Learn Classic Country Guitar Techniques
Learn the skills & techniques needed to play classic country on guitar. Explore famous country guitar chords & scales to start playing like the pros today.
By Ben Nemeroff
Whether you call it classic country or “Country & Western”, country music’s roots go deep -- mixing blues with Southern and Appalachian-style folk and bluegrass, among other genres. When you think of classic country music, your mind might go to the fingerpicking outlaw hits of Willie Nelson; the bass note strum and chugging rhythm of Luther Perkins on countless Johnny Cash songs, or Dolly Parton’s catchy Nashville twang. The heart of country music is the personal aspect of the genre, and country artists each incorporate their own flavor into their songs, making it a diverse genre that’s home to a number of styles.
The wonderful thing about playing country music on the guitar is that there is something for players of all levels. Whether it's Dolly Parton, Buck Owens, or Johnny Cash, most country artists' songs are very accessible for beginner players while offering challenging lead guitar lines for more seasoned guitarists. If you're looking to jump into the genre on guitar, there are some simple skills and techniques that will help you learn the basics of playing countless classic country songs. From commonly used chords to picking styles and country guitar tunings, we’ll cover some of those elements here so you can get strumming and learn to play classic country songs on your guitar!
How to Play Classic Country Style on Guitar
While there are countless country songs and a never-ending supply of stories to tell, there are few unifiying factors in country music that make it a fun genre to learn. Simple and common chord progressions, bass-note strums and basic strumming patterns, and twangy lead lines are some of these common themes that aspiring and seasoned country musicians should include in their guitar arsenal.
Country Guitar Chords
The building blocks of any type of guitar music are the chords. Part of what gives country music its sound is from the abundance of open major chords and seventh chords that pop up in many songs across the genre. While a major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of any scale to create a cheery tone, seventh chords take that same formula and tack on the 7th note in a given scale to give a major chord a distinctive twist. Just one added 7th note can give a standard major chord a sense of tension and movement that's commonly heard on many country tunes. And of course, for the sadder country songs, an open minor chord here or there is required. Check out Eugene Edwards (Dwight Yoakam) talk about classic country chords below:
Check out some of these commonly used country guitar chords and learn a bit more about the theory behind them, as well as complementary chords that you can use to build your own chord progressions. Here are 5 classic country chords to get you started:
If you've mastered those, throw in some 7 chords to change it up!
If you've learned the chords and are looking to get better at changing between them, check out this collection of courses from Fender Play that'll get you strumming in no time! Mastering G, C, D Chords
To hear a great example of a country chord progression, try your hand at playing the legendary Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” It features three of the most commonly used chords (G, C, and D). Unlock this lesson and many more classic country songs with a free trial of Fender Play.
Country Guitar Scales
While rock and blues often get a lot of praise for their innovative styles and intricate solos, country music is can be deceptively complex as well! Many classic country guitarists are true “musicians’ musicians,” cobbling together a variety of genre elements to transform them into something fresh.
Fast, clean fretwork is a hallmark of the country genre, and practicing scales is one way to nimble up your fingers along the fretboard, as well as gain a better understanding of the theory behind the notes. Believe it or not, country music often relies on blues guitar scales to create some of the genre’s most memorable tunes. While both blues and country have their similarities, the difference can be heard in how you play the same notes on the same scale. While blues takes a more laid back approach that focuses on style, country music opts for precision.
Check out "cosmic country" artist Daniel Donato has he explains how he uses pentatonic major, minor and even chromatic scales to solo in country music:
Country guitar scales aren’t just limited to blues-born scales, either. Listen to the G Major Scale and you can hear some of the country twang in its construction and why it’s another popular scale used in the genre. The C Major scale is another popular country and western guitar scale, keeping things clean and simple. And you’ll also hear a number of pentatonic scales in country music, too.
Check out this collection of guitar scale courses from Fender Play! Scales You Should Know
Country Guitar Strumming & Picking Techniques
Fingerpicking and a plethora of picking techniques are another mainstay of the country music genre. Some rely on using a guitar pick, while others ditch the pick and rely on fingerpicking for a more nimble approach that allows guitarists to hit multiple strings in rapid succession.
