Learn to play electric guitar like James Burton – lessons in the techniques that made Suzie Q and Hello Mary Lou such classics– with tab and chords
James Burton provided the twang for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Gram Parsons and many, many more, and it’s only right that this Telecaster-lovin’ man who’s probably done more with the instrument than anyone in its history gets a mention.
‘I really got into guitars when I was 11 or 12 years old,’ James Burton told Guitar & Bass in June 1992. ‘I was into country music and rhythm and blues and guitarists like Chet Atkins – he was one of my favourites. Then I got into the blues thing with Chuck Berry, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley and Elmore James, that type of thing, and it just progressed from there. I started playing guitar and getting into it real heavy at age 13. I actually went professional when I was 14 and it just progressed from there… I recorded my first record when I was 15. That was Suzie Q with Dale Hawkins.’
Burton enjoyed a long career as a first-call sideman, recording and performing with many other top artists including Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. He fused his country and blues influences via an idiosyncratic picking technique, as heard in the aforementioned Suzie Q (for which Burton also wrote the guitar riff). ‘With Suzie Q I liked to play the finger pick and straight pick with the rhythm and the bass strings at the same time – it gives you a different effect and a different sound,’ he revealed. Burton holds a plectrum between the thumb and index finger and wears a metal fingerpick on his middle finger; this enables him to play bass notes on the lower strings on the downbeat and licks on the upper strings using the middle finger. Occasionally he also plucks strings with the ring finger of the right hand. In order to get the sound he wanted Burton had to use lighter banjo strings on guitar.
Exercises 1 and 2 both explore Burton’s characteristic plectrum-and-fingerpicking technique, as heard on Suzie Q. A big fan of country music, Burton incorporated pedal steel-type bends into his playing via slides and bends, and we’ll look at these in Exercises 3, 4, 5 and 6. Chet Atkins was a major influence on Burton’s technique, and we’ve illustrated this in Exercises 7 and 8.
In order to get close to Burton’s sound and style these exercises are best performed with the plectrum held between thumb and index finger and a metal fingerpick on the middle finger – and played, of course, on a clean-toned Tele. But even without adopting the Burton method – these examples could be played purely with the fingers – there’s much that can be learned from his style.