Talkin' Blues: Chicken Pickin'

Using your pick-hand fingers to pluck strings and create funky licks that “pop.”

Last month we examined the role of the picking hand, particularly the use of bare fingers, in creating dynamics and adding dimension to your phrasing. Early in the electric blues era, this bare-handed approach was especially popular among “down-home” (rural southern) players, who also developed a variation on bare-fingered technique called chicken pickin’. The musical potential of imitating hens clucking in a barnyard may be somewhat limited, but the technique also opens the door to a variety of funky, percussive phrases.

Basic chicken-pickin’ technique works as follows (FIGURE 1): holding the pick between your thumb and index finger, rest the tip of your pick-hand middle finger on the same string as the note you’re fretting. Pick the string with a downstroke of the flat pick (producing a muted thunk), and then pluck the string with an upstroke of your middle finger (producing the actual note). Return the middle finger to its resting position and repeat. Once you master the basic choreography, the “cluck” is enhanced when you combine chicken pickin’ with string bending.

FIGURES 2-4 show typical chicken pickin’-style phrases. Downstrokes with the pick are indicated; the rest of the attacks are upstrokes with a bare finger (typically the middle). The first example demonstrates chicken pickin’ combined with a string bend. The second opens with several clucks on a muted string before adding a bend, and the third uses a series of half-step bends and releases for the ever-popular “crying chicken.”

Though chicken pickin’ is closely associated with traditional country music, it also meshes perfectly with another down-home staple: the funky boogaloo (or soul blues) groove that propelled many soul hits in the Sixties (FIGURE 5 is a typical rhythm example). The last example (FIGURE 6) extends the technique beyond the barnyard; when you fret the notes, press them only halfway down (flat-pick the fifth string and finger-pop the rest). The resulting halfpitch/ half-percussion effect substantially increases the funk quotient of practically any lick. FIGURE 7 is a 12-bar solo over a boogaloo groove that demonstrates a variety of fine-feathered phrases.

For more examples of percussive chicken pickin’ phrasing in a blues context, check out anything by Albert Collins. Using his bare thumb and fingers to pluck the strings, he elevated string popping into one of the most distinctive electric blues styles of his generation.

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