Compared to other music styles like jazz and bluegrass, country is a structurally simple genre. It usually shares the same three-chord structure as blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. When playing country music, you will use playful, open-handed picking to play chords, versus the flat-picking of individual notes of a major or pentatonic scale.
Not sure what I mean? Chet Atkins is a great example of this style. In my opinion, he’s a great role model for aspiring country guitarists.
One of my first guitar teachers emphasized the difference between impression and expression. Country guitar is one hundred percent expression. When you play country guitar, you’re not trying to show off how fast you can play a riff or pattern.
Practice Your Expression With Your Favorite Country Songs
Pick some of your favorite country songs to use for practice. If you don’t have any favorites, I suggest using a Hank Williams or Patsy Cline album (preferably a vinyl copy if you have access to one). Nothing’s more basic and friendly (as well as educational) than the old stuff. Begin by strumming a simple three-chord pattern along with the music in the key that matches. I suggest that you start with C, F, and G7th. If that doesn’t work, go up to D, G, and A7th.
Once you’ve found the right chords, hit the bottom string of each chord, strum it, and then repeat. Practice this pattern with no embellishments. Once you’re comfortable playing this, you’ll be ready to begin plucking individual notes. Country songs are played to convey emotions like love, heartache, loss, and simple pleasures like watching a sunset.
If the song is in three-four time (one two three, one two three), it helps to match each measure with a three-syllable phrase. For example, if the song is about love, repeat the phrase “I love you” to yourself and assign each syllable a separate note that supports the power of this message.
If the song is about heartache, assign the phrase “I miss you” to a set of notes. If the song is about loss, you can use a phrase like “I’m so blue.” You can express a simple pleasure, like a picnic or sunset, with a phrase like “ain’t this grand.” If the song has a different theme, feel free to make up your own phrase and repeat the process. Add an extra word when you assign phrases to songs in common (four-four) time (“I love you, dear”).
Coordinate Your Solos to Compliment The Song’s Pattern
Country solos should be mere embellishments of these three- or four-note patterns. Here’s where you get the chance to practice and develop your open-handed technique (which should be as playful-sounding as possible).
The verbal equivalent of a country guitar solo is an embellishment of a phrase. Its notes might be represent a phrase like “I love you. Yes oh yes I do. Yes oh yes I do. I want you to love me…to love me..to love me. If you do, I’ll be true. You know that I’ll be true. Take my hand (my hand my hand my hand) and love me too…and love me too.”
Every phrase comprised of words other than the original three (“yes oh yes I do. Yes oh yes I do”) should be expressed musically with an alternating thumb-and-finger pattern. You might eventually want to take these patterns a step further, and use a more involved phrase like “yes oh yes I do. You know I do. Yes oh yes I do and I’ll be true.”
For beginners who want to learn to play country guitar, I recommend Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.” It’s both slow and in three-four time. Its three-note pattern is also easy to follow, and it’s dictated by the words in the song. Patsy Cline’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (in common time) is another great song for beginners.
The message in a country song is usually simple and easy to understand. Country guitar patterns express the ups and downs we all experience in life.
Samuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!
Photo by Lunchbox LP