Learning how to play blues guitar? Pay extra attention to these five things from guitar teacher Mike B.…
1. In Tune Bends
The blues guitar style is full of bending strings. Bends, as well as hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides, give guitarists the ability to imitate the way singers use various inflections while singing melodies. However, unlike hammers-ons and slides, bends are not guaranteed to be in tune. Since there is nothing worse than an out-of-tune bend in the climax of a great solo, we need to pay special attention to training ourselves to make sure our bends are in tune.
When you bend a string, it is supposed to be bent up to a specific pitch. The most common bends are up a whole step (the distance of two frets), or up a half step (the distance of one fret). For example, if you are on the 8th fret of the B string (the note is a G), and you bend up a whole step, it should sound like the 10th fret of the B string (the note is an A). If you are going to bend up a half step from the 8th fret on the B string, you bend it up to make it sound like the 9th fret (the note is an Ab or G#). Here are a few ways to practice being in tune:
- Play the note you are going to bend to first, get the sound of the note in your ear, then bend up to it, and try to get it to be the same exact note.
- Plug in to a tuner, and practice bending from one in-tune note to another, either a half step or a whole step away.
- Practice unison bends. Unison bends involve playing two notes, the note you are bending and the note you are bending to, on two adjacent strings. When doing this, take special care, and make sure that they are exactly the same two notes. To get started, practice the examples below:
Be sure to practice this all over the neck of your guitar, since it will take different amounts of strength to bend in tune in various parts of the neck. We want to train our muscles and our ears to be in tune no matter where we are on the neck.
2. Learn Entire Solos
A lot of players tend to overlook this aspect of learning, and just end up digging into individual licks they enjoy. The importance of having a lot of licks and ideas available to you cannot be overstated, but there is a lot to be gained from learning the entirety of a solo.
Learning an entire solo gives you a chance to see how the soloist paced themselves, and how they built their solo from the beginning to the end. It also gives you a chance to see how the soloist utilized space. When we look at just individual licks, we don’t get to see what led up to them, and what came after them. It’s these aspects of a solo that really make you stand out from the rest.
3. Serve the Song
Typically, a solo should serve the song it is within, and should be viewed as your turn to speak and convey how you feel. What you choose to say in your playing should serve the song in some way. For example, if its a slow song, it may not be the time to unleash your fastest licks, back-to-back. In other instances, a song may need all of your fastest licks. Keep your ears open, and think about what it is that you are trying to express. Does it add to the song, or are you simply letting your fingers speak? Don’t forget that the song has a melody. You can quote it in your solos, or simply just use the rhythm of the melody to relate your idea back to the melody. Leave space. Sing along with your playing.
Repetition can be viewed in a few ways: repeating your idea verbatim, repeating the rhythm but changing the notes, or playing variations on your original idea and allowing them to morph into new ideas.
This is such a crucial tool for crafting a good solo. If we think about it, do lyrics typically have a bunch of unrelated ideas through the duration of the song, or are the lyrics all along a central theme? Typically we will find the lyrics are all around one idea, but when a lot of people go to take a solo, they tend to play a bunch of unrelated ideas stringing them together one after another. Sometimes it works; a lot of times it doesn’t. Wouldn’t it make more sense if instead of playing 100 ideas or guitar licks in a solo, we played three or four, and got as much out of them as we could?
Here are some ideas on how to practice this:
- Play the lick, and have a different ending each time.
- Vary the rhythm a few different ways.
- Keep the rhythm the same but change the notes.
- Play an idea, then “respond” to it (“call and response”).
5. Listen to the Greats
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but always be listening to guitar players (and other instrumentalists) who you enjoy, and learn from them. If you haven’t already, you’ve got to check out these great blues guitar players:
- B.B. King
- Freddie King
- Albert King
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Everyone that ever played in the Allman Brothers Band
- Eric Clapton
- Mike Bloomfield
- Muddy Waters
- Robert Johnson
- Robben Ford
- Larry Carlton
- Charlie Christian
- Tinsley Ellis
- Albert Collins
There are many, many more tips worth mentioning, but this should get you started as you continue to learn blues guitar. Hopefully there are a few names here that you don’t yet know. Keep practicing!
Mike B. teaches acoustic guitar, blues guitar, and guitar in Arcadia, CA. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Guitar Performance from University of Redlands, as well as his Master’s Degree in Studio and Jazz Guitar from University of Southern California. Mike divides his time between performing live, doing recordings, and being an educator. He has been teaching students since 2004. Learn more about Mike B. here!
Photo by Soumyadeep Paul