Rhythm: The Train Beat
The first detail we need to address is the feel of country music, the rhythm and groove that distinguishes it from blues and rock. One needs to understand that what the drums and bass are doing is every bit as important — if not more important — than the guitar. To emphasize this, all of the examples will be performed over a classic country “train beat” groove, wherein the snare drum emulates the sound of a train rolling down the tracks. This “train beat” is heard on hundreds of country tunes, from Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant’s barn-burning “Stratosphere Boogie”, to Willie Nelson’s timeless “On The Road Again.” It has also been used on numerous classic rock songs such as Cream’s “Traintime” and The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”
The Boom-Chuck Strum
Okay, we’ve got our drums. What about the bass? Luckily for us guitar players, the bass is actually incorporated into our country rhythm guitar strum, which is called a “boom-chuck” strum. Even more than the “train beat,” the “boom-chuck” is heard in practically every country song ever recorded! It has also found its way into countless songs, such as “Lookin' Out My Back Door” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Ripple” by The Grateful Dead, and “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young.
Figure 1 demonstrates a simple but essential “boom-chuck” over a I-IV-V chord progression in the key of A. The first “boom” in the strum is the root bass note played by itself. The “chuck” that follows is the top three strings of the chord strummed with a down stroke. Thus, “boom-chuck.” The next “boom” is usually the 5th of the chord, followed by the same “chuck” as before. Be sure to practice this slowly, building up speed over time.
Okay, let’s get to the fun stuff: soloing! Country guitar soloing is all about mixing major, minor and blues sounds together. As great as all those options might seem, it can be a challenge keeping track of all those notes. So where to begin? Well for starters, the A major scale; you can’t go wrong with that.
Using this scale will essentially give you a “happy” sound over our “train beat” with a “boom-chuck.” Figure 3, on the other hand, will add some grit to your playing. Figure 3 is commonly called the A “blues” scale, which is the A minor pentatonic scale with an added #4, the D#.
Practice both of these scales individually over the “train beat” and “boom-chuck” chord progression and then, once you’re comfortable with them, you can gradually start mixing them together, as in Figure 4.
This will not be as easy as it sounds but that is ultimately what you’ll have to do. Luckily there are two additional approaches you can employ to facilitate this process:
Learn to play the vocal melodies to classic country songs. This is my number one piece of advice for all guitarists: learn more melodies! In this case, since we are trying to mix major, minor and blues sounds, country vocal melodies are some of the best. I suggestion starting with some Patsy Cline recordings, such as “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson), “I Fall to Pieces”, and “Walking After Midnight”. Quite frankly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better melodies and performances than those.
Learn some classic country guitar solos. There is almost no better way to become a well-rounded guitarist than through imitation, with the understanding that you are imitating and eventually want to develop your own voice. In the meantime, mimicking the voices of Jerry Reed on “East Bound and Down”, Junior Brown on “Gotta Get Up Every Morning”, and the who’s who of country guitar on Brad Paisley’s mind-melting “Cluster Pluck”, will keep you plenty busy.
If you really want to add some country twang to your playing, I suggest you learn some pedal steel guitar licks that bend into chords. Figure 5 demonstrates three different ways to perform bends that will imply the sound of the I-IV-V chords in the key of A. Once again, practice this slowly, building up speed over time. And make sure those bends go pitch.
Finally, we need to talk tone, and I’m going to cut to the chase here. If you really want that country guitar twang, all you really need is:
- A Telecaster, with the pickup selector set in the middle position
- A clean but relatively loud amp
- A bit of slap-back delay. On a three-knob delay pedal, set the dials to: effect level between 3 and 5, feedback level between 2 and 3 (one repeat), and delay between 140 to 160ms.
While these fundamentals are a start, this lesson only scratches the surface of what country styles have to offer the rock guitarist. From here, I recommend you pick up the book “25 Great Country Guitar Solos” by Dave Rubin, which starts with a Merle Travis solo from 1951 and takes us all the way up to current players like Brad Paisley and Brent Mason. If you manage to master even a third of the solos in that book – in addition to the examples shown here – you’ll have yourself a country guitar vocabulary worthy of the Grand Ole Opry.