Students ask me from time to time how you play a Blues. The answer is simple you may think: Show them a 12 bar blues and there you go. Is it as simple as that? The key is in listening and what people associate with how a Blues sounds like. There are so many types of Blues songs, and that typical 12 bar, Chicago-style Electric Blues, may not be everyone’s idea of what a Blues is about.
Not only beginners related the idea of a Blues song to a 12 Bar Blues, more experienced players may have a similar association: I can remember when it came to doing sound checks with a local Rock n Roll band and I started with a shuffle groove, all the other band members jumped on that typical 12 bar Blues idea and the vocalist often started to sing the beginning of “Sweet Home Chicago” My idea of the shuffle was to set up a particular groove without really thinking about “Sweet Home Chicago” Funny how some of those things go, but they can also be confusing.
For this article a few short tips on what you can do to improve your Blues playing, but as you have guessed by now, it all starts with listening and having reference points to how a Blues can be played and sung.
Right back to guitar now: Most of you who have an interest in Blues, will start out with the minor pentatonic scale and playing solos over a 12-bar Blues. Before we go there let me introduce you to a few basic Blues techniques which are an absolute must to get under your belt: Single String Bending and Vibrato.
Single String Bending:
Bend your strings using Three Fingers: One finger does the actual bend while the other two are there to support your String Bending Finger. Check for the image at top of the page, and look at B.B King’s fingers whenever you see him bending a string (Yes he uses this technique a lot!!) While you bend your string check for tuning accuracy: Bend up the string for half a note, or a whole tone or even one and a half tone. You can check your tuning against the note your are bending into. There are double string bends and single bends, but the point is to get your accuracy spot on. Be very precise with how you bend your string, do not rush the string bend and take your time. It does take time ( and an interest in how your string bend sounds like!) so do not rush!
One you have bend that string you do not leave it there hanging in the air, no you Vibrate that string to make it sustain forever!. Like String Bending, the Vibrato needs to executed in a particular way: Use your first, second or third finger of Left Hand (depending on position you play in) as a pivot point, now take your thumb of the neck (when do you get told to do so? I have to tell beginners often the opposite—Keep your Thumb on the neck of the guitar All Times—okay now it is time to leave your Thumb of that neck!) Once you will do so you will notice that the string only has contact with that one finger, rest you hand against the neck and now shake your wrist while you hold that note. Check out B.B King and how he holds his hand and watch his wrist as he shakes it to get that note to vibrate and sustain. B.B is the Master at this technique. Get it smooth and you are on your way to play with an authentic Blues sound.
Okay once you have those two techniques under your belt you can start playing phrases which will give you a Bluesy idea. The easiest is to think from chords instead of the minor Pentatonic Scale: The chords will make you play the right harmony notes and will tune in your ears as to which notes to play. The minor (and major) Pentatonic scale will fit into all of this, but start out with arpeggio notes of the chord. Once you become more experienced you will see that whatever you play can be related to either a chord or a scale, for now just get some phrasing ideas. Again listen to B.B King, he is a good reference point, he can play fast but often only plays a handful of notes, and those notes can be used to create a whole solo over the whole chord sequence of the song. Get the String Bending and Vibrato smooth and that is a start.
So many players you will come across do play their Blues ideas with a Rock approach. This is not wrong, it is just a matter of what people have listened to and what they think it should sound like. Slow yourself down and work on your String Bending and Vibrato, those two elements are really key to getting a great Blues sound.
Once you have them under your belt start experimenting with playing major scale ideas over minor chords. This sound is often used by T-Bone Walker. Listen to him and try some of the ideas and you realise that is what goes on.
Have fun playing the Blues and hope to catch you soon again for Arpeggio Fire.