Guitar Lesson: Use Bluegrass Flatpicking to Add Excitement to Your Accompaniments
When you’re playing rhythm, you may sometimes wish for a second guitarist to add riffs and fills on top and keep things interesting. But you can actually accomplish that goal even without an extra pair of hands—by interspersing short lead lines with chords to create the impression of more than one instrument. That’s what you’ll practice in this lesson.
You can apply a similar strategy of mixing rhythm and lead to any style of music, but the focus here is on bluegrass, in which guitarists often punctuate their rhythm parts with flatpicking fills like the classic Lester Flatt G run. The specific example used in this lesson is the traditional song “Mama Don’t Allow,” which follows a typical I–IV–V chord progression in the chord progression arranged here in the key of G. Naturally, the verse shown in Example 1 is about Mama not allowing guitar picking. (Feel free to make up your own verses with other prohibited activities.)
Like most songs, “Mama Don’t Allow” has breaks in the vocal—in measures 3–4, 7–8, and 15–16. Those are the best places to play fills, as indicated by the markers in the notation for Fill 1, 2, and 3. No matter how cool they may be, lead licks that stomp over the vocal melody can be a real distraction or even a nuisance. The guitar’s job is to support and enhance, not compete. So a good rule of thumb is to keep the rhythm simple and minimal under the vocal—mostly stripped-down chords and bass notes—and then during pauses in the vocal, add fills here and there. Think of it as a call and response between the vocal and the lead guitar.
The guitar part in Example 1 sticks to bass notes and strums but still incorporates this element of call and response. While singing, you play only one bass note and two strums per measure, but in the fill measures, thicken the rhythm with eighth-note strums—a quick up-down-up as shown. At the end of Fill 2, add the third fret on the first string (turning the D to Dsus4) to anticipate the change back to G. Try playing these fill strums a little louder, too, then quieting down again while you sing. In a moment when the singer is, in effect, backing off the mic, the guitar is stepping up for a little accent.
Now work on adding single-note fills, starting with Example 2a, which you could use in the slots for either Fill 1 or Fill 3, over a G chord. At the end of measure 1, play two single notes instead of a strum, then follow with an open G note on beat 1 of measure 2 before resuming the strum pattern. Example 2b is the exact same fill except on a D chord, and could be used as Fill 2. Play these two figures as written, and also try adding an open D on the and of beat 4 in bar 1 of Example 2a and an open A on that beat in Example 2b. Even simple fills like this create a nice punctuation to the end of a line of singing.
Next, check out a couple of variations on the traditional bluegrass G run. In Example 3a, play single notes all the way through the first measure, with a quarter note on beat 4; in Example 3b, ramp up a little more with two eighth notes at the end of the first measure. When you resume strumming in the second measure of each example, play a simple half note followed by a quarter note (the remaining examples will show a few other simple variations on this strum pattern that you can mix and match with any of the single-note lines). Again, in “Mama Don’t Allow,” you could use these two-measure patterns for Fill 1 or 3. In Examples 3c and 3d, play the same runs on a D chord—you could use either for Fill 2. In this case, you have to jump up to the fourth string to play the root.
Notice that the G run is essentially outlining a G chord shape: you climb from a low G (the root) up to B (the third) and D (the fifth) on the way to G an octave higher. All the notes in the chord are present, which is why a single line like this can easily substitute for playing the chord.
The next example shows another variation on the G run that reverses direction a couple of times. In Example 4a, slide your index finger at the end of the first measure from the first to the second fret—that makes it easier to fall back into the G chord fingering with the first and second strings fretted. In Example 4b, on a D chord, the jump from the sixth string up to the fourth may feel a little abrupt, so Example 4c shows an alternative: play the run up an octave, on the fourth and third strings. This isn’t note for note the same as Example 4b—the run is adapted to take advantage of the D on the open fourth string.
Go back to “Mama Don’t Allow” and try subbing in these fills in whatever order you like. You certainly don’t need to play a fill every time the vocal pauses, but adding them periodically can help hold a listener’s interest.
ADD THE BLUE NOTES
The next examples bring out the blue in bluegrass by incorporating the flatted seventh and flatted third—aka the blue notes (along with the flatted fifth). Examples 5a (on G) and 5b (on D) both start on an offbeat—the and after 1—and hit the flatted seventh (F on a G chord, C on a D chord). In Examples 5c and 5d, play the flatted third as well (Bb on a G chord, Fn on a D chord). Example 5d is up on the third and fourth strings, rather than in the lower octave, because the bluesy bend of the Fn works better on the fourth string than on the sixth (where Fn would be on the first fret).
You may notice that some of these fills start with the root of the chord (Example 5d, for instance, opens with a D note), while others, like Example 5c, do not. The question of whether to play the root at or near the beginning of a fill depends on the context. Fill 1 happens in a spot in the song when you’re staying on the same chord as in previous measures, so the harmony is well established and you don’t really need to hit the root again. By contrast, Fill 2 and Fill 3 happen right where the chord changes, so playing the root of the new chord helps to mark the change in harmony.
Examples 6a and 6b continue in a bluesy vein. In Example 6a, on the last beat of measure 2, play an F# on the sixth string—this suggests a quick flip to a D chord before continuing on G. Example 6b also uses that F# on the sixth string; if you were playing this as Fill 3, the ascending bass line would help launch you back to the G that follows in the next measure.
All of the fills you’ve played so far have included at least a chord strum or two, but you don’t have to play any chords at all. You can keep playing single-line fills for the full two measures, as in Examples 7a and 7b. Both of these examples open with a fiddle-style doubling of an open string with a fretted note; do a quick slide up to the fifth fret on the fourth string in Example 7a, and on the fifth string in Example 7b. Then continue with single notes for the remainder of the fill.
FILLS ON OTHER CHORDS
There’s lots of fun to be had on G and D chords, but of course you’ll want to be able to play fills on other chords as well. So in the remaining examples, play bluegrass-inspired fills similar to what you’ve practiced above but on other chords.
Example 8a is on a C chord and is nearly the same as Example 5a moved up a string. In Example 8b, walk up to the C shape on the sixth string and then the fifth. Examples 9a and 9b are on an A chord; using a barre fingering for A (first finger holding down three strings) makes it much easier to play fills and transition quickly to the chord. Finally, Examples 10a and 10b are on an E chord, and 10b gets extra bluesy with the flatted third, fifth, and seventh—perfect for a tune like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
While the fills in this lesson definitely connect to bluegrass tradition, the underlying ideas apply to any genre. Use fills at moments when you won’t distract from other things happening in a song, vocally or instrumentally. Stay close to the chord shapes you’re using so you can seamlessly switch between lead fills and rhythm. When you’re using single lines, play roots and other chord tones to reinforce the harmony—your listeners won’t even realize that, for a few bars at least, no one is on rhythm guitar.
This lesson is excerpted from Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers’ book Beyond Strumming, available at store.acousticguitar.com.