Get ready for some fast, hot picking, because we’re about to take a crash course in bluegrass guitar.
Be forewarned, though: this is no sit around-the-campfire strum-fest. It’s a true guitar workout.
So grab your guitar - an acoustic is traditional, but these licks sound great on electric guitar too - and sharpen your flat-pick. We’re going to delve into the flashiest licks this side of the Appalachians. We’ll learn nine licks before we jump into a full-blown solo full of lots of great licks you can use in your own playing.
Run to the Hills
Bluegrass is a fusion of folk and country music and is usually played at a very brisk tempo. In traditional bluegrass jams, fiddle, banjo and mandolin players get most of the soloing glory, while the guitarist is typically relegated to rhythm chores and the occasional fill. But thanks to such luminaries as Doc Watson, Clarence White, Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, the guitar has become a soloing voice in many bluegrass groups.
Often referred to as the “Lester Flatt run” (Flatt was the guitarist and vocalist of the famous duo Flatt & Scruggs), FIGURE 1A represents the cornerstone of bluegrass soloing. If there were to be a first commandment of the genre, it would read “Thou shalt play this lick - or some variation of it - in every solo.”
Basically, it’s a simple run up the C major pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) with a passing b3rd (Eb) thrown in. (You might say that the b3rd puts the “blue” in bluegrass.) Practice this lick in all 12 keys and in every position on the fretboard. FIGURE 1B, a variation of FIGURE 1A, is extended over three measures and fueled by a combination of hammer-ons and slides. Many bluegrass players use legato techniques such as these in their solos.
Open-String Licks, Chromatic Runs & Banjo Rolls
Another essential element of bluegrass soloing is the open-string lick, which allows the notes of a single-note line to ring together in a cascading sound. Check out FIGURE 2A, a G Mixolydian (G-A-B-C-D-E-F) run atop a G7 chord. Similar in construction, FIGURE 2B is in a higher register and includes a bluesy b5th (Db).
The blistering A Mixolydian (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G) run in FIGURE 3A contains three open-string pull-offs and employs a passing b3rd (C) in the second bar. The Bb move in FIGURE 3B proves that open strings aren’t solely useful for sharp keys. Based on the Lester Flatt run, this figure also includes a b5th (Fb /E).
Chromatic runs abound in bluegrass soloing. But rather than being scale-oriented, as in jazz, the bluegrass versions usually involve some means of chord-tone targeting. For an example, take a look at FIGURE 4A. The D7 contains four chord tones: D (root), F# (3rd), A (5th) and C (b7th).
The first part of the phrase travels chromatically from the root (D) to the 3rd (F#). This leads to a descending 2nd-inversion D major triad (F#-D-A) and then to three short chromatic climbs: B to C, G to Ab and, in bar 2, F to F#. In FIGURE 4B, a lick in 7th position combines chromatics with pull-offs to open strings.
The banjo roll - a hybrid-picking move that emulates the sound of five-string banjo players - is another popular blue grass technique. The opening phrase of FIGURE 5 is right out of the playbook of legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs. It begins with a hammer-on from F# to G on the D string (pick), followed by an open G (middle finger) and then a move back to G, only this time played on the D string (pick).
Next comes a backward roll that starts on the B string’s D (ring finger), moves to the open G string (middle finger) and ends on the D string’s G. Finally, this one-bar phrase ends with an open G (middle finger). Before you go any farther, practice this phrase over and over again, making sure the notes ring together. Start at a slow pace and gradually increase the tempo as you become comfortable with the rolling motion. Once you’ve got the phrase down, move on to the remainder of the figure.
As in bar 1, each of the subsequent banjo rolls is based on a chord tone. In the second measure, the open G string provides an Fsus2 sound, whereas both the C and the G rolls are derived from triads. All three are examples of forward (ascending) rolls.
This barn-burning solo [FIGURE 6] is built on a 36-measure progression in the key of C. It starts with a four-bar stop-time intro, with the band hitting a quarter-note chord at the top of each measure. The groove kicks in at measure 5 (rehearsal letter A), where an eight-bar IV-I-V-I (F-C-G-C) progression is established. (This progression repeats in measures 13–20.)
Measure 21 (letter B) marks the top of the bridge, which is made from an eight-bar sequence dominant chords that modulate in 4ths (VI7-117-V7-17 [A7-D7-G7-C7]). The outro (letter C) is a recapitulation of bars 13–20, except that for the final four bars the band again goes into stop time.
The solo kicks off with a pair of banjo-roll phrases on the top three strings. The first roll is structured around a C triad; the second relies on an open D7 voicing. Next, there’s a trio of G Mixolydian-based (G-A B-C-D-E-F) open-string pull-offs over the G7 chord and a walk up the C major scale over the C chord.
In bar 5, a Lester Flatt run in the key of F and an F Mixolydian (F-G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb) phrase service the F chord. (Let the Eb and the G ring together.) C minor pentatonic (C-Eb-F-G-Bb) and C major (C-D-E-F-G A-B) scales inform measures 7–8. Then, in bar 9, another Lester Flatt run, this one in G, colors the V chord (G). A fancy double pull-off occurs at the top of bar 10, followed by a C bluegrass run and a C Mixolydian banjo roll that together negotiate the C chord in measures 11–12. Measure 13 marks the second half of section A. Notice that the moves are variations of the phrases established in measures 5–12.
Things step up a notch at the bridge, where a pair of rapid-fire pull-off phrases spill over the A7 and D7 chords in measures 21–24. A steady stream of banjo rolls - peppered liberally with pull-offs and hammer-ons - follows close in tow and sets up the outro section of the solo. Measures 29–32 contain further variations - first in F, then in C - of the Lester Flatt run, and an open-string-enhanced, hammer-on/pull-off extravaganza closes the solo with a bang.