It’s amazing how learning a new riff or lick can inspire a new song or instrumental. Just when you’ve hit a wall and feel stuck in your playing, a few fresh patterns can breathe life into your instrument and your creative juices. With all that in mind, I’ve created this lesson of Americana–inspired examples, drawn from the folk, country, and bluegrass traditions, which work two ways: You can approach them simply as exercises, or you can use them to launch your next song or arrangement.
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I’ve organized these go-to licks based on common keys for songwriting, which are also perfect for instrumental work. Most of these examples work equally well with fingerpicking and flatpicking, so try them both ways. On the accompanying video, I demonstrate lots of different picking and strumming patterns for each example. I like to call these variations ear candy.
The more familiar you become with each lick, the easier it will be for you to start creating your own variations from that starting point. You’ll find that you can string together many of these licks for extended exercises. And, as you play them fluidly, they will naturally find their way into your playing.
Week One: Exploring the G and C Chords
Let’s start this week simply. In Example 1, keep your third finger held on the low G throughout. Combined with the open D and B strings, this note forms a simple G chord. On beat three of each measure, add your first and second fingers to the second-string C and fourth-string E, respectively, forming a C chord with the fifth, G, in the bass (written as C/G). You can also hammer on the C/G chord, as shown in Example 2. Once you’ve got the hang of what the fretting fingers do, you can play around with these licks, letting the strings ring or dampening them with the palm of your picking hand, for a rock ’n’ roll effect.
Example 3 builds off of the previous two figures. In bar 1, after you’ve added the C shape, move it up two frets on the and of beat four. Try experimenting with different syncopations sliding up and down the double-stops (two-note chords) on strings 2 and 4. Example 4 is similar to the previous figures but is based on double stops on strings 2 and 3. The difference is subtle but tasty—in the second half of bar 1, for instance, notice how, in conjunction with the G bass tone, the upper notes A and C form a colorful Gsus2/4 chord.
In a different direction, Example 5 focuses on a bluesy bass run that works well for the G chord. Use your first and second fingers for each hammer-on, and try to connect the notes as smoothly as possible. Having a bunch of interesting ways to play around in the bass gives you interesting options as you play covers or originals.
Beginners’ Tip #1
For all the examples in this lesson, keep each chord shape held for as long as possible, letting the notes ring together.
Week Two: Traveling Between D and G Chords
This week you’ll work on a handful of different ways to travel between D and G chords. Example 6 is based on a simple descending bass line—D–C–B–A–G—which makes for a D–Csus2–G/B–A7sus4–G chord progression. Approaching the G chord with a hammer-on from the low F# lends a hint of bluegrass flavor. I like to play this as written with a thumbpick and fingers for a mellow sound, and I add a little right-hand flair when I play a flatpicking version. Remember to check out the video to see a bunch of different variations.
Moving in the opposite direction, Example 7 is based on an ascending bass line, D–E–F–F#–G, which is mostly chromatic. When you play this, whether fingerpicking or strumming, be sure to give extra emphasis to the colorful bass pattern, and experiment with different rhythmic variations. Example 8 shows another approach to Ex. 7. Notice how I disrupt the established bass line with an open A on beat three of bar 1, changing the chord name to A7sus4. In bar 3, I slide into a unison (simultaneous open G and fifth-fret G) on beat one. Then, there’s a single-note fill that lands on the root note of the G chord on the downbeat of the final bar.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Try playing each of these licks both fingerstyle (or with a thumbpick and fingers) and with a flatpick.
Week Three: Getting From Am to G
We’ll stay in the key of G this week, and I’ll show you different ways of getting from Am to G chords. The first progression (Example 9) uses a simple, mostly descending bass line (A–G–F#–G), which creates an Am–C/G–D/F#–G chord progression. This works beautifully whether fingerpicked or flatpicked. Again, see the video for some slight variations that make playing the same progression more interesting.
Example 10 is similar to Ex. 9. I call this the “Lucky Girl” lick, after a song I wrote around it. Note the use of the hammer-on in bar 2, briefly touching on the D chord’s flatted seventh, C, for a bit of color. Also check out how in the last bar I use the same double-stop idea from Ex. 3.
This week’s last lick, Example 11, is less harmonically involved and shows a different strategy for keeping things interesting. In the first three bars I strum the top four notes of an open Am chord, decorating it by hammering on to the lower notes from the open third and fourth strings. I end with a G chord in the last measure, but for added mileage, try inserting any D chord in between the Am and G.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Experiment with new harmonies by lifting a finger from a given chord shape and replacing the fretted note with an open string.
Week Four: Exploring the Key of C Major
This week we’ll move to the key of C major. Example 12 takes a straightforward I–IV–V (C–F–G) progression and fancies it up with some jazzy chords like Fmaj7/G and G9. Don’t let their names scare you; they are easy and natural to fret, and impart new colors to a well-worn chord progression. For the most efficient movement, keep your fourth finger held in place on the third-fret G for the C and Fadd9 chords.
In Example 13, I bring back the descending bass line idea introduced in previous figures to go between the C and F chords. For the Fsus2, note that I’m fretting the low F by wrapping my thumb around the neck, and I’m playing the G string open instead of using the second-fret A. That’s what gives the chord its nice harmonic flavor. You can experiment with different ways to resolve this progression, either by adding a C chord at the end, or C and then G.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Using sophisticated jazz chords, like those in Example 12, is a great way to spice up your music regardless of style.
Cathy Fink is a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist based in the Washington D.C. area. She teaches bluegrass and Americana guitar and performs around the world with her partner, Marcy Marxer.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.