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Albert Lee: Fun Ranch Boogie

By January 22, 2006Lessons

If you’ve ever been humbled by the effortless speed and harmonic fluency of our string-slinging siblings south of the Mason-Dixon line, you’re in good company. So universal is the admiration among shred masters for their flatpickin’ and fingerpickin’ brethren that country-inflected radio rock tunes like Van Halen’s Finish What Ya Started comfortably share iPod space with the striking industrial-country fusion of players like John 5. Then there are the bona-fide switch hitters like Eric Johnson and Steve Morse, whose dual citizenship in roots and rock essentially moot the question. Suffice it to say that a healthy fear of country skillz is an integral part of the shred psyche.

COOL RANCH: Albert Lee’s rippin’ Fun Ranch Boogie

Such fear was instilled in me at a young age, when a chance guitar magazine purchase produced a small floppy 45rpm insert containing a recording of Albert Lee’s Fun Ranch Boogie. This was a fearsomely funky uptempo barnyard shuffle that, for all my accurately mimed Van Halenisms, I simply couldn’t touch. Who was this guy? Of course by that point Albert was already a first-call name in industry circles, having toured with everyone from the Everly Brothers to Emmylou Harris. But earning one’s notoriety as a sideman, and a British-born rockabilly and country sideman at that, was not necessarily the fast lane to a poster on my teenage bedroom wall.

Nevertheless Fun Ranch Boogie quickly made the rotation as a warmup exercise, albeit one I was reluctantly never capable of nailing. Years later, the floppy record and its accompanying tablature are long gone, but I can actually play the thing — or, more correctly, what I remember as the first two verses of the thing. I actually own a copy of Albert’s Warner Brothers instructional video Highlights, which features a live performance of the full song. But I’ve become content enough in my own impressionistic rendition that I’ve resisted the urge to tab out the real McCoy. I also suspect that FRB is an improvisational effort for Albert as well, making my own reworking of the piece spiritually if not sonically faithful.

The tab below reflects the way I play the tune in the accompanying video, which is merely one of the many of ways I’ve worked it out over the years. For this lesson, I played through the verses a couple of times, settled on a collection of phrases that seemed to work, and hit record on the camcorder. What you see above, and here below, is that rare species of improvisation — a first-take recording. Duly forewarned, sink your picks into the raucous recollection of countryisms I think of as Fun Ranch Boogie:

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We could do a note-by-note analysis of FRB, but that would be missing the point. Most likely, what you really want to know is how to compose or improvise solos in countrified Lee-like fashion. And sometimes, focusing the scanning electron microscope on every pickstroke can obscure that bigger picture. So let’s proceed by identifying the standard ingredients of hot country pickin’ as exemplified by this particularly smokin’ example. Thanks to the fairly structured nature of FRB, and country playing in general, this is easier to do than you might think.

Harmonic Ingredients

Country harmonies are like primary colors — vivid, engaging, simple, and relatively few in number. Just as our friend Roy G. Biv denotes the seven critical components of the visible spectrum, country music sticks relatively close to the seven tones that comprise the key structure it’s in which it’s written. In this case, FRB hews mainly to the key of E major, with the exception of a very commonplace modulation midway through:

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As you can see in the progression above, FRB is essentially an 8-bar blues that follows the traditional structure of tonic, fourth, tonic, fifth, tonic. Since we’re in the key of E major, that boils down to the chords E major, A major, E major, B major, and E major. The one deviation from this structure happens in measure three of the chord progression, wherein the song wheels through two dominant seventh chords en route to the tonic:

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The journey from F#7 to B7 to E major is an extremely common device in pop music known as the II-V-I. Its name reflects the fact that F# is the second degree of the E major scale, B the fifth, and E, of course, the first. Its function is to create a little drama that eventually brings us to a particular target chord, in this case the tonic, or E major. The progression is frequently embellished and extended, particularly in jazz, where liberties are taken with both chords by including notes which are not actually part of the key in which the progression appears. In fact, almost any liberty is generally permissible as long as the chord you end up on is the one you’re looking for. In so doing, the more notes you choose from outside the original key, the more jazz-like the resultant progression will sound.

