Guy Clark’s “LA Freeway” is a classic of the Americana genre, and a great example of what we might call the Texas folk picking style. Unlike what many people think of as a traditional “folk pick” with alternating bass strings, this part brings in a blues element by thumping roots notes in the bass against a moving melody – although a sweeter, major key melody than we might hear in a blues tune. It’s actually the vocal melody, and he repeats the part as he sings.
It’s possible to play this with the fingers or with a hybrid
pick-and-fingers style, but thumb and fingers are most appropriate to the sound
and style. You might choose to use a thumbpick, helpful for making that
thumping bass “speak”, or simply use the inside part of the pad of the thumb to
create a satisfyingly full bass sound.
(This is a technique to explore in itself, and worthy of a full lesson).
We’re capoed at the 2nd fret, using G fingerings but sounding in the key of A.
Take a look at the opening pair of measures, featuring a syncopated descent down a G scale:
Play the opening G5 chord with the ring finger (finger 3) on
the 6th string bass note G at the 3rd fret, while the
pinky starts off on fret 3 of the 2nd string. Note the dot under the
pair of notes on the “and of 1”, pluck these sharply with index-middle or
middle-ring and immediately return the fingers to the strings to create a
staccato “pop”. The following open G’s that complete the bar are offbeats,
landing on the “and” of “3 AND 4 AND”. Pluck this note with the index or middle
The next bar begins with the index finger on fret 1 of the 2nd string, which pulls off to the open B string before the scale continues to descend – again on offbeats, which should be clear from the pairs of stemmed eighth notes. Even if you’ve never read music, it’s not hard to understand the connected pairs as “on the beat – off the beat” or “1 AND 2 AND”, just as in measure 1.
Notice how the last note of bar 2 is an open 4th string D, plucked with a finger. This note sets up a hammer-on of string 4 at the 2nd fret, part of a C chord we’re transitioning into. The tricky part is that when we land on the downbeat of bar 3, the middle finger “hammers” the second fret of the D string but the picking hand only strikes the bass note with the thumb. The upper note is sounded by the hammer-on:
This C fingering adds the fret hand pinky to the first string at the 3rd fret. Notice the staccato “pop” of the 2-note chord just as we played in measure 1, and the descent down the major scale in measure 4. This is a little tricky in that the fret hand middle finger needs to move over to the first string, fret 2 to play the scale – as the ring finger stays on the C bass note. Use the fret hand pinky to play the last note of the bar on the third fret of the 2nd string.
The third lick is a variation on measures 1 and 2, but starts off with a 5th string C on fret 3 (played with the ring finger) resolving to a 2nd fret B (played with the middle) as the plucking hand thumb and fingers alternate between low and high notes. The ring finger then returns to the 6th string to complete the lick as we played it in measure 2:
As in measure 2, the last note is a setup for the next chord, but in a different way this time. The open D string becomes the root of our D7 chord, which is played in inversion with F# (the third of the chord) in the bass by the middle finger while the ring finger grabs the second fret of the 3rd string to complete the D triad. Hammer the index finger onto the first fret of string 2 to play the C note, then reach up to play the open E string; the melody then simply descends the scale, using pinky and index to play D and C respectively. Index lifts to play open B, and then open G turns us around again.
The accompanying video also touches on the chorus of the song, which is a straightforward chord progression:
C D G C
G G D D
The intro is actually the verse melody of the song, so it’s played again along with the vocal, doubling the vocal – also a very common blues technique.
Ultimately this is not a complicated part but it requires some subtlety and coordination in your picking hand. If you don’t have it today, learning this intro is a great step towards developing that kind of smooth fingerpicked melody. Have fun!
C D G C