Simply Complex Lines

I’m constantly trying to make difficult guitar parts sound simple and vice-versa. I’ve always been fascinated by the ringing, harp-like scales and licks that hot-rod country players like Albert Lee and Jerry Donahue can peel off with such apparent ease. Sure—they can make them look and sound easy, but all the crazy chromaticism and slick open strings they throw in make those licks seem really, really intimidating to me.

I once asked Jerry, “Can’t you just apply that technique to a simple major scale?” What he showed me was still way over my head, but it got me to explore those great sounds that incorporate open strings and fretted notes all ringing together—like leaning on the sustain pedal of a piano. That ultimately led to Ex. 1. If you look at the notation, it’s nothing more than a C major scale. If you look closely at the tab and the fingerings, however, you’ll see that it’s no ordinary C scale. Why would anyone work so hard to play the most basic of lines, you ask? Because, if you work at it and pay close attention to the fingerings, you’ll have an absolutely head-spinning lick. Here’s how you do it: Place your 2nd finger on the 8th-fret C and your 1st finger on the 7th-fret e next to it—on the e and A strings, respectively. Now pick the C followed by the open D and then the fretted e. All three strings should be ringing together (arch your fretting-hand fingers throughout to allow as many strings to ring as possible). The concept of finding your next-highest note on the next-lowest string might feel very strange at first, but it’s a key part of getting these harp sounds. Keep going by fretting the F with your third finger then tagging the open G. Now your first finger is freed up to play the A at the D string’s 7th fret. With the four low strings still ringing, hit the open B string and then reach up with your 4th finger to play a C at the 10th fret of the D string. See how cool this is? Keep ascending through the next octave with this rule in mind: Let all strings ring as long as possible by repositioning your fingers at the last possible instant, especially for the highest notes where we no longer have open strings to cover for us.

Take a look at Ex. 2. Here we have another staple, the humble em pentatonic scale. But you’ve never heard it played like this. Keep your fretting-hand fingers arched and slowly go through it. This example follows an easy pattern after the second note: open A followed by the 7th-fret B on the E string, open D followed by a 7th-fret E on the A string, open G followed by a 7th-fret A on the D string, and so on. The only change is when we add an F#. Pay strict attention to the fretting-hand fingerings or you won’t get the full ringitude and sustainification that these licks bring.

Ex. 3 employs an A Mixolydian mode and makes a righteous intro or breakdown in a song with A, F#m, and G chords.

More things to keep in mind: Most hot country players will use a hybrid picking approach for these licks, flatpicking the lower notes and using their middle and ring fingers for the higher strings. That’s a great technique, but I also love the way these lines sound when played fingerstyle, or exclusively with a flatpick.

And remember—as you’re getting your feet wet with this concept, don’t feel like you need to play these scales in their entirety. You can pick one bar from each example and you’ll have a great sounding lick that you could easily base a whole song on. So get to it! Simplicity never sounded so complicated and complexity has never been so simple.