Play Some Badass TV Guitar!

Jesse Gress teaches you how to play some cool guitar riffs from current television shows.

The golden age of television was a goldmine for guitar music, from moody noir-guitar and twangy spy themes (Danger, Peter Gunn, and Secret Agent) to serious sci-fi and campy fantasy (The Twilight Zone and Batman), Westerns (Bonanza), and comedies (The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and The Monkees). Many of today’s most popular shows continue to follow this tradition, with guitar-centric themes and incidental music cues, as well as actual song excerpts, but it’s the new wave of reality shows on A&E, Nat Geo, History, Food Network, and others that are breaking new ground. The genre has spawned a new breed of TV composer, who instead of scoring to the picture, licenses music from an extensive library of pre-recorded cues and themes in every imaginable style. You may even hear some of the same cues on different shows.

Front and center amongst the pack is the History Channel’s hugely successful Pawn Stars series, which follows the in-store and in-the-field exploits of the extended Harrison family—Rick, Big Hoss, and the Old Man, plus the always loveable Chumlee—who run the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. (Fact: The shop has scored a few 6-string prizes over the years, including Mary Ford’s white Gibson Les Paul/SG Custom and British session great Vic Flick’s Olympic White Fender Stratocaster.)

Now in its fifth year, Pawn Stars features tons of badass guitar music courtesy of Jingle Punks, a music licensing house and cooperative co-founded by Dan Demole and “Jingle” Jared Gutstadt in 2008, and the sheer abundance of guitar-heavy cues and to-die-for tones makes every show a virtual cornucopia of modern styles and sounds. (Could there be a cooler job?) It’s nice work if you can get it, so let’s investigate how to go about creating convincing and satisfying musical snippets in any style in four bars or less.


The show’s original opening theme (Ex. 1a) is a raucous, Zep-like, start-and-stop affair—the pickup and bar 1’s rhythm motif recall “The Ocean”—laced with Example 1b and 1c’s gritty lead fills (labeled “Fill 1” and “Fill 2”) inserted between the repeats of bars 1 and 2. Note how each oblique unison bend in Fill 2 receives different rhythmic phrasing, giving the lick a totally authentic, raggedy rock vibe. Embellish the three Bb5F5 hits in bar 3 with the Gtr. 2’s country bends (labeled “Fill 3” in Ex. 1d), and then tack on Bar 4’s skranky Bb5C5G5 ending phrase to complete the picture.

The chugging, Billy Gibbons-style riff notated in Ex. 2a frequently appears as “bumper” music used to frame the multiple- choice quiz that appears onscreen prior to commercial breaks. Designed for flexibility in filling different time allotments, this figure can be repeated as often as necessary—two or three times is typical— and then appended with either one of the endings shown in Ex. 2b. Watch the show and you’ll also hear a version that cuts out bar 2 of Ex. 2a on any given repeat.


More proto-metal Zep-isms that could easily fit into Sabbath and Purple oeuvres abound in the pair of E-based cue-style snippets featured in Examples 3a and 3b, which feature power chords and hammered single-notes within the same phrase, and funky root-to-b7 syncopations. Moving to G, Ex. 3c rocks an ascending G pentatonic scale with two different endings, and you’ll find Ex. 3d adaptable to both heavy metal and swampy blues. (Tip: Try it with a slide.)



Blues riffs also weigh heavily in the show’s sonic smorgasbord. Ex. 4a quotes an SRVstyle, medium-tempo shuffle in E, while Ex. 4b presents a classic, slow-blues move enhanced with a double-stop bend. Both occur in open-E position. The swampy A-based moves in Ex. 4c work equally well with or without a slide, and Ex. 4d’s funky wah inflections pay obvious homage to Jimi. (Tip: Rock the pedal in quarter-notes.)


With music sourced from the same company as Pawn Stars, History’s American Pickers, which follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they scour the country for farm-fresh Americana and rusty gold, runs a close second for rockin’-est reality-show guitars, especially during its first few seasons. The show’s original opening theme segues from the crusty Grand-Funk-meets- B.T.O. riff shown in Ex. 5a to the Zep-style, single-note, E-based modulation arranged in octaves in Ex. 5b. The spectre of AC/DC also looms large in the Pickers’ ambience, as evidenced in both Ex. 6a’s swaggering I-V power chords, and the skeletal, hybrid-picked, staccato-eighth-note intervals that outline E5-A5-D5-A5 in Ex. 6b.

Similarly, Ex. 6c depicts rocking combination of E and A power chords and low-register single notes, while Ex. 6d inserts a dramatic quarter-rest— another favorite Zeppelin technique—into a swampy, D-based cue. (Tip: End any cue with a I-chord, whole-note hit.)


Many Pickers cues are multi-functional. For instance, the drone-y, open-A-based figure shown in Ex. 7a has footings in both hard-rock and power-pop camps. On one hand, it’s a Zep-ish rocker (think “Heartbreaker” just after Page’s a cappella solo), and on the other, it can be cleaned up for poppier circumstances simply by reducing the gain factor. Similarly, Ex. 7b can convincingly function in both Delta blues and Monkees-flavored bubble-gum contexts. (Think “Last Train to Clarksville.”) But the show’s stylistic diversity doesn’t end there…


Ex. 8a delves into early-’60s Dick Dale territory. Try adding a slow, half-step whammy-bar dip and release to Gtr. 2’s Em chord starting on beat three of bar 1, and ending on the downbeat of bar 2. Ex. 8b is another multi-purpose riff. This time, we’re jumping all over the neck with full barre chords in 6/4 to create a frantic figure that could easily serve as punk or power pop. Go for a juicy AC30/Brit sound. And of course, given the show’s rootsy premise, you’ll also find lots of cascading country licks like the one in Ex. 8c liberally sprinkled throughout many episodes. (Tip: Try it with hybrid picking.)


Both Pawn Stars and American Pickers feature an abundance of muscular, Who-style cues. Ex. 9a shows how to channel your inner Townshend by referencing a classic riff and simply displacing its rhythm—back, in this case— by a single eighth-note. (Tip: Move it ahead one eighth-note for the big reveal.) Ex. 9b is reminiscent of P.T.’s Live at Leeds-era improvisational power-chord solos, and the syncopated A-Asus4-A-G-D figure in Ex. 9c seems to be a logical extension of the same idea, so try matching their tempos and playing them in sequence. Finally, the bombastic E-based riff illustrated in Ex. 9d crosses into Humble Pie territory while still retaining all of its Who-some grandeur.


OK, it’s a critically acclaimed drama, not a reality show, but I’d certainly be remiss for not including TV’s ultimate badass guitar theme in this piece. Ex. 10 presents composer Dave Porter’s stark and beautifully foreboding opening theme from AMC’s now-historic hit series, Breaking Bad.

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Grab an acoustic and slide bar of choice, drop your low E down to D, and lay into Ex. 10, imbuing each chord with as much passion and grace as you can muster. Pay close attention to the details, especially those even glissandi and gradually widening vibratos, and you’ll be rewarded with the kind of sensual riff you’ll want to play over and over again. Simplicity has never sounded so badass!