Shred Your Enthusiasm: Blues-Rock Obstacle Course
• Add some blues firepower to your lick arsenal.
• Become a string-skipping ninja.
• Develop the skills to become a harmonic ninja by implying the root note.
Traditional blues is usually not improved with large doses of athleticism. I can just imagine the song titles that might result from such a combination:
“One Bourbon, One Scotch,
and One Protein Shake”
“I Got my Mojo Jogging”
“Hellhound on my Treadmill”
“The Thrill is Brawn”
“I Can’t Quit Yoga, Babe”
I could keep riffing on these puns, but I think you get the idea. And now that I’ve built my metaphor, I’m going to contradict it by playing a bunch of my favorite 16thnote and 16th-note triplet licks over some unsuspecting blues changes. The speed of these solo phrases is definitely not traditional, but the notes still fit over the chords, the fingers get an invigorating workout, and there is enough bending and syncopation to pay tribute to the crucial sounds of the original art form.
Overall, I like having these types of phrases in my guitar phrase toolbox, just in case I need to turbo-charge a blues and give it some rock teeth. So let’s take a look at how it works in Fig. 1.
The first six notes form an awesome phrase and exercise by themselves. It’s a simple three-note pattern that alternates between two different ending notes. When played with alternate picking—which is what I recommend—the picking will reverse itself, in relation to the left hand, every three notes. This reversal can be infuriating at first. But with some slow and accurate practice, you can turn an enemy into a friend and add some serious indestructibility to your alternate-picking technique.
In the second measure, a couple of pull-offs are included to give some muchdeserved rest to the picking hand. And make sure to give proper attention to the bend at the end. It is the first chance for the solo to breathe, so savor the moment.
For measures three and four, I repeat the established patterns, but alter the notes to fit the IV chord (D9). You may notice there is no D note in this whole two-measure section, even though it’s played over a D9 chord. I leave the root note to the bass guitar and/or the ear of listeners who will infer it.
How does that work? All the notes that make up a D9 chord are being played in the solo, except for the root (D). Since 4/5 of the notes from the chord are there in the solo, the remaining unplayed note is strongly implied by the context. I never pass up an opportunity to use the word extrapolate, and that is what the ear does when the chord progression and the notes of the solo all point to the same root note, even if it’s not actually there. Last but not least, the phrase ends with another bend. Don’t miss this opportunity to shake it.
Measure 5 begins with 16th-note triplets. Harmonically, I chose notes to outline the E7#9b13 chord. That chord has so many symbols and numbers it almost looks like an abbreviation for a swear word. But don’t worry—it’s just notes, and this opening lick only uses four of them.
I highly recommend taking a close look at the combination of downstrokes, upstrokes, pull-offs, and hammer-ons that happen during the first six notes. My teaching experience tells me that most guitarists will find this particular combination to be counterintuitive at first. But this is a great opportunity to open up a new door of technique. Great sounds lie within. Slow, accurate practice will guarantee your success.
Immediately following the triplets, a couple of syncopated notes lead into a string-skipping challenge. The left hand shape alternates between tiny and large stretches, which will wake up the fingers and the brain. The resulting notes continue to outline the V chord. Enjoy the bend and vibrato at the end.
And finally, the last two bars resolve to the I chord. The 16th-note triplets at the top are best picked, starting with an upstroke. But what if you’re more comfortable starting with a downstroke? What would Al Di Meola do? The answer is “up.” It’s worth a try.
The return to 16th-notes summons a sparsely populated Am9 arpeggio. I purposefully chose to play only the b3, b7, and 9, and leave out the root and 5. Since there are only three different notes, the arpeggio has wider interval skips than if all the notes were included. And by only playing the most colorful notes, the harmonic character is magnified. It makes the listener go, “Ooooh!”
I end with the 3 and the root … the strongest, bluesiest, rockingest, two notes in the cosmos.
Once you have built all these details into a solid solo, it’s up to your ears to make stylistic decisions. I suggest being like a bouncer at a nightclub, but a very cool and reasonable one. You have the muscle to intimidate and keep people out of the club. But instead, you reserve the muscle to break up the occasional fight, and the rest of the time you keep the peace and act generously with the guest list.