What is chicken pickin’? Add complex rhythms to guitar playing

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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Ever heard a country guitar player and wondered how they were making those chicken clucking sounds?

Well, that’s called chicken pickin’, and it’s a style of guitar playing that uses complex rhythms to create a unique sound. This is done by plectrum (or pick) picking the strings in a fast and intricate pattern.

Chicken picking can be used for both lead and rhythm guitar playing and is a staple of country music.

But it’s not limited to just one genre – you can hear chicken pickin’ in bluegrass and some rock and jazz songs too.

What is chicken pickin’? Add complex rhythms to guitar playing

If you’re interested in learning how to chicken pick, then read on for some tips and find out about methods to use this technique when playing guitar.

What is chicken pickin’?

Chicken pickin’ is a hybrid picking technique employed in rockabilly, country, honky-tonk, and bluegrass flatpicking styles.

The sound name chicken pickin refers to the staccato, percussive sound the right-hand makes while picking the strings. The fingerpicked notes sound like the clucking sound of a chicken.

Each string pluck makes a special sound like rapid chicken clucks.

The term is also used to refer to the style of guitar playing associated with the sound.

This style is generally characterized by intricate lead work combined with rhythmic strumming.

This style of picking allows for quick and nimble passages that would otherwise be difficult to play with traditional fingerstyle techniques.

To perform this hybrid picking technique, the player must snap strings against the frets and fretboard while plucking strings.

It can be done with the index finger, ring finger, and pick. The middle finger generally fretting the lower notes while the ring finger plucks the higher strings.

But to learn to pick, there are a few basics to know.

Essentially, when you pick, you replace the upstrokes with the chicken pickin middle finger pluck or using a pick to downstroke.

Accents, articulation, and note length is what define chicken pickin licks from others!

The juxtaposition of the plucked and picked notes is what makes the big difference. The plucked notes sound something like a chicken or hen cluck!

Basically, it’s a sound you make with your hands and fingers as you play.

The interesting sound that this technique creates is beloved by many guitarists especially those who play country, bluegrass and rockabilly genres.

There are plenty of chicken pickin licks that can be learned and added to your guitar arsenal.

If you’re looking to add some complex rhythms to your guitar playing, this style is definitely for you!

Chicken pickin’ can be played on any type of guitar but is most commonly associated with electric guitars.

There are many famous known for chicken pickin techniques, such as Clarence White, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Albert Lee.

What are the different techniques in chicken pickin?

The music style of chicken pickin uses a lot of different techniques.

Chord changes

This is the most basic method and consists in simply changing chords while keeping a constant rhythm with the right hand.

This is a great way to start learning chicken pickin’, as it will help you get used to the movement of the right hand.

Snapping strings

The first and most important technique in chicken pickin is snapping the strings. This is done by quickly moving the pick or middle finger back and forth across the strings.

The snap creates a percussive sound that is essential to the chicken pickin’ style.

Palm muting

Palm muting is often used in chicken pickin’ to create a percussive sound. This is done by resting the side of your palm lightly on the strings near the bridge while you pick.

Double stops

Double stops are also commonly used in this style of guitar playing. This is when you play two notes at the same time.

This can be done by fretting two strings with different fingers and picking both of them at the same time with your fretting hand.

Or, you can use a slide to play two notes at once. This is done by placing the slide on the fretboard and picking the two strings that you want to sound.

Unfretting of a note

Unfretting is when you release the pressure of your finger on the fretboard while the string is still vibrating very rapidly. This creates a percussive, staccato sound.

To do this, you can lightly place your finger on the string and quickly lift it off while the string is still vibrating. This can be done with any finger.

Hammer ons and pull-offs

Hammer ons and pull offs are also often used in chicken pickin’. This is when you use your fretting hand to “hammer” on a note or “pull off” a note without picking the string.

For example, if you were playing a chicken pickin’ lick in the key of A, you might fret the 5th fret on the low E string with your pinky finger and then use your ring finger to “hammer on” the 7th fret. This would create a sound of an A chord.

Chicken pickin is a style of playing, but there are different things you can do when picking to create different sounds.

You can pick with all downstrokes, all upstrokes, or a mixture of both. You can also use different picking techniques such as legato, staccato, or tremolo picking.

Experiment with different techniques and see what sounds you like.

If you want the classic country guitarchickenn pickin’ sound, then you’ll want to use all downstrokes.

But if you want a more modern sound, then try using a mixture of downstrokes and upstrokes.

You can also add in other techniques such as vibrato, slides, or bends to create even more interesting sounds.

Flat pick vs picking fingers

You can use either a flat pick or your picking fingers to play chicken pickin.

Some guitarists prefer to use a flat pick because it gives them more control over the strings. They can also play faster with a flat pick.

Picking fingers gives you a warmer sound because you’re using your fingers instead of a pick. This method is also great for playing lead guitar.

You can use any combination of picking fingers that you want. Some guitarists use their index finger and middle finger combination, while others use their index finger and ring finger.