In this case, the embellishment happens on the F# chord, which is normally an F# minor when we’re playing in they of E major. Here, Albert chooses an F#7 because, as a seventh chord, it resolves — sonically “pulls” us — to the B with more gravity than its usual minor counterpart. The B is of course a B7, which in turn exerts its gravity on the tonic. Because dominant 7th chords are commonly found in diatonic music, they still have a “primary color” sound to them, even when used out of key as they are here. The resultant sound, while indeed jazz-like, is more resonant of traditional jazz forms like dixieland or ragtime, in which “outside” harmonies based on dominant seventh chords figured prominently.

Scalar Ingredients

Other than the brief II-V-I modulation, the entirety of FRB is standard E major. Even the II-V-I differs by only one note — A# — from the usual F# minor chord found in the key of E. So what does all this mean? It means that, for all practical purposes, we can consider the entire progression diatonic, or completely within, the key of E. As a result, the note choices we’d use to solo over the progression are the usual suspects, and country solos tend to stick to these. Primarily, this means E major pentatonic and E blues:

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These scales are so common in modern electric guitar playing, let’s assume you’ve seen them before and are at least somewhat familiar with their usage in rock music. In country, as in rock, the “expanded” versions of each are often employed, which adds a couple more notes per string to each scale in certain places:

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Attempting to explain the above fingerings in any kind of musicological sense would probably involve a vulgar display of terminology like ionian, mixolydian, and dorian. And since modes give me diaper rash, let’s bottom-line it by saying that what we’ve basically got here are the standard fingerings plus some extra blue noteschromatic or passing tones that frequently occur in pop music to impart a bluesy sound. What they also do is increase the number of notes per string. This gives you more opportunities to create long, flowing lines without jumping all over the fretboard.

In fact, you’ll notice that I’ve chosen to represent the above fingerings themselves as long licks, replete with rhythm, some string bending, and legato, for exactly this reason. The theme of this lesson is not so much analysis as practicality — in other words, treating FRB as a bag of tricks you can use in your own playing. And nothing hangs in the air like a wet rag more than a scale fingering. If you’re going to spend hours practicing something, it really should be a lick that you can implement in your real-life soloing.

The Country Cliche

Now that we’ve got our fingerings down, let’s put them to use. For example, you may have noticed by now that the final lick of the first verse is based directly on the expanded blues scale:

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The first 13 notes are essentially a complete recitation of the expanded blues scale in linear fashion, from top to bottom. The recitation begins with a pickup on the B string and descends the expanded blues scale all the way to the A string. When we arrive at the 15th fret of the E string, we have a short melody which is extremely common in country guitar. So common, in fact, that I’m going to name it The Country Cliche:

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If your ear is reasonably well developed, you should be able to hear that this phrase sounds less like blues and more like E major than the notes that precede it. This is because, with the exception of its first note, which is blues, the entire rest of the phrase is based entirely on the major pentatonic scale. As such, the phrase forms a bridge between the two scales which can be used to impart a sweeter and more “final” sound to the end of a traditional blues lick. This is the Cliche’s forte.

The Cliche is so common in country playing that you should memorize it as a phrase. Since the Cliche occurs so closely on the fretboard to the standard box-position blues scale, you can easily visualize it as a planetary satellite of that very standard solo position. As a result, you will tend to use it most often when playing blues phrases in that position. For example, earlier in the first verse, there’s a great little lick that employs the Cliche one octave lower:

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Although the Country Cliche pertains more specifically to country than to other genres, it can also be played on the G string in a fingering that may be more familiar to you. For example, relocating it to the G string creates a staple of early rock & roll and rockabilly which I like to think of as the Johnny B. Goode fingering:

