MILLIONS OF AMERICANS SAW AL BONHOMME accompany iconic country singer Dwight Yoakam on The Tonight Show a few years back. Similar numbers of people have also heard Bonhomme’s playing on two of Yoakam’s recent albums. The Los Angeles based guitarist’s most profound impact, though, may be on the hundreds of students he teaches each year at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. A master of many styles (“everything from country to Western,” jokes Bonhomme), the popular and never-too serious GIT instructor teaches young guitarists to land on their feet no matter what style they play. Here, Bonhomme shares ten must-know approaches every guitarist should have down if he or she harbors any dreams of being able to play that blazing style known as hot country.
Great guitar parts have been at the core of country music since cowboys first began roaming the prairies of Texas. And in this modern age of green hair, nose rings, and tattoos on your tattoos, little has changed. Any country song you hear will have acoustic guitars strumming, cool electric rhythm parts chiming, and, more often than not, a blazing guitar solo played by the likes of Brent Mason, Dan Huff, or Brad Paisley, or a similar caliber guitar slinger.
When you get a gig in a typical country bar, the song list can run the gamut from old standards to the new rockin’ sounds of today’s young artists. The guitar styles are so varied and different, you’ve got to be on top of your game to keep up. So when the bandleader gives you the nod, you want to be able to rip it up a little and turn a few heads on the dance floor. To help you out a little bit in that endeavor, here is a grab bag of hot country licks you can use to survive the night in your favorite honky tonk bar.
Ex. 1 Here is a bluegrass-stained idea in open position that you can use over an up-tempo two-beat kind of tune. Make sure your pull-offs are strong, even, and distinct. Tip: It’s okay for some of the notes to ring into each other, as this creates a satisfying dissonance. The lick can be played with a pick, or, to get a little more of that greasy clucking chicken sound on some of the notes, using a hybrid pick-and-fingers pick/pluck approach. Work this one up to breakneck speed, and use it to impress the metalheads down at your local guitar store.
Ex. 2 Any country player worth a roll of chicken wire has an arsenal of steelguitar licks at his or her disposal. One important thing that gives a steel guitar its distinctive sound is the way one note stays constant while another is bent against it. This example is your basic steel-guitar bend lick. Use your ears to check your intonation on the bends. You’ll need this move. Don’t think for a second that you can survive a night in a honky tonk without it.
Ex. 3 This is a variation on the previous steel guitar lick. Hold the first bend with your 2nd finger until it is released. In bar 2, lift your 3rd finger off the string to get the staccato ghost note. The lick can be played slowly, or at a faster chicken pickin’ pace. Ah, there simply isn’t one great melody out there that’s not worth “steeling”!
Ex. 4 Holding a lower note while bending a higher one can be a blood-curdling proposition for your fingers. In this example, use your 1st finger to bend the third string while you hold notes on the fourth and fifth strings. The last bend is done with your 2nd finger while two lower notes are held. Make sure it all stays in tune. This technique may take some getting used to. (Tip: Like all steel-inspired licks, it works best on fixed-bridge, non-trem guitars.) Also, you may have to experiment until you find a way to get the right grip on the neck. To make it sound authentic, play this line at a slower tempo, and take your time on each bend so you can squeeze every last teardrop out of it.
Ex. 5 This swampy sounding lick also makes use of your 1st finger for some funky bends. To get the most pop out of the notes, use hybrid picking, kick up the tempo, and get greasy with that chicken pickin’ sound. It sounds great on a Tele plugged into a cranked up Twin—stir up that classic tone recipe, and even the line dancers may listen to you on this one.
Ex. 6 This is your basic cascading lick in the key of G—a harp-like Gmajor pentatonic scale, in this case. The idea is to use open strings whenever you can and let the notes ring into each other whenever and as much as possible. You will likely have to lighten up on your picking-hand attack a little to avoid plucking the strings out of tune. Wanna be able to play it super fast? (Correct answer: Yes.) Then start practicing it nowusing hybrid picking.
Ex. 7 Like the previous example, this lick makes use of some cascading effects, but ups the sonic ante by injecting some dissonance. Let the open strings ring against the other notes. Work it up to a brisk tempo and use it over a two-beat feel. Don’t hurt yourself on this one!
Ex. 8 How do you like your chicken done? This lick makes use of a classic chicken pickin’ effect that I call the Pick and Roll. You pick the lower note, then roll your middle and ring fingers over the next two strings, and then you pick the low note one more time. Play the notes staccato, muting the middle note of each triplet with the 2nd finger of your fretting hand. Good news: You can play this one at a blistering tempo and actually sound like you know what you are doing!
Ex. 9 Here is another Pick and Roll idea; this time over A7. It has you rolling over various parts of an A7 (A9, to be more specific), intermingling open strings and fretted notes. You can play the notes smoothly, or with a staccato effect; over a swinging rockabilly groove or a jazzy tune.
Ex. 10 The use of double-stops—particularly the Jerry Reed-inspired swampy kind—are a natural on the guitar. They lay well on the fingerboard and add a whole new funky, harmonic dimension to the ears. As with everything you learn on the guitar, make sure you transpose ideas to different keys and registers. The idea is to learn an idea and then morph it into your own style and music. Remember, taking one lick from somebody is stealing. Taking all their licks is called research!