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Beyond Blues: Soulful Rhythms

Modern soul master Derek Trucks draws inspiration from old-time gospel and jazz to create impressively melodic rhythm parts.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to combine aspects of lead and rhythm guitar.
• Delve into slash chords.
• Unlock the mysteries of the 7sus chord.

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

One of the best ways to take your blues to the next level is to add flavors from other genres. With its supple guitar riffs and melodic fills, classic ’60s soul music offers fertile ground for such cross-genre exploration. Drawing heavily on gospel, and creating the basis of what would become funk and disco music in the ’70s, soul music is kept alive today by such ensembles as the fabulous Tedeschi Trucks Band—the premier place to see slide master Derek Trucks in action.

Music in this vein is fascinating as it’s obviously deeply rooted in the blues, but often moves well away from the standard 12-bar form. The harmony we’re treated to often goes beyond the standard dominant-chord palette, and instrumental sections are usually nothing short of spiritual.

So let’s look at ways to integrate this influence into our rhythm guitar playing. We’ll tackle phrasing in a moment, but first we’ll examine our harmonic choices.

One of the common chord sounds heard in soul music is the 7sus chord. I like to think of this as a slash chord—a triad over a bass note. Two of the most common formulas are bVII/I and IV/V. In the key of A, they are G/A and D/E.

Let’s analyze the intervals in the G/A chord. We end up with the root (A), b7 (G), 9 (B), and 11 (D). As you can see, it doesn’t really function as major or minor. There are a few ways to play this chord as you can see below. Try to visualize them as G major triads over an A bass note.

To demonstrate some rhythm parts in A, we have four musical examples where we substitute the 7sus for the V chord, in this case, E. These would sound great as vamps in a song, but each of these could also work as an ending.

In our first example (Ex. 1), I’m using organ-based comping ideas that feature small triad voicings similar to those we’ve looked at in the past. The C# dim triad helps create an A7 sound and in the second measure, I use my favorite 7sus voicing with the D triad on the top three strings and the E on the 5th string.

The secret to making D/E resolve to A lies in effective voice-leading. Notice how the top note stays the same and the two lower notes resolve down by no more than a whole-step. We end this example with sliding sixths moving from the 3 down to the root.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 sounds a little jazzier, but thanks to the 6 instead of the b7 on the A, it has a less abrasive harmony than the previous example. For the 7sus chord we have an incredibly easy voicing—just barre across the inner four strings at the 7th fret. This voicing is a little denser on the ear than the last one, as it contains two consecutive fourths—a hip sound. For the resolution we have some slick sliding thirds on the 3rd and 2nd strings. These are pretty pianistic in nature, but they fit really well on the guitar and sound great!

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Ex. 3 begins with some dense 13th chords. I like these because they have the b7 in the bass, which really gives the illusion you know what you’re doing! For the 7sus I’m going right to the inner workings of what a slash chord is. We can work out voicings that feature the triad and the bass note, but you don’t need that bass note—especially if the bass player is covering it. In our example we’re playing a simple D triad on the top three strings and leaving the E to our bassist. To end this one, we play more sixths, descending on the 1st string starting from the 5. Those chromatic passing tones spice up the move.

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Ex. 4 finds us working the guitar’s lower register and using open strings to get a fat A13 chord. When you let ideas like this ring out, they can create a very atmospheric sound. And check out the 7sus chord: the open 6th string anchors the V (E), while the IV (D) chord moves down to resolve to the I (A). To end the phrase, we’ve got a Jerry Reed-inspired double-stop idea that introduces the b5 (Eb) blue note on the 2nd string.

Click here for Ex. 4

Our final example (Ex. 5) is a 16-bar jam on a great gospel-blues progression (A7–B7–D7–A7). This could be thought of as a I–II–IV–I progression, and it’s that move from the I to the II that really gives it a twist. To take it deep into soul land, on the repeat we add an E7sus chord (IV/V) at the end to pull us back to the tonic. This is really only a change in the bass, as we’re still just thinking of a D triad but the bass moves up to the V (E).

In the first four measures we’re using triads on the top strings and moving up a whole-step to go from the A to the B chord. Against the D7, we’re playing C and D triads to suggest a D7sus sound. To make this section more melodic, we end it with some descending thirds.

This really gives us a feel for what makes soul guitar special. Even though we’re playing rhythm parts, the phrasing is intriguing. It’s not just strumming chords, though you can absolutely do that, and you hear it on Motown records all the time. To add excitement, we connect the chords with little lines in sixths and thirds.

In measure five we encounter more classic double-stop vocabulary that resolves to a great voicing for the B7 chord (actually a B9). This moves us toward D7, which we decorate with a bluesy double-stop before hitting the E7sus we looked at earlier.

Measures nine to 12 are influenced by Cincinnati guitar monster Scotty Anderson and his unique approach to double-stops. While I can’t play these ideas with Anderson’s technique and speed, they work great in our chordal comping.

Next we work through some stacked thirds and slinky sixths before rolling to the end. Our final four measures wind us down with a great B9 to B7sus idea. The cool thing about any 9th chord is that if you move the 3 up a half-step to the 4, you have a 7sus chord that can heighten melodic interest.

Click here for Ex. 5

And lastly we have a backing track to accompany you as you experiment with some of these ideas. Try mapping out thirds or sixths, and then link them together as you shift up the neck for each dominant chord. These moves will sound great over the track when you get them down.