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Beyond Blues: Roy Buchanan’s Tele Tricks

The legendary Tele player was a master at emoting the more vocal and expressive side of blues guitar. Here’s a look at some of his boundary-busting techniques.

Often referred to as “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist,” Roy Buchanan was a visionary Tele player who had a far greater influence than his commercial success might suggest. Over the course of this lesson, we’ll explore how Buchanan would tackle a slow blues in E. Although the format might be basic, Buchanan’s approach was anything but. He not only was a master of expressive bends, but also more extended techniques like muting, pinch harmonics, and tone swells. Check out this recording of Buchanan playing on Bobby Gregg’s “Potato Peeler.” Even on this early recording, all of Buchanan’s trademark moves are in place.

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Ex. 1 shows Buchanan’s incredible use of the volume knob to create screaming guitar parts. His earliest lessons were on the steel guitar, so it’s plausible that this use of volume swells comes from there. Using nothing more than notes of the E minor pentatonic scale (E–G–A–B–D), these bends attempt to imitate the crying sound of the human voice.

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Ex. 2 features pinched harmonics, a technique that permeates Buchanan’s playing. To execute these “whistlers,” as Buchanan called them, you’re aiming to strike the string with both the pick and the fleshy side of the thumb closest to the guitar. Some claim he invented the technique, which is likely hard to prove, but it’s fair to say that Buchanan made it more popular. The last part of the lick features some erratic tremolo picking to build excitement.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to use volume and tone swells to create vocal sounds.
• Add dynamics and excitement to your licks with “whistlers,” or pinch harmonics.
• Develop faux-flamenco techniques.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Click here for Ex. 2

One of Buchanan’s signature techniques was to manipulate his tone knob to give a faux wah sound. Ex. 3 introduces the sound by swelling the tone knob while striking the note—much like a volume swell. (Tip: I find this technique difficult on standard Teles, so I rotate the control plate to bring the tone knob closer to my hand.) As with the volume knob swells, this technique aims to add a little more human expression to the notes you’re playing.

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We break out some compound bends in Ex. 4. The basic idea is to bend to a target note, hold it, and then bend it even more to a second note. In addition to Buchanan, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour often uses this technique. A compressor could help you get enough sustain for multiple bends, but Buchanan wasn’t known to use many pedals—he just cranked his amp.

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This next lick (Ex. 5) features another compound bend, as well as more pinched harmonics. Use all downstrokes to get these harmonics to really ring out. It’s easy to imagine something like this on a Zeppelin album.

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Ex. 6 is tricky to play. Buchanan liked to push boundaries, but he wasn’t concerned about being technically refined—it was all attitude. In this lick, you’re required to tremolo pick the 1st string and move between fretted notes and muted strings. To build drama, Buchanan would often slide his finger beyond the fretboard, following the string right up to the bridge pickup to generate high-pitched, bird-like sounds.

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Ex. 7 illustrates another of Buchanan’s extended techniques—a raucous take on the flamenco rasgueado. (In traditional flamenco guitar, this rapid strumming pattern is achieved by quickly fanning out all the picking-hand fingers against the strings. You can find various types of rasgueado demonstrated in YouTube instructional videos.) He would often use this technique while fretting fast single-note lines.

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Our final example (Ex. 8) is a full 12-bar solo using a selection of techniques. Don’t get too hung up on the denser rhythmic notations. Simply work on some fingerings and techniques and jam along. Speaking of jamming …

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Here’s a backing track so you can try some of these new ideas. And don’t be timid! Exploring Buchanan’s style is about experimenting and not being afraid to cut loose.

On these recordings, I’m playing my Telecaster through the Universal Audio Fender ’55 Tweed amp emulation with a splash of reverb to simulate playing in a hall. Buchanan had a huge country influence, so you’ll need to embrace the biting sound of a Tele’s bridge pickup. None of these examples are about playing clever arpeggio substitutions or outlining complex chord changes. Buchanan’s defining characteristic wasn’t in the notes he played, but how he played them. He was always looking to expand the guitar’s sonic capabilities by attacking his strings in unorthodox ways and using his tone and volume controls to shape his phrases.