once you’ve learned the moves. When I finally saw video of Reed playing this incredibly intricate melody, he played it faster than I’d ever heard, all while laughing and cracking jokes. I couldn’t believe it. Then again, making the complex look easy is the sign of real genius.”