5 of The Best Guitar Riffs and Licks in Country Music History
Country Music has relied on the guitar since its beginnings. Whether it be a twangy Telecaster or a powerful Gibson, acoustic or electric, most country hits have heavily relied on this six stringed instrument to drive the song and support their vocalists. We've curated five of country music's top riffs based off influence, skill, and general harmony with the rest of the song. These are 5 of our favorite guitar riffs and licks in country music.
The Nervous Breakdown- Brad Paisley
Brad Paisley’s instrumental track from his freshman album starts off as an impressive high acoustic lick but quickly spirals into its electric riff namesake, “The Nervous Breakdown”. It’s no wonder why this is the only instrumental song on the album, nothing would be able to top it. With a bpm at 164 the song is anything but easy to play and established Paisley’s talent and country stardom.
Mama Tried- Merle Haggard: Roy Nichols
This riff is one of the most influential in country music. “Mama Tried” is made up by two separate guitars stacked on top of each other. It starts with a sweet and simple acoustic riff that holds its own as the base for the entire song but is soon joined by a wailing electric guitar played by Roy Nichols. The combination makes a bittersweet melody that matches the story of the song perfectly- a soul who was lost to a life of crime despite all of his mama’s attempts. In 1999 “Mama Tried” won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award and ranked number 376 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Ain’t Goin Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)- Garth Brooks: Chris Leuzinger
This wouldn’t be a country top five without Garth Brooks. “Ain’t Goin Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)” is an impressive feat of lyricism by Brooks matched equally by the licks played by Chris Leuzinger. Leuzinger and Brooks act on this song as partners, the prior filling in the minuscule spots where Brooks has to take a breath. By the fourth verse it’s apparent that Leuzinger and Brooks are pushing each other to create something explosive and energetic. The outro of the song hears Leuzinger shifting his attention to Terry McMillan on harmonica. The two riff off each other for a solid minute and a half, both proving that the power of the track doesn’t just lie in Garth’s lyricism.
Folsom Prison Blues- Johnny Cash: Luther Perkins
Everyone and their mamas have listened to this song. Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues" is arguably one of the most influential songs in the history of country. Guitarist Luther Perkins captured the bright and twangy power of the Telecaster- an explosive guitar during the mid century. This Rockabilly lick has stood the test of time- If you want a real treat, look up Johnny Cash at San Quentin 1969. His performance of "Folsom Prison Blues" in a prison does not disappoint.
Pick It Apart- The New Nashville Cats: Brent Mason
The New Nashville Cats is a collaborative album put together by Mark O’Connor in 1991. The collective project included over fifty unique and talented Nashville musicians who ended up winning the album two Grammys. One specific lick on this album has become notorious in the country guitarist community. On the track, Pick It Apart, amidst a polyphony of stringed solos, Brent Mason plays one of the fastest sequenced arpeggios ever recorded in Country music. The entire song is a masterpiece of stringed solos but Mason’s continues to be one that seasoned guitarists can’t get even close to picking.
These riffs and licks represent only a few of the gems of country guitar. Country music continues to produce some of the best guitar instrumentation in music. I think it's safe to say that as long as country is around, there will always be country riffs and licks. The real question is, what's the next song gonna be?