Don Rich was the guitarist for Buck Owens‘ band, the Buckaroos, from 1961 up to his death in 1974. He did a lot to define ‘Chi
cken Pickin’ and was one of the earliest guitarists to use the scratchy staccato playing. He spent his entire career playing either with Buck Owens or with the Buckaroos (which was just Owens’ backing band). Along with guitar he played the fiddle, which he did really well on a lot of Buck Owens songs.
Don used a Telecaster and Fender amps. This article isn’t really gear heavy, but to get the sound use a clean tone on the edge of breakup. Thin strings work well and just a bit of reverb. Listen closely to hear the picking technique. He some times pulls the strings to give it a slappy sound.
In this installment of Getting Deeper with Country, I’m going to look at a few of Don Rich’s signature licks. As a student of the music you might want to take these licks to different parts of the neck, or just use a technique from them to create your own licks. Three of these come from Rhino’s The Very Best of Buck Owens Vol 1. “Buckaroo” is from The Instrumental Hits of Buck Owens. All four of the songs are very common and easy to find on YouTube or anywhere else! Make sure to check out some of the live recordings, Live at Carnegie Hall and Live in Japan are two of the best. There is also a collection of instrumental songs of Don Rich and the Buckaroos, definitely worth checking out. Here we go!
“Act Naturally” is probably Buck Owens’ most famous song, but mainly because it was covered by the Beatles. Don Rich provides the blueprint of many of George Harrison’s best riffs in this song, particularly the chorus part. The example is in Drop D tuning. Check out the behind the nut bend on the A string towards the end of the lick. Classic!
I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail
Two of Don Rich’s signature moves are playing staccato phrases on the lower strings and bending lower notes. Take a look at example 1 which has both. This lick starts at 1:03 in the track-right before the guitar solo. Try choking the notes with your left hand by letting up immediately. Also keep the notes short by deadening with your right hand.
The second lick from “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” is a precursor to what many call the ‘Footloose’ lick-or sliding into unison notes. The ending of this lick is a simple E minor pentatonic lick, but listen to the way he plays it-scratchy, short, and grooving. The lick comes at the middle of his guitar solo at 1:18.
The final lick from this song comes near the end-he’s playing fills during the last chorus at 1:58. Again it’s very simple, but it’s the way he plays it, not the notes. This lick can be transferred very easily all around the neck and into different songs.
Open Up Your Heart
“Open Up Your Heart” has some great Don Rich licks. The intro, the first lick, starts with another staccato lick and ends with some great chicken pickin’ as he moves down the Ab scale. Very cool intro.
The second lick from “Open Up Your Heart” is a quintessential chicken pickin’ lick. It happens in the middle of Rich’s solo at 1:22. This one can be transferred to many different situations. Make sure that the triplets on the G string are muffled or deadened, that’s where the sound comes from. (Music theory nerds: I know it should be Ab, not G#! The app I use for TABs doesn’t let me use enharmonic spelling)
The final phrase in this article is from “Buckaroo,” and instrumental piece from the Buckaroos. This song has been covered several times-with a great rendition on the Byrds’ Live at the Fillmore concert with Clarence White on guitar. The song is down a half step, but you can get the idea in standard tuning. The opening lick is a cool lick based around a D chord shape. The ending of the phrase is where it’s at though! The scratchy double stop lick certainly sets the scene for guitarists like Jerry Reed and later Brent Mason. Be sure to listen to the many versions that Don Rich recorded to hear the inflections he plays with.
Those should keep you chicken pickin for a bit. Make sure to create some of your own licks using these ideas. Give me some feedback too! You could even post recordings of your own versions of these licks, or some of your favorite Don Rich moments.