• Combine modal sounds with pentatonics and blues scales.
• Understand how to work through rhythmic subdivisions.
• Learn how to add attitude to stock phrases.
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We all love the blues—it’s a style that goes hand-in-hand with guitar playing. Blues is so versatile you can work it into many other types of music. Think about it: Brad Paisley, Guthrie Govan, and Joe Bonamassa are among the diverse 6-string heroes who have been inspired and influenced by blues, and draw on it for their own rock and country riffage.
There’s a style of blues I like to call “swampy.” If you’re in the key of D and play blues or minor pentatonic licks with some country-rock attitude, you end up in a real sweet spot. It’s almost like you can do no wrong—just get in that groove and ride it through the song. Let’s explore this swampy, country-blues area.
We’ll start out on acoustic, although these licks work great on electric as well. Acoustic guitars love to be played on the lower frets with lots of open strings, so let’s start there. Ex. 1 is an open-string lick where you flatpick the notes on the 5th string and pluck any notes that fall on the 4th or 3rd strings with your middle and ring fingers, respectively. This hybrid approach lets you keep your picking hand in one position throughout.
Then in the second half of the lick, we move this concept over to the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings. We’ll add an Ab in there, which in the key of D is the b5 or “blue note.” If you hang on the blue note for too long it sounds terrible, but if you use it to get to the note just above or just below, it adds an awesome dash of spice.
Now we’ll move up the fretboard a bit and into another sweet spot for the key of D. Ex. 2 rakes up to an F and bends it a little before descending through the D blues scale (D–F–G–Ab–A–C). Then we’ll switch things up and go from straight 16th-notes to sextuplets. If you can fluidly switch between straight 16ths and sextuplets, your control over timing will be through the roof.
Let’s switch to the electric guitar and the bridge pickup for the next set of examples. The bridge pickup delivers a really aggressive, in-your-face sound that cuts through a mix.
Blues, and guitar in general, isn’t just about the notes you choose to play. It’s also about the notes you choose to mute. Ex. 3 starts out with a muted upstroke, which adds character to the lick. Then it gets much, much more interesting with a raked downstroke into a 12th-fret, half-step bend and release (bending a 6 to a b7, if you’re keeping track of the numbers), followed by a pull-off to the 10th fret. Execute the latter with one fluid motion.
Bending strings is one of my favorite things, as evidenced by a YouTube video I recorded called 45 Ways to Bend a Guitar String. The tail end of this example has a bluesy double-string bend, followed by a unison bend, which means you hold one note and bend another note up to the same pitch. It’s a great way to know if you’re bending the string the right amount because the other string is right there for a pitch reference. This move is nicknamed a “smear” because it sounds like you’re smearing notes together.
In Ex. 4, we use triplets to pick up the speed again. Here we descend through the D Dorian mode (D–E–F–G–A–B–C) with an added blue note (Ab). The cool takeaway from this lick is its special picking pattern. We start by picking a note on the 3rd string, then plucking a note on the 1st string with the middle finger, and following that with a pull-off. Then we get into the triplet rhythm of down-up-pull-off, which lets us descend or ascend strings with plenty of articulation without having to pick every single note.
Now let’s flip that pickup to the neck position. The neck pickup offers a smoother, more civilized sound than the aggressive bridge pickup. Its hollow tones have been used in blues for over half a century, so let’s make the most of it.
Hendrix was known for using this area of the neck for hammering-on double-stops. You can hear this sound in “The Wind Cries Mary,” and the idea has been passed down to many guitarists since. Start Ex. 5 by hitting a double-stop with your first finger and hammer-on to the lower of the two notes two frets up with your third finger. Instant awesome. And as a bonus, the lick uses a double-string bend.
Also, as I mentioned previously, the blue note (Ab) works well to approach the note directly above or below it, and this phrase illustrates the process. Simultaneously pluck a D on the 10th fret of the 1st string and pick an Ab at the 13th fret of the 3rd string. Then, while holding the D steady, slide from the 13th to the 12th fret. You should only be on the Ab for a fraction of a beat. Called a “grace note,” the quick initial pitch doesn’t actually have a duration like an eighth-note or sixteenth-note. Instead it serves as a springboard into the target note (G). Very bluesy.
Ex. 6 dips into fusion territory. It’s all triplets and the first note is a pickup note—a note that precedes the downbeat. It starts out with an A octave before alternating between D minor pentatonic scales that cross each other. Once the scales pass each other you wrap it up with a non-linear series of notes in the blues scale. Tasty!
Now we’re going to dig out the slide and conquer the final frontier of swamp-blues soloing. Like Derek Trucks, Duane Allman, and Sonny Landreth before us, let’s bid farewell to frets and glide across the strings on brass, chrome, or clay. For this example, we’ll stay in standard tuning. Although open tunings offer more options, there’s a practical benefit to playing slide on the guitar you’re already holding.
A couple of tips: Tuck your pick into your hand with your index finger, and use your thumb, middle, and ring fingers for picking. Also, make sure you press the slide down enough for the notes to sound cleanly, but not so hard you’re bumping into the frets.
Sonny Landreth is one of the greatest blues slide guitarists ever, and Ex. 7 is inspired by his playing. You pick a note, move a half-step below it, and then slide back into the original note. It’s a unique sound you probably wouldn’t think of if you picked up a slide for the first time and just winged it. Then it culminates in the classic, basic slide sound: Hitting a double-stop on two adjacent strings and then sliding up two frets into the target chord.
The coolest thing about slide is not having to obey theory rules. Ex. 8 starts on C and G#, then slides down to A and F. Pick the triplets throughout with your thumb and middle finger.
Sweet! Now that you’ve got all of those down, here is a backing track below so you can jam to this yourself.