It’s really up to you and what’s comfortable for you.

Another factor to consider is that you should wear plastic nails on your fingers if you want to be able to pluck the string properly.

Plucking and pulling without nails will damage your fingers while practicing hybrid picking.

Your picking hand should be in a relaxed position when you’re playing.

The angle of your hand is also important. Your hand should be at about a 45-degree angle to the guitar neck.

This will give you the best control over the strings.

If your hand is too close to the strings, you won’t have as much control. If it’s too far away, you won’t be able to pluck the strings correctly.

Now that you know the basics of chicken pickin, it’s time to learn some licks!

History of chicken pickin’

The term “chicken pickin’” is thought to have originated in the early 1900s, when guitar players would imitate the sound of a chicken clucking by rapidly picking the strings with their thumb and index finger.

However, the overall consensus is that chicken pickin was popularized by James Burton.

The 1957 song “Susie Q” by Dale Hawkins was one of the first radio songs to use chicken picking with James Burton on guitar.

When listening, you hear that distinctive snap and cluck in the initial riff, albeit briefly.

Even though the riff was straightforward, it caught many people’s attention in 1957 and sent a number of players chasing after this brand-new sound.

This onomatopoeia (chicken pickin) was first used in print by Music journalist Whitburn in his Top Country Singles 1944-1988.

During the 50s and 60s, blues and country guitar players went crazy with chicken pickin techniques.

Guitarists like Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins, and Roy Clark were experimenting with the style and pushing the boundaries.

At the same time, Englishmen Albert Lee and Ray Flacke played honky-tonk and country.

Their picking hand and speedy fingers techniques and use of hybrid picking amazed audiences and influenced other guitar players.

In the 1970s, country-rock band The Eagles used chicken pickin’ in some of their songs, which made the technique more popular.

The most notable use of chicken pickin’ in The Eagles repertoire is in the song “Heartache Tonight”.

Guitarist Don Felder employs chicken pickin’ extensively throughout the song, and the result is a catchy, percussive guitar riff that helps to drive the song forward.

Over time, this imitative technique developed into a more refined style of picking that could be used to play complex melodies and rhythms.

Today, chicken pickin’ is still a popular style of playing, and many guitarists use it to add a bit of flair to their music.

More recently, guitarists like Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, and Keith Urban have been using chicken pickin’ techniques in their songs.

Brent Mason is currently one of the most notable chicken pickin guitar players. He has worked with some of country music’s biggest names, such as Alan Jackson.

Licks to practice

When you play chicken pickin style, you can use a flat pick or a flat pick and metal finger pick combo. Alternatively, you can even use a thumb pick to pull the strings.

This playing style entails using a string a little more forcefully than usual.

What you have to do is place your finger under the string and then pull away from the fingerboard.

The goal is to pull out, not up or away – this is the secret to the chicken clucking snap sound.

Think of it as an aggressive pop! You use a finger and pick to pinch and pop your string.

For an extremely rich, percussive tonal effect, players frequently snap two and occasionally even three strings at once.

It takes a lot of practice to use this multi-string attack, and it can feel a bit aggressive at first as you practice.

Here’s an example of a player practicing Brad Paisley licks:

To learn proper chicken pickin, you need to practice and perfect your playing skills.

Some licks are super fast, while others are a bit more relaxed. It’s all about mixing things up to keep your playing interesting.

Remember to start slow and increase the speed as you get comfortable with the lick. It’s important to practice each lick until you can play it cleanly.

You can learn some chicken pickin licks/intervals over at Twang 101.

Or, if you want to try some classic country licks, check out Greg Koch’s tutorial.

Here’s a demonstrative country chicken pickin tutorial in which the guitarist shows you the chords to play.

Favorite songs with the chicken pickin’ style

There are many examples of chicken pickin songs.

For example, Dale Hawkins’s 1957 “Susie Q.” The song features James Burton on guitar, who is one of the most well-known chicken pickin’ guitarists.

Another famous hit is Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” His technique and style influenced many chicken pickin’ guitarists.

Lonnie Mack – Chicken Pickin’ is considered by many as one of the first chicken pickin’ songs.

This is a fun song that uses chicken pickin’ techniques throughout the whole song.

Brent Hinds is a master guitar player, and his short, but sweet chicken pickin technique is a must-see:

If you’re looking for a modern example of this music style, you can check out country guitar player Brad Paisley:

Just watch how fast his fingers move in this duet with Tommy Emmanuel.

Final thoughts

Chicken pickin is a style of playing that could be used to play complex melodies and rhythms on the guitar.

This playing style entails using a string a little more forcefully than usual and is popular among country music guitarists.

Using your fingers or a pick, you can pluck the strings in different orders to create different sounds.

With enough practice, you can master this style of hybrid picking. Just check out videos of your favorite guitarists to get some inspiration and learn this technique.

Next, check out the 10 most influential guitarists of all time (& the guitar players they inspired)

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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