Tony Rice has been one of my biggest guitar heroes since I began playing music. After we lost him in December of 2020, I started going back to some of my favorite recordings that he did, while reflecting on his life and all the guitar players that he inspired with his distinctive style of playing. So I just wanted to share a few of my favorites that I’ve learned throughout the years.
On the song “Old Train,” Tony kicks things off with a solo (Example 1) and ends it in the same way. The solo doesn’t follow the vocal melody, but it clearly outlines the chord progression and is almost its own part of the song, which I love. If you’re a Tony Rice fan, you hear three notes of this solo and you know it’s “Old Train.”
In addition to being one of the most influential lead guitar players, Tony was also such an incredible rhythm player. When you talk to people who have played with him, they often mention how it’s hard to find anyone else who really locked everyone together in the way that he did. I love listening to a duet he did with Ricky Skaggs, “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow,” because you can hear his guitar so clearly. It’s only guitar, voice, and mandolin on the track and you can hear how much space Tony leaves; he’s really playing pretty sparsely, filling in around the vocal lines, but leaving a lot of room for the mandolin as well.
When the mandolin comes in, Tony starts with a strum, which is really common in bluegrass music, and he does a classic boom-chuck style of rhythm playing (Example 2). He really focuses on those bass notes, leaving a lot of space for the mandolin chop on beats two and four to be heard, and he plays some more punchy strumming patterns that break away from boom-chuck, coming up in dynamics to full in the spaces between vocal lines (Example 3).
If you’re a bluegrass guitar player, you may have heard people talk about the four-finger G chord, which includes a third-fret D, rather than the open B string. But if you listen closely to Tony on this song—especially at the ending of the song, where he plays each note individually—he’s playing a three-finger G chord (Example 4), which a lot of people say is off-limits in bluegrass. I think it’s really beautiful to have that third [B] of the G chord ringing. So you heard it from me: If you play bluegrass, you don’t always have to use the four-finger G chord.
The other things Tony is doing on this song are bass runs, leading from one chord to the next (Example 5). At the end of each mandolin solo, he’ll usually play a G run (Example 6), leaving a pause after the run. And I really love that, too, how he’s letting the song breathe in between sections.
You can listen to “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” over and over again and always hear new things. I only recently realized that Tony was using that three-finger G chord so much. Also, I think a lot of these rhythm techniques are applicable for beginners. You can start learning these strumming patterns and bass runs and play them at bluegrass jams—whenever we can get together and jam again. The beauty of Tony’s playing is that there’s something for everyone to learn from. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and I still go back to this and just want to listen to him strum the guitar.
My desert island Tony Rice song is “Church Street Blues.” I love the recordings that are just Tony and his guitar, where you can hear all the intricacies in his guitar playing and singing. There’s a really wonderful solo version of “Church Street Blues” on YouTube. Tony does it a bit different than on his recorded version and it’s really cool to get to see how he crosspicks and he does so many down picks in a row, to create a really fluid sound. Tony’s thumb moves around a lot on his right hand; he uses a lot of his fingers in his picking, while his left hand barely moves. It’s always so amazing to watch his technique in both hands. And I love how he incorporates cross picking into his rhythm playing on “Church Street Blues” as well (Example 7). It creates a really beautiful accompaniment for his voice and is the thread that holds the arrangement together.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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