Building a vocabulary of guitar licks is one of the first things you need to do if you want to play the blues. In this lesson, I’m going to assume you’re quite new to the blues but already have some knowledge of guitar techniques like string bending, vibrato, hammer-ons and pull offs, and slides.
If you can’t play these techniques I suggest you first get a working knowledge of them before you start learning the blues.
Because in blues guitar licks, riffs, and solos these techniques are used all the time.
On the other hand, you don’t need to know any music theory if you want to get started with blues guitar.
This is not to say that the benefits of music theory don’t apply equally to playing the blues; simply that you can, and should, start playing this genre of music even if you’re not yet well versed in music theory.
In the blues licks in this lesson, I will be telling you what scale the notes in the lick are derived from, as well as what guitar techniques are being used, but will not go into much depth on either.
Note: You can’t steal entire solos but yes you can steal licks, motifs, and short ideas. You will then modify them, develop them, and apply them to the context of your own improvisations and solos. In this lesson I show you how to do this with licks using the minor pentatonic scale.
The first lick is very common in the blues and uses notes from the minor pentatonic scale.
It makes use of string bending and vibrato technique. With string bending, what you need to look out for is that you actually hit the intended pitch. In this lick, the intended pitch is two frets above the picked note, since it’s a full bend.
It’s important that you train yourself to bend strings outside the context of a guitar lick and develop the right muscle memory so that you don’t have to stop and calculate while you’re improvising.
Trust your ear to determine whether you’ve reached the right pitch. If it sounds like you’ve hit the right note, you probably have. If you’re not sure, you can use a guitar tuner to confirm.
With vibrato, you need to make sure that what you’re doing is consistent. For instance while rapidly bending the string to achieve the sound, be careful to bend to the same distance each time. And that you arrive back to the original note after each bend. Otherwise, your vibrato will sound sloppy.
Once again, listen well and trust your ear to judge if your vibrato sounds right or if it sounds messy.
The next lick makes use of the minor blues scale. This is a hexatonic scale, which means it has 6 notes.
These notes are the same notes of the minor pentatonic and the #4 (or b5) interval from the root.
In the key of A minor, that is the note D# (or Eb) and we play this note by bending into it in the second bend of this lick.
As the name of the scale suggests, it has a bluesy sound and it is this note, also called the blue note that gives the scale its distinctive sound. That being said, the blues scale is not exclusively used in the blues and is also commonly found in Rock, Heavy Metal and Jazz.
The next blues lick is in the major pentatonic scale and makes use of a slide.
Notice the short rest before the last note – short periods of silence help accent the coming note, a technique commonly used in the blues.
We’ve already mentioned the minor blues scale and the blue note.
Though used less frequently – and when people say just “blues scale” they usually mean the minor blues scale – the major blues scale is another good scale to use in blues improvisation.
The major blues scale is made of the notes of the major pentatonic and the b3 interval from the root.
In the key of A major that would be the note C.
In the next lick, we bend the first note B a half step to the blue note C.
All the other notes in the lick are the same as in the major pentatonic scale.
The next lick is in the minor blues scale and is a good exercise to practice bending strings to different pitches.
The first bend is a full bend, which means you need to raise the pitch by two notes.
The second bend is a half bend, which means you need to raise the pitch by one note (to reach the blue note D# (or Eb) in this case).
The last bend is the quarter-tone bend, which is more of an embellishment of the note than a real bend since you don’t even reach the pitch of the next note.
The next lick is in the minor pentatonic and makes use of the bend and release technique.
When bending the string in the lick, play a full bend then bend down (release) to the original note, before playing the next note.
This lick is in the minor blues scale and is a bit longer than the others. One can say there are actually two licks here, the second answering the first.
Notice the triplet patterns in the second half of the lick.
Though the blues is associated with emotion of sadness, not all blues is sad. As blues master Joe Bonamassa explains in this article:
“Whole subgenres of the blues, like jump blues, evoke a feeling that is upbeat, cheerful, positive, and even happy. And if the blues can cover the rest of those feelings and emotions, then the blues can’t be just limited to the downhearted, the down-trodden, the despairing feeling in us all.”
The next lick has a more uplifting sound and uses the major pentatonic scale since major scales have a happier sound than minor scales.
The next lick also has a pretty happy sound and uses notes from the major pentatonic scale.
The following lick is in the major blues scale and makes use of a technique we haven’t explored so far – the pre-bend.
In the second bend in this lick, first, bend the note to the intended pitch (without making any sound) hit the note, and then bend it down.
You may have noticed that string bending isn’t a technique you learn only once and you’re done. There are an infinite amount of different sounds you can get from this technique by changing how you bend, how far you bend, and the speed of the bend, among other things.
Blues guitarists milk this technique to the full. It’s important you spend a lot of time practicing this guitar skill if you want to play this genre of music.
The next lick in the minor pentatonic may be a bit tricky to execute at first.
Practice the bent notes in the triplets very slowly until you find the correct hand position.
The following is a simple minor pentatonic scale sequence played in triplets followed by a bend.
Note: Practicing guitar scale sequences is important if you want to improvise the blues or any genre of music for that matter. They give you a lot of ideas you can use in your improvisation. Even better, they train your ear to hear the next note before it is played, a very useful skill for improvisation.
The following is a simple lick in the minor blues scale.
The blue note is the sixth note of the lick.
The next lick introduces a concept that’s also very common in blues guitar licks – double stops. That is, playing two notes at a time.
I’m also using a scale we haven’t explore so far – the major and minor pentatonic scale combined.
As expected this hybrid scale can give us some very dissonant sounds like the two notes of the double stops.
The last lick also makes use of the hybrid major and minor pentatonic scale.
One of the benefits of this scale is that it makes chromatic movements like those used in this lick possible.
Conclusion: Where to go from here
I hope that the blues guitar licks in this lesson have given you your first taste of blues guitar playing and have inspired you to get into this genre even more deeply.
The next topic I would explore at this point would be blues rhythm, especially the blues shuffle.
Also learn the blues scales and other scales used in the blues while building a vocabulary of blues guitar riffs and licks. And if you want to become a blues player, or are particularly fond of this genre, I also suggest you learn about its history and its numerous sub-genres.
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