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The Country Cliche in this fingering contains the same notes as its native form, just one octave higher. So it’s still a combination of the blues and major pentatonic scales that leans heavily on the “major” sound. In this position, however, it may be easier for you to see where it gets its “major” sound from, since the fingering outlines the classic major barre chord of the same name as the pentatonic blues scale you’re using:

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Finally, the Country Cliche has many common variants. Here’s one which leaves out a note. This results in a direct quotation of the underlying barre chord, so I like to think of this as the Country Cliche Arpeggio:

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And here’s another that leaves out a note and transposes the last note one octave lower. I think of this as sort of an “inverted” Country Cliche:

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Of course the Cliche is hardly the only identifiably country phrase in the land, and it’s only for purposes of instruction that I’m calling it the most important. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of more or less stock phraseology that the average listener could recognize as having a country “sound”. But you gotta start somewhere, and what’s particularly useful about the Cliche is that it gets you thinking in terms of both scales and licks simultaneously, and how the two might connect in a real-world soloing environment. Further, if you’re like most rock guitarists, you were raised on the blues pentatonic, so the Cliche is something you should be able to make swift use of.

Country Rhythm

So far we’ve identified two of the most important ingredients in countrified soloing — pentatonics and standard “country” phrases. But there’s another, and it’s critical: rhythm. Much more so than rock or metal, fast country soloing is generally very structured with respect to the tempo of the song. Most of the time, fast country licks involve straight eighth or sixteenth notes, which means two or four to a count, depending on the tempo or time signature of your song. When you’re looking for more speed, you can bump that rhythm up to triplets if the tempo isn’t too fast, which would mean either three or six note to a count — again, determined by the tempo and time signature of your song.

FRB is right on the edge of my sixteenth-note-triplet-playing ability (in 4/4 time — that would be eighth-note-triplet-playing ability if we call it 2/4), but I do manage to squeak in one triplet pentatonic lick toward the end:

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This is clearly a shred transplant — a shred cliche, you might even say — that I inserted into FRB if only because it’s something I play comfortably. But there was a really great fast triplet pentatonic lick in the original floppy 45 version of FRB that went something like this:

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This, again, is nearly a direct quotation of the scale positions we outlined earlier: up the major pentatonic, down the blues. Super funky if you can play it up to speed.

Aiming for the Downbeat

But perhaps one of the most identifiable rhythmic elements in country playing is something you have probably observed yourself: the almost mystical ability of players to weave long, winding, and fast melodic lines that somehow wind up right on one of the song’s critical chord tones just as a measure is starting or ending. A great example occurs at the end of FRB, in the solo’s final statement:

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Here again is another expanded blues pentatonic lick which incorporates the Country Cliche. This time, we see the Cliche in no less than three places in the lick. It occurs once at the beginning of the second measure, in the Johnny B. Goode fingering, again at the end of the second measure in the inverted fingering, and again at the end of the lick in the arpeggiated fingering. In between, we’ve got nothing but pure recitation of the expanded blues scale.

But what’s particularly striking about this lick is that it ends right on the home tone E just as the measure is coming to a close. Although I was thinking in 4/4 when I wrote the tab above, the lick’s rhythmic properties become even more apparent when you write it in 2/4. Let’s do that:

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Here, you can easily see that each measure only contains four notes. Since we’re in 2/4, there are only two beats in each measure, and that makes those four notes eighth notes. The first eighth note is the downbeat of beat one, and the third is the downbeat of beat two. Notes two and four are the up or backbeats. This terminology descends from orchestral lingo, where the conductor’s baton typically travels in a forceful downward motion to indicate to the players the coming of the downbeat. The term backbeat probably refers to being behind or before the downbeat, or something to that effect.

Anyway, what you should notice right away is that the final line of FRB does not end of the downbeat at all — it ends on the backbeat:

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The E which occurs at the 14th fret of the D string in the last measure of the solo is the fourth note of its respective measure and therefore the backbeat of beat two. In fact, if you turn back the pages and look at each of the licks we’ve examined from the solo thus far, you’ll see that this is true for all of them. They all end on the weak beat of the of the measure. And yet, when you listen to the solo, your ear hears these lines as being pegged right where they should be at the end of a particular bar or verse of the music.

This of course is known as syncopation, and my best guess as to why it doesn’t sound weird is that it is a concept that ears must inherently understand when presented with the correct rhythmic backdrop. In fact, although these were originally improvised lines that I chose to memorize for the purpose of this lesson, I’d say that I wasn’t entirely aware exactly which beat of the measure they all ended on until I worked it out. In any case, ending a lick on the weak beat of the measure sounds infinitely more countrified than doing so on a strong beat, which can sound somewhat heavy-handed. Of course both can work, but it is counterintuitively the more natural — and more common — choice to finish on the up.

Chordal Ingredients

Aside from scales, the other important harmonic ingredient in country playing is something I’ll call — and I’m making this up — chord quotation. In other words, playing notes that directly relate to the chord that’s happening in the song at that time. Shred players know this technique well thanks to the ubiquity of arpeggios in heavy guitar styles. In metal, arpeggios typically echo the backing chords, often in a deliberately mechanized, repeating fashion, for a given number of beats or bars. Sometimes this is done with sweeping, sometimes with legato, and sometimes with tapping.

The story in country is largely analogous. We’ve already seen one very good example of chord quotation, and that is, of course, the Country Cliche, which directly quotes the E major barre chord in the key of E (or the A major barre chord in the key of A, and so on). But country solos often take this concept even farther by developing licks which, in very overt ways, echo a particular underlying chord. One of the more obvious examples in FRB occurs during the II-V-I progression, where Albert directly arpeggiates the underlying 7th chords:

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If you look closely, you’ll see that the arpeggios that Albert plays are actually 9th chords. 9ths are closely enough related to 7ths that the two can almost always be interchanged, the sonic result being that 9ths will tend to have a jazzier or mellower sound than straights 7ths. However, in this case, the issue of practicality probably played at least as great an influence in the choice of 9th chords, since the addition of the actual ninth tone produces a compact, two note-per-string fingering that falls symmetrically across the strings:

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The clever, 2nps fingering above repeats nicely across pairs of strings, such that the F#9 and the B9 are essentially identical but for the pairs of strings you play them on. The sixth fret in each pattern is the actual 9th tone, otherwise known as the second degree of the scale in the key of the chord. It’s the note G# in the case of the F#9, and the note C# in the case of the B9.

The fifth fret in each pattern is actually a note from the blues scale in each of those keys. It’s the same note, in fact, as the first note of Country Cliche — the flatted 3rd. Again, however, its purpose here is twofold. One, to impart a certain jazz or blues tonality to the proceedings, and two, to enable the 2nps pattern. Since the tone is not actually part of the 9th chord, omitting it would leave only one note to kick off the pattern, ruining the 2nps symmetry. So Albert’s addition of this note, effectively killing two birds with one stone, is exceedingly clever.

Double Stops

Another way chord quotation can happen in country is through the use of polyphony. In other words, multiple notes at one time. And one of the primary ways this can happen is through the use of double stops. This is simply the quotation of two notes from the underlying chord, and very often in the case of country playing, this can mean only one thing — chicken pickin’:

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Chicken picking in country styles probably arose as a convenient way to play polyphonic ideas to keep up with the steel guitars, banjos, and acoustic fingerpickers. A pleasant side effect of the convenience was the extra snap imparted to the attack of the notes, particularly on a clean-toned electrified instrument like a Fender Telecaster. These days, the effect has become an end in itself, and as a result, in many cases throughout FRB, fingers other than those holding the pick are brought into play. The reasons for doing so, again, relate to either sound, or practicality, or both. In such cases, the middle finger is notated “m” and the ring finger is notated “r”.