While there are a multitude of different picking styles, there are a few country guitar picking techniques that can help you level up your skills:
Alternate Bass-Note Strum
The alternate bass-note strum is the most simple yet essential strum pattern for country music. Picking between bass notes as you strum a chord gives any progression an ambling feel that makes it perfect for country guitar. Watch as Eugene Edwards describes how to do this "cowboy" strum below:
Fingerpicking & Travis Picking
Fingerpicking uses the three fingers and a thumb to precisely pick each string. With fingerpicking, the thumb plays the lowest three strings (E, A, and D) and plucks them with a downward motion. Conversely, the other three fingers are assigned to their own specific strings and pluck them in an upward motion as follows:
Index finger (G string) Middle finger (B string) Ring finger (high E string)
Unlock a free trial of Fender Play to learn the fingerpicking technique. Then, test your fingerpicking skills while playing “She’s Everything” by Brad Paisley.
Travis Picking is a type of fingerstyle picking named for guitarist Merle Travis, a Country & Western pioneer who wrote and performed the original version of “Sixteen Tons,” made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford.Travis picking is similar to alternate bass note strumming, but the difference is your strumming thumb alternates between the lowest two strings and a chord.
Sign up for a free trial of Fender Play to take this course on Travis Picking!
Tic Tac Picking
Another style of picking similar to alternating bass note strum, tic tac picking puts a spin on this classic technique. While alternate bass note picking involves strumming a chord on the second and fourth beats, tic tac picking swaps in a third higher note in place of the chord on those beats.
Triple Stop Bends
The pedal steel guitar is an essential part of country music and is responsible for those classic twangy slide licks you hear throughout the genre. If you're like most people though, you probably don't have a pedal steel lying around. Not to worry - you can achieve that sound with your guitar by using the triple stop bend. Check out this video about how to play triple stop bends!
Country Guitar Tuning
While many classic country songs make use of standard tuning, quite a few artists lean on alternate tunings to make it easier to transition between different chords or play open chords that require fewer fingers on the fretboard.
For instance, Dolly Parton frequently uses Open E tuning to play open chords and barre chords so she can keep her trademark long, manicured nails. (Because who says you have to have short nails to play guitar?!)
Johnny Cash also has his own signature tuning style, electing to tune his guitar a half step up. This can be accomplished by tuning each of your strings one half-step up from standard tuning, as follows (from lowest to highest): E#, A#, D#, G#, B#, E#
Some other commonly used country guitar tunings include Drop D tuning, Open D, and Open G tuning.
Experiment with more country guitar tuning styles and alternate tunings with the free Fender Tune app.
Check out Fender Play Classic Country Guitar Lessons
Picking up the guitar can open the door to a lifelong journey of learning and appreciation for your favorite genres of music. It also takes time, practice and patience. Gaining a firm foundation in some classic country guitar techniques can help you learn to play your favorite songs and hear earlier artists’ influence on the new generation of country music legends. On Fender Play, you can start your learning journey on the dedicated country path, which you guide you with the skills and techniques to get you playing songs in days! Browse the songs on Fender Play's country path right here, and try a free two-week trial to see how many songs you can learn!
While lots of country music is flavored with resonators, pedal steels, and even fiddles, the core of country music is the acoustic and electric guitar. Both classic and modern country styles lean heavily on electric guitar to power its sound and achieve the classic "twang". The country genre was forever changed in the early 1950s when Fender released the Telecaster, which has been a mainstay for countless country artists. Check out Eugene Edwards play an original 1952 Telecaster and how it got it's role in the country rock world.
Nowadays though there are lots of updated versions of the Telecaster that are still just as at home with country music. The Fender American Performer Telecaster® Hum marries vintage style with Yosemite pickups and a Greasebucket tone system that helps create a crisp-yet-versatile. Jumbo frets make it easier for guitarists to bend strings, getting that classic country twang.
For a more modern take on classic country, look no further than the Brad Paisley Road Worn® Telecaster®. The guitarist’s signature model gives a sturdy, electrified tone with acoustic-like resonance. Built for soloing or strumming, the 9.5” radius fingerboard lends itself to fast fret work -- perfect for nailing those country-inflected rides!
Amplifiers can also make a world of difference when it comes to creating a classic country sound. Vintage-styled amps, like the Fender ‘65 Deluxe Reverb® and the ‘65 Twin Reverb® offer excellent tone, giving you the option of a clear, clean sound or a vibrato-packed reverb. For a more bottom-heavy sound, the Fender ‘59 Bassman® LTD offers a classic Fender tone straight out of the late ‘50s.
Experimenting with different techniques and tones on guitars and amps can be fun. However, guitarists who are itching to capture a specific sound with minimal fuss and without having to string together multiple effects pedals, can look to Fender Tone presets. Compatible with select Fender amps, the Fender Tone app allows you to tap into a number of country music presets, ranging from basic rhythm to rockabilly and clean Telecaster tones. Check out some of our favorite country gear: