Mastering Coutry Guitar: brush up your country chops in this new six-part series
It’s fair to say that there is a lineage in certain guitar styles, and in each “dynasty” certain players emerge that epitomise the style of that era and influence all that follows, while still embracing the heritage of those that preceded.
Some of the styles we hear are born of artistic and creative developments and trends in musical fashion; 20 years ago you would struggle to find a player that could play two-handed over the neck while tapping rhythms out on the body of the guitar. Now they’re busking in every town centre…
Other styles are born out of necessity, the fitting of a pickup and playing single note lines developed as a need for the big band guitarist to compete on his own terms with the horn players when it came his turn to solo for a few choruses.
In the realm of country guitar, there are many categories gathered under the umbrella of that term; bluegrass, country blues, chicken pickin’, Travis style and so on.
In the first of a series of six articles, I’ll take you from the basics of the style right up to some more technically challenging pieces of music. You’ll be able to move from a country beginner to developing and mastering the structure of country guitar playing.
For the first beginner’s issue, we’ll look at the style made popular by Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family. The Carter Family made their first recordings for Ralph Peer on the Victor label in 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee. During the next 17 years, they recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and gospel hymns, all representative of America’s southeastern folklore and heritage. MasThe original Family consisted of Mother Maybelle Addington Carter (1909-1979), who played guitar and sang harmony; Sara Dougherty Carter (1898-1979), who played autoharp and sang alto lead; and Sara’s husband, Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter (d.1960), who played fiddle and sang bass.
To provide the fullest possible sound, especially for occasions when only one guitar accompanied the voices, Maybelle used a thumb pick and a single fingerpick to strum the chords while using the thumb to pick out bass and other melodic decorations.
You can see Maybelle playing here:
And a contemporary master of the style, Norman Blake:
We will approach this style in the context of a beginner’s class by using a flat-pick or plectrum rather than finger and thumb initially, as it’s relatively easy to get a good strong sound without too many tangles. There are three stages to learn in this first item: picking a bass note and then strumming a chord, using alternating bass notes, using runs to connect the bass note of one chord to another. In all cases we will use just three simple chords, G, C and D. Download the examples below.
In example one, we start with a simple “boom-chang” rhythm; the notes are played with a down-pick (the little square ‘hat’ above the notes) for the first eight bars before changing the rhythm pattern to a “boom-chang-a” where the bass note is played with a down-pick and then a down and up strum ( the V arrow means an upstroke) to drive the song along.
In example two, we alternate the bass note, as would be the style of a country band bass player flipping between the root of the chord and the fifth of the chord.
In example three we add some connecting runs between the chords to add a little more zip and zest to the changes; these require a bit more concentration and dexterity to keep the lines clean and free of clunks.
The art here in all these examples is to separate the single string you need to pick for the bass from all the other strings; to do this play really slowly at first making sure the bass note is clear and that you don’t accidentally whack another string by mistake. A medium size pick is best for this type of work.
Play through the examples at a slow metronome setting, say 70bpm and gradually increase the tempo to around 130bmp when you can play it through without any mistakes! If you are starting out on guitar, this is a fairly straightforward and rewarding style to master, and if you have been playing a while and confine yourself to strumming only, this will improve your options when performing.
Next issue we’ll look at adding melody. Till then, keep up the good work!