Put Open Strings to Work for You

If you adopt a global view of the fretboard to include open strings along with any of the scale/arpeggio patterns you’ve learned, you'll be rewarded with sonic treasure.
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Open strings are the first things most guitarists ever play. These are the notes we use for our tuning reference and are the basis of our initial chord vocabulary. Once we turn our attention toward navigating elsewhere around the fretboard however, less emphasis is afforded to these magical notes. This lesson is all about fingerings and the use of open strings when the opportunities arise. Where you finger a specific note or phrase can profoundly change the musical message.

Conventional wisdom tells us to chop the neck up into sections or patterns and to think within those patterns: Higher notes are located towards the bridge along a single string or towards the floor when traveling across the fretboard. That is a fine way to view the guitar and for many applications may be a good option. But if you add a more global view of the fretboard to include open strings along with any of the scale/arpeggio patterns you’ve already got beneath your fingers, you will be rewarded with a valuable sonic treasure. These examples can be played using a flat-pick, hybrid picking using the pick and fingers, or straight-up fingerstyle.

Say It with Feeling

A holistic guitar approach is great for making even the simplest melody seem profound. A few things to keep in mind when you play the following examples: Allow each note to ring the maximum amount of time, and when you play notes on different strings, let them ring over one another as much as possible. Play cleanly, in time, and with an even tone and volume note-to-note. This applies equally to fingered notes and open strings. Lastly, practice slowly. Practice slowly. Slower. Than. That. Okay then. Let’s get to it.

Play the descending D Mixolydian idea in Ex. 1a. It sounds fine, but it is no big deal. Now let’s move some notes around to maximize our open-string potential [Ex. 1b]. Take care to allow each note to ring as long as possible. Don’t move a finger from a note until you absolutely must. An overlapping of the notes is what we’re shooting for here, because it sounds way more interesting. Think Brent Mason or Johnny Hiland. When played correctly, it should sound as if the guitar were retrofitted with a piano sustain pedal.

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Let’s try a similar thing with an ascending G major scale. Ex. 2a shows a conventional three-note-per-string fingering.

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This scale offers us five opportunities to use open strings, as seen in Ex. 2b. Making this simple adjustment, the sound changes immeasurably. Now play Ex. 1b into Ex. 2b and loop them for the simple yet mesmerizing exercise in Ex. 2c. Emphasis should be placed on each note’s sound quality as opposed to the velocity of playing the notes. Even when played very slowly, the open-string magic is apparent.

The concept of Holistic Guitar is that we place our attention on the entire fretboard for possible notes choices, and not limit our focus to only those notes located immediately beneath our fingers.

Roll Thru The Cycle

Whether you’re talking about one of dozens of jazz standard based on Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” or Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag,” you’ll find sections of the song where the dominant 7 chords travel through the cycle of fifths, where each chord moves sequentially down in perfect fifths, eventually returning comfortably to the tonic. So, we’ll play two bars each of E7, A7, and D7 before getting back to our root, which is G major in this case.

Many of the coolest things we guitarists play are things we steal from other instrumentalists. The right-hand banjo roll in Ex. 2d plays into that theme and exploits the downward chromatic movement inherent to the cycle of fifths.

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Want to turn up the heat by inverting these chord voicings up the neck? No worries. Your open strings will be hanging out right where you want them. Ex. 2e maintains the exact same right-hand picking pattern as before.

Thank You, Chet!

Along with guitar luminaries like Jerry Reed and Lenny Breau, the great Chet Atkins loved the sound of cascading open-string notes in his licks and melodies. Ex. 3a is a classic open-string reverse banjo-roll-based lick that has been used time and again by the likes of Doyle Dykes and Tommy Emmanuel. Who can blame them?

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The “wrong” notes serve as “blue” notes (Bb on beat three) and chromatic movement approaching chord tones (F# and C# in beats three and four respectively). If you don’t accept that explanation, just remember this: Nearly all of the best licks contain wrong notes!

This lick can resolve not only to C major but also to G major or the relative minor or either of these chords: A minor or E minor. Four licks for the price of one!

Don’t just learn the lick, learn from the lick. The eighth-note triplet subdivision above implies a shuffle feel. What if we need a double-time straight-sixteenth lick? Ex. 3b fits the bill nicely. The fingering doesn’t feel that different from the triplet version due to the use of our banjo roll.

Throw Some Lightning Bolts

Flashy licks are fun to deploy when you want to add some excitement to your playing via sheer virtuosic prowess. By definition, these licks are easier to play than they appear to be. Here we’ll utilize our old friend, the ubiquitous Am pentatonic scale. Ex. 4a is the DNA for this lick that, once expanded across the fretboard, becomes reminiscent of Chet Atkins’ tour-de-force knuckle-buster from the fingerstyle classic “Cascade." The first finger pull-off to the open E string may take a little getting used to.

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If we move this lick across a familiar fifth position Am pentatonic box pattern we arrive at the galloping lick in Ex. 4b. Notice it’s the same six-note pattern that tumbles across the strings. A single B note has been inserted into the first sequence of six notes (second note in measure 1) to displace the time and give the line more rhythmic interest. Pull-offs are the order of the day as is making sure each note is played with even tone and volume.

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This concept is a go-to piece of vocabulary that Tommy Emmanuel uses often and effectively to build excitement during a lead break. Permutate this lick to suit different two-note-per-string scale patterns and your phaser is set to stun.

Ex. 4c adds a single note to the front and uses the b5 from an Am blues scale for some soulful mojo. Notice the similarity of the right-hand picking pattern as well as the left hand’s use of pull-offs in Examples 4b and 4c.

Ex. 4d keeps our DNA strand on a single pair of strings but introduces some nice movement within the lick to imply changing harmony. Notice the sweet diminished move up a minor third during the final measure. Play this a couple of times over and punctuate it with either of the previous two licks and listen to the crowd go wild.

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Go Out With A Bang

This final example, Ex. 5, is a tour-de-force lick worthy of closing out your show. Get those first five notes right and you’ve got it made the rest of the way via pull-offs.

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Whether you’re accompaniment for a vocalist or other soloist, keep in mind that the notes that are not physically closest to your fingers may sometimes be the juiciest choice. With a more holistic view of the guitar neck, it’s almost as if each string of the guitar were a piano keyboard looking up at us. That definitely changes the “high notes to right and low left notes to left” lay of the land. It’s fascinating how often holistic guitar makes things sound great while at the same time making them easy to play. Isn’t that all any of us really want?