The entire middle section of FRB, a chorus of sorts, is played in direct quotation of the underlying E and A chords by way of chicken-picked double stops. The technique involved is not astoundingly difficult, but at faster tempos it can sound pretty cool, and it’s fun to play. The double-stopped notes are offset by a note from the respective major pentatonic for each chord that is embellished with a little slide:

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All the action surrounding the 9th-fret double stops is E major, and the 14th fret is A major. This should be obvious upon further examination, since these are the usual power chord-style barre chord locations for E and A:

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The slide notes come from the relevant major pentatonic fingerings, which also happen to be found in those locations:

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Taken together with the double-stopped notes, the slides actually form a minor triad in each case, which again, should be obvious because they look just like common minor barre chord shapes:

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However, remember that the bass notes here (which are played by the bass guitar) are still E and A, so the resulting sound is still major — it’s just a combination of major and minor sonorities which we call a major six chord. The major six is a mellow variant of a major triad with a vaguely pastoral sound, and it suits the country style well. Since the slide notes do not sound simultaneously with the double-stopped notes, we might describe the resultant sound an implied major six. Or you can simply think of it as a major pentatonic embellishmient to a standard E major chord.

But that’s not all. As the lick proceeds, the double stops themselves slide down two frets to create yet another implied sonority — the 11 chord:

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So what’s an 11? Well, it’s kind of like a 9th, which is kind of like a 7th. If we continue our earlier analogy of 7th chords as primary colors, we might say that each time we extend the chord out another third, from 7ths, to 9ths, to 11s, and beyond, the color becomes paler and less distinct. The chord retains a certain base relation to the original 7th chord, and it can often be substituted for that chord and/or used for the same purpose in a song, but the sound will be somewhat more complex.

So complex, in fact, that even very experienced jazzers have developed a shorthand way of thinking about 11 chords as simply a major triad that is one step below the chord name in question. In the case of E11, for example, we can think of it as really a D major triad with an E bass note. And ignoring for the moment the slidey embellishments, that is exactly what we have in FRB:

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It is rather the combination of the E major double stops at the 9th fret against what are essentially D major double stops at the 7th fret, along with the E played by the bass, that create the 11 texture. Ditto for the A implied 11 in the next measure.

Despite the complexity of the theory, the lick is easy to play, and once you hear it, you’ll recognize it. After all, despite the countrified flavor of the progression as it’s used here, the 11 “sound” is quite common in rock. Any piano player who knows their Billy Joel will have no doubt played a G in the bass off an F major triad in the right hand. On guitar, how about Clapton’s Cocaine:

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The other big example of chord quotation in FRB is thankfully somewhat simpler than the polyharmonic nature of the previous passage. It is nothing more than a chicken-picked seventh chord that directly follows the bass line, chromatically, from A to B, to set up the climax of the chorus:

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In this example, were taking a common 7th-chord fingering and moving it up the neck a half-step at a time. This precisely follows the bass, which is outlining the same progression down below. It’s a ham-fisted approach, but with the heavy blues vibrato and the snappy chicken picking attack, it has a certain attitude.

The phrase finishes with a tritone shake at the 14th fret. Technically, this is probably best described as an implied A7, but with the bass note still B, that doesn’t really make sense. For practical purposes, you can probably just think of it as kind of an atonal “special effect” taken from the expanded blues scale. It’s a phrasing which is very common in roots and rockabilly styles:

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Rollin’ Your Own

So whaddya do now? Well, you start cookin’ up your own country licks, that’s what. To get you started, let’s do one together. We’ll incorporate all the basic building blocks we’ve covered so far, including major and blues pentatonic scales, the use of eighth or sixteenth rhythms, chord quotation, the Country Cliche, and of course, the magical goal of ending on the backbeat right at the end of the measure. To accomplish this last bit, we might have to adjust the number of notes in the lick a couple of times to get it right. But that’s ok, since the expanded versions of both scales offer many opportunities to include or omit notes to taste.

