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September 2014
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Beyond Blues: British Blues

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Beyond Blues: British Blues
It must have been awesome to be knocking around all the blues clubs in London during the mid to late ’60s. Think about it: On a given night, you could run across Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, or David Gilmour. The stars aligned as they did in NYC in the ’50s with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, or in Chicago around Chess Records and Detroit with Motown. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alive for any of that stuff. Maybe the tail end of the British thing, but my diapers would most likely have been a downer onstage. (I did witness the Seattle scene in the ’90s, but at that point, guitar solos had gone out of fashion.)

I’m a huge blues fan, but the way the Brits played it really got to me. It was just the right blend of blues and rock ’n’ roll—two great American art forms blended into its own sound. So what is British blues? I’ll make a few generalizations here, so bear with me.

I’d say the Brit school is mostly influenced by Chicago blues—and the likes of B.B. King and Muddy Waters—so the sound is a bit more of a mix of major and minor blues scales, as opposed to the straight minor blues sound that’s associated with Texas blues. Basically, Brit blues is a bit happier. For an in-depth look at this sound, check out my column in the June 2011 issue [“The Composite Blues Scale,” June2011]. Mix that with all the great Memphis rock ’n’ roll sounds of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, add some loud guitar, and it all comes together.


The invention of the Marshall amplifier had a huge impact on the British sound. Cranking the volume on a Marshall generated overdrive and sustain that defines what we think of as British Blues. Eric Clapton basically invented that guitar tone in 1966 on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album. Don’t own it? Buy it now! What is cooler than a cranked Marshall and a Les Paul? This month, I want to share a few of my favorite licks from Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green. These aren’t difficult licks, but they do embody that British attitude.

Every time I play the intro lick in Fig. 1, it makes my big toe stand up in my boot. This is straight up Cream-era Clapton. I love his heavy vibrato on the tritone of the C7 chord (Bb and E), while the amp’s gain does the work for him with the ringing overtones. Another Clapton-ism that I have heard Robben Ford use from time to time is shown in Fig. 2. It’s based on a C minor pentatonic scale (C–Eb–F–G–Bb) with the 6 (A) replacing the b7. I like it because it adds a little bit of flavor to a blues. This lick can also be seen as coming from C Dorian (C–D–Eb–F–G–A–Bb), so make sure to try it out over a Cm7 chord as well.


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The rapid-fire Fig. 3 is a classic pentatonic lick. Have some fun with this one by playing it at different tempos and laying back a bit. For a cool Michael Schenker-vibe, try stepping on the gas. Take a minute to listen to the natural clashing overtones this lick produces. Once again, the advent of amp gain really added to the coolness of this lick.


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Let’s face it: Jimmy Page is the riff master. Where would rock or metal be without his influence? Fig. 4 is a Zep-inspired groove over an E7 chord that really exemplifies the British sound of mixing blues and rock. As with any lick you learn, try this one at some different tempos and feels, as it can fit in so many different places. It’s not so important that you learn the lick exactly—it’s more about how it’s played. Peter Green, the original guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, is one of my favorites. He had a great “out-of-phase” Les Paul tone and such a natural feel. Fig. 5 is a cool opening lick for a blues in C that incorporates some quarter-step bends. I must admit I have stolen this lick many times.


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or Download Example Audio


I hope these licks give you some insight into the British blues players. There are many albums I can recommend, but if you are new to the genre I cannot stress how important John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album is. It’s the blueprint of what was to follow. Now crank that amp and get to it!


Jeff McErlain
Jeff McErlain is a New York City-based guitar player, producer, songwriter, and educator. He performs regularly in NYC and abroad with his trio and blues band. Jeff has a number of instructional DVDs available at TrueFire.com, and he is a featured instructor for the National Guitar Workshop. Jeff's latest CD I'm Tired is available on iTunes or at jeffmcerlain.com.
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