Though blues guitarists are more renowned for their guitar licks and solos than for riffs, good blues guitar players aren’t just able to touch your heart with sweet melodies.
They’re also able to be the engine of the songs with blues guitar riffs.
In this lesson we’ll explore the rhythm in the blues with 10 guitar riffs that start from the very easy, and get pretty complex by the end.
With each guitar riff there will be a short explanation of the musical elements and techniques being used.
Use this knowledge to create your own blues guitar riffs even if you’re not an advanced guitar player yet.
For instance, if you can only play up to the third or fourth riff, you can still create simple blues riffs of your own. You will just have fewer options and your riffs will be simple, but you would have started training yourself to create music, as well as putting the techniques you know into practice.
Before we dig into the 10 blues guitar riffs, let’s get clear on some terminology that’s used when playing the blues.
The blues shuffle is a rhythmic pattern where instead of dividing the quarter note (crotchet) beat in two eight notes (quavers), it’s divided into a triplet where the first note is a quarter note and the second an eight note.
In this example, the first bar is made of straight eight notes, while the second bar uses the blues shuffle.
Though this rhythmic pattern is used in other genres of music, in the blues it is so common that many songs have an instruction at the top to indicate that all the beats should be divided this way (as you’ll see in the exercises below).
There are variations to this rhythm. In fact, blues guitar can never be tabbed perfectly since each player has his own nuances of playing the same thing.
These minor differences include holding the first note of each beat of the shuffle for a little longer, or a little shorter, than a quarter note, playing one or both notes as staccato, or putting a rest between the two notes.
For the purposes of this lesson we’ll stick to the example given above, however keep in mind that in real life situations, guitar tabs are rarely completely faithful to what blues guitarists play.
The 12 bar blues is a chord progression that is so common in blues music that it earned own name.
It uses the I, IV and V chords of the key, also known as the primary chords.
These are usually played as either power chords (ex A5, D5 and E5 in the key of A) or as dominant 7th chords (A7, D7, E7), as well as minor, usually with an added 7th note (Am7, Dm7, Em7).
Note: If you’re learning music theory this may confuse you since there is no key that has all these three dominant 7th chords in it. The reason for this is simple: Music theory describes what has been tried and tested by the great composers before us and found to work, not a set of rules.
Many musicians deviate from these patterns and create their own. It is very common for the blues to deviate from traditional music theory norms. In fact, one can say that the blues has its own theory.
The 12 bar blues in A:
There are other variations of the 12-bar blues, but for the purposes of this lesson we’ll stick to this pattern.
Other chord progressions exist in blues music and these include the 8-bar blues and the 16-bar blues.
Blues riff 1
This first riff is very easy and does not use any particular technique.
Use it to get the blues shuffle right as well as to orient yourself with the 12-bar blues chord progression.
The notes of this riff are derived from the minor pentatonic scale of each respective chord.
Blues riff 2
The next riff is slightly more complex because it makes use of string skipping technique, which simply means playing notes that do not fall on adjacent strings.
The notes of this riff are derived from the Mixolydian mode, the guitar mode most frequently used in the blues.
Blues riff 3
This riff uses notes from the most popular scale in the blues, the minor blues scale.
The flavor of this scale comes from the chromatic movement found at the end of each bar.
Blues riff 4
In the above examples we only play one note at a time.
In the next riff we’ll be using double stops, that is, two notes played at the same time.
The first and third beats in each bar are made of the power chord while the second and fourth beats are made of intervals of a major 6th.
Blues riff 5
In the next riff we introduce two techniques that are widely used in blues music:
- Quarter bends: Unlike other string bends, this bend doesn’t actually reach a specific destination (such as a semitone or a tone above). You just bend the note a little without reaching the sound of the note on the next fret.
- Dead notes: These are created by muting the strings with your left hand while striking with the pick. Dead notes are marked by the letter x on guitar tablature.
Blues riff 6
This riff is almost identical to riff number 4, except that we start on the note A on the fifth fret of the low E string, rather than on an open string.
This makes it more challenging for your left hand since it involves a stretch.
Aside from the stretching exercise in itself, being able to play beyond the open position when playing double stops or chords opens up a lot of possibilities, including the ability to play in all keys.
Blues riff 7
The next riff introduces the interval of a minor seventh. This means more stretching, as well as more options under your belt when creating your own blues guitar riffs.
Blues riff 8
All the riffs we’ve explored so far are somewhat stereotypical, stuff that has been repeated over and over again with minor variations.
This serves to lay a foundation in basic blues rhythm guitar.
In reality blues rhythm can get much more complex and varied than this, as you will see in the next riffs.
The following riff makes use of less notes, broken chords, as well as dead notes to create a mellow feeling.
Blues riff 9
The next riff uses more rhythmic variation and makes use of slides.
An important thing to notice about this riff is the note movement from C – C# on the 3rd beat of the second bar.
The note C sounds jarring with the underlying chord, which is A7, thus made of the notes A, C#, E and G.
However it is only used as a passing note to the chord tone C#. This way of resolving dissonance is very common in the blues.
Blues riff 10
The last riff makes use of a variety of guitar techniques including string bending, slides, legato, and dead notes.
Note that some bars sound more like blues guitar licks, than riffs. The reason is that there isn’t a huge difference between licks and riffs except that riffs are meant to be repeated while licks are not.
Though licks are usually played on the higher strings of the guitar, and riffs on the lower strings, this is not what really defines them. Thus a group of notes played on the higher strings but meant to be repeated can be considered a riff.
As you can see from the above examples, the blues is not a difficult genre of music to start playing.
This doesn’t mean that the blues is an easy style to master.
There are different layers of complexity when it comes to playing the blues, whether you’re playing rhythm or lead guitar.
If you want to specialize in this genre of music, I suggest that you focus on the following areas:
- Music theory that applies to the blues – which scales to use, against which chords, etc.
- Rhythm: This involves being able to play the guitar on time, as well as gaining knowledge of the rhythmic variations you have as options.
- Guitar techniques – The use of slides, bends, hammer ons/pull offs, vibrato, dead notes and other techniques which make your music really stand out. Your music is likely to sound boring without the use of such techniques, even if you play the right notes at the right time.
- Repertoire – Building an arsenal of blues riffs, licks, solos and songs that you can play.
- Improvisation and creativity: The above elements should then be used to create your own music.
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