Beyond Blues: Roots Rock Primer
I am a big roots-rock guy. To me, roots rock is a mix of blues, rock, country, honky tonk, and a ton of attitude. There are lots of open chords and strings ringing all over the place, plus a few spilled beers. In this month’s lesson, we’re going to look at a few Americana-influenced blues licks that you will be able to get under your fingers quickly and use on the next Tuesday night blues jam.
Two of my favorite players in this genre are David Grissom and Eddy Shaver. For Grissom, I’d suggest Joe Ely’s Live at Liberty Lunch and any of his solo records. He is a master of this style. Unfortunately, Eddy Shaver (Billy Joe Shaver’s son) passed away in 2000, but not without leaving us some great recordings. I highly suggest Billy’s Unshaven: Live at Smith’s Olde Bar. Man, that guy could play and what a tone.
The lick in Fig. 1 uses a neat tuning trick I picked up from ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” We’re in the key of G, which is a great key for open strings because the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings are a G chord. Note: To get a full low G that has some ring to it, I’ve lowered the 5th string down to G. This makes this lick a breeze to play and emphasizes all those open strings. Dropped-G tuning offers some of the benefits of full open G tuning, yet soloing is much easier because your top four strings stay in standard tuning.
You can hear a bit more influence from the Rev. Billy Gibbons in Fig. 2. This is a funky, rootsy lick in A that uses a cool little bend. This lick is like mixing ZZ Top’s “La Grange” with the bridge of Zep’s “Black Dog.” Play the A chord by barring the 4th and 3rd strings, so your pinky can grab the C at the 5th fret and give it a slight bend. Don’t bend it too much—just keep it cool and bluesy. That’s the “La Grange” part. We alternate the low notes at the end of each two-measure phrase between an F# and a G, just like Page does on “Black Dog.” I always loved that.
This next lick in Fig. 3 is literally the “root” of rock ’n’ roll. You can find traces of this lick from Muddy Waters and Hubert Sumlin to Jonny Lang and Warren Haynes. It has swagger and attitude, and it grooves hard. Also, it has inspired a ton of tunes, most notably would be Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” As a result, I teach this to all of my students. It’s important to sit into the groove right on this one and the bend/pulloff combo can be a bit challenging. If all you do for the next few days is perfect this lick, you’ll have done yourself a great favor.
I am such a sucker for the shuffle feel in Fig. 4—not to mention the sound of those big ringing open chords combined with a little bluesy riff. This one plays up that great sound of mixing the scale’s lowered 3 and natural 3. An important element to getting this to sound right is not to play too softly. Really smack the crap out of the strings. Also, don’t gain out your amp too much— you want to keep the clarity of the chords.
We could easily devote a whole column to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm style, but you can get a good idea of the feel he typically uses on tunes such as “Pride and Joy” and “Cold Shot” in Fig. 5. Basically it goes between E and A while adding some of that classic Texas shuffle. When first trying to play this, I stumbled on a happy mistake: Over-barring with your 1st finger on the A chord lets you catch the F# on the 2nd fret. Whoa! This not only sounds cool because you form an A6 chord, it also makes the riff easier to play. Your picking hand plays a huge part in this lick by constantly swinging the eighth-notes and muting the strings. Not sure what I mean? Just watch almost any video of SRV and all will be clear.
No roots lesson would be complete without a good train beat. I love this feel, but soloing over it really kicks your butt because the tempo demands some ripping. Fig. 6 is basically just an A chord, but the hard part is keeping the low A pumping on beats 1 and 3. I also use hybrid picking on this, so my pick plays the low A and my middle and ring fingers pluck the 3rd and 2nd strings, respectively. Not easy, but super cool.
I hope you enjoyed some of these roosty blues licks. They’re a big part of my playing and hopefully they’ll open a few doors for you.
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.