If I had to pick (yeah…pun) a style of music that really requires some serious picking skill, I’d have to say Bluegrass. Not only to just get the notes out, but your tone, volume, projection, dynamics all depend solely on your technique. No amps or pedals to rely on here!
A good place to start with Bluegrass is a fiddle tune. The consistent 8th-note melodies make for good alternate picking practice and well, they just sound good!
These examples can certainly be played on electric guitar, but I would suggest trying them on acoustic, for the simple fact that you’ll have to work a little harder to get a good sound, which builds technique.
Let your picking Blossom…
The first example is from the tune ‘Blackberry Blossom’. This is a very popular song for jam sessions and I would recommend learning the entire piece eventually. For now, we will use the ‘A’ section or first section of the tune to pick through.
I’m doing it in the key of G, but you’ll often hear it in A, (many fiddle players like A) so you can capo at the 2nd fret for that.
Be sure to use STRICT alternate picking, starting with a downstroke on the first note. Play through the example VERY slowly and make sure you’re not doing any doubled down or up strokes when you play, especially when crossing strings – that’s where people usually trip up.
It is very important not to repeat any pickstrokes (down-down or up-up).
The whole thing is consistent 8th notes, Always pick DOWN on the ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR (downbeats) and UP on the ‘and’ (upbeats).
No Cheating on Bill Cheatam
Moving right along, let’s look at another fiddle tune, ‘Bill Cheatam’. It has a pretty tricky section in it, which is pretty challenging for your fretting hand as well, so make sure you really have it down pat before trying to speed up. This one is a real killer. Once again, we are in the key of G. Capo @2nd fret for A.
The ‘ghost note’ at the end of the lines are upstrokes that you don’t actually pick. Be sure to move your wrist in time, as if you did pick it. This will help your rhythm stay on track. Use strict alternate picking throughout.
Cross picking is a very cool way to make it sound like you have more strings than you really have, and get that harp-like effect. The secret here is to leave your fretting fingers planted until the last moment when you need to move them, letting the notes ring out as long as possible. This one really requires very little fretting-hand movement at all, it’s just a 2-fret shape moving three places.
This example can be used in a few different keys, I’m using it over a G7 chord.
Once you start getting some tunes under your belt, the next step with playing Bluegrass (and the most fun) is soloing over the tunes. Bluegrass is similar to jazz where the players go through the melody or ‘head’ of the tune, then take turns soloing over the chords.
There are thousands of possible melodic ideas to play when soloing, and the more you have at your disposal, the more interesting your solos will be. Since this article is mainly about picking, I’ll stay out of a full-blown improvisation discussion and just talk tech.
These patterns are very common in this style and are a good place to start.
An important part of good improv is knowing how to connect the bigger ideas with smaller melodic patterns…the ‘glue’ that sticks everything together. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this…you just have to use your own judgement and express your own style – that’s the fun part!
These are much more fun to learn and practice than straight scales, and they sound much better when you use them in real songs. I would suggest always practicing scales in patterns similar to these (or these very patterns.) You will immediately begin to hear these patterns in all kinds of music, and it makes learning by ear MUCH easier. When you can recognize whole passages of notes as one ‘pattern’, you can learn it instantly by ear, instead of having to learn each note one by one. Imagine if you had to figure out each letter in a sentence as opposed to knowing the entire word at a glance! Let’s proceed…shall we?
Once again, strict alternate picking throughout, start slowly and build your tempo once you can play them PERFECTLY, and not before. Never speed up when you can’t cleanly get through the pattern.