Finally, to keep things simple, let’s say we’re soloing over B, A, and E chords. Ok, here’s what we got:

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To begin with, we’ve got one measure of B, and one measure of A, upon which we drop a pretty funky chord quotation that also includes, surprise, the Country Cliche for extra flavor. The lick draws its chord tones from the very familiar “D-shape” triad on the upper three strings. This is the preferred major arpeggio shape of sweepers like Yngwie, so we sweep this one as well. The phrase ends with a great double-stop bend on the top two strings which creates two chord tones, the third and the fifth. However, it does so by bending a non-chord tone, the second, up to the third:

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This is itself another cliche in the country vocabulary, as it mimics the sound of a steel guitar, where such whole-step bends are made easy through the manipulation of a variety of pedals. Don’t ask me how that works because I have no idea. But it sounds really cool, and country guitarists have been slavering after that sound for decades. As a result, when you move this particular bend to the G and B strings, you will not only create a triad with the addition of a third note on the E string — you will also re-create every country-rock solo from Hendrix to the Eagles to Wilco:

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What follows the bending activity is a by-the-book example of the scalar riffing we outlined earlier. The phrase begins on the B string with a series of chromatic tones lifted directly from the expanded major pentatonic scale, slides up to the 12th fret box-position blues, and proceeds very neatly through a couple of Country Cliches (love ’em) to end precisely on the backbeat of the final measure:

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Paint by Numbers

And there you have it. If all this sounds woefully like a “Paint By Numbers” guide to playing country — well, then you might be getting somewhere. We do first begin to understand a musical style by painting in broad strokes, grokking the basic structure of the music, maybe learning a few common phrases. Every musical genre has such a structure, and real creativity is what happens within that. Once you master the basics, you can begin to devise a wider variety of your own country licks in ways that both avoid and extend the stock language of the genre. And when you do, send them to me!

2 Comments

  • Jason Cheek says:

    Just started watching the free stuff on Youtube! Just wanna say you are a frickin’ genius! Hahahahah!
    The videos you are making are amazing. The insight and research you have done is really mind blowing.
    I started out with the Paul Gilbert video in the day. It took me years to understand the right hand of all that b.s. .
    Of course, I own all his DVD’s and the one I love the most now… Get out of My Yard. In the “Special”
    section he describes the 45 degree slant concept. But really only goes for the “tone” as he says. He doesn’t explain the mechanics of why you wold want to do that.
    He really may not be aware, But ever since then I changed my whole picking style. Three years now for me..Well, going on 4.
    But I really wanted to say…. since a friend of mine told me about your videos on YouTube. I am currently re-changing my style again.
    Not as drastic ’cause I’m way more aware of the technique but the even and odds theory you describe. Always down on evens then ups on odd.
    Wow! Wish I would have been more conscious early on. In my area I am considered a great player. But with this way of thinking and attacking the guitar….
    This year will be amazing I can tell.
    So, in essence, Thanks for taking the time and sharing you views and the slow mo’s. The fun side of the Cracking the Code is so brilliantly done words can’t say.
    You are doing it right my friend. Wish I could attend one of your workshops. But I am so strapped for cash it’s ridiculous.
    Been off work for 3 solid weeks. Then the double insurance they take out when we go back. Gawd!
    Well, Keep up the great work Troy. Maybe someday in the future we can meet.
    Later,
    Jason Cheek

    • Troy Grady says:

      Thanks Jason! Glad you’re enjoying the material. True, Paul has talked about pick angles before, but only edge picking — when you use a bit of the edge to attack the string, for tone and also to make the pick slide more easily over the string. I don’t think Paul realizes he’s uses downward and upward pickslanting, at least I haven’t seen him talk about it. But the stuff he plays really isn’t possible without it. It’s a fascinating topic and hopefully we can help make these concepts more widespread. Thanks for watching!

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