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Blues Basics: Saying More With Less

You can make a huge impact when soloing—for both the audience and yourself—when you break down the solo and use fewer notes.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Create more with less by limiting your note choices.
• Develop simple and useful phrases that are easy to experiment with.
• Understand how different phrasing techniques can expand your vocabulary.

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Sometimes we have a tendency to lose sight of simplicity and think too much about our guitar solos, and this leads to overplaying and squeezing in too many notes. The truth is you can say so much with just a few notes. Combining simplicity with the emotion you’re trying to convey, as well as a skillful use of dynamics, can lead to an amazing solo.

You can make a huge impact when soloing—for both the audience and yourself—when you break down the solo and use fewer notes. Then you can build it back up and drive home exactly what you are trying to convey. Soloing is a conversation in music. Take a moment to think about how you converse with someone—it works the same way on the guitar. What’s your conversation about? Is it an intense or lighthearted subject? Happy or sad? What mood are you trying to express? What do you want to say? A solo should capture all of that. And sometimes, instead of delivering a measure of blazing 16th-notes, you can get your point across better with simpler phrasing.

For starters, lets build some tasteful phrases using just four notes from the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G). It’s easy to get trapped running up and down a scale. Let’s step back from that and enhance our four notes with variations in phrasing, vibrato, and dynamics. If you give it a chance, you’ll be amazed what you’ll come up with. In the following four figures, I’ll stick with just A–C–D–G in the 5th position.

In Fig. 1, I start with an easy blues cliché that can be a springboard for a million other licks. Here we begin on the downbeat, but try playing this phrase with a metronome and move the starting point through each of the beats in a measure. The underlying triplet feel that’s so prevalent in blues can be an open door to tons of rhythmic experimentation.

We move to a more syncopated rhythm in Fig. 2. Keep things tight by making sure you land on the downbeat of beat three with the D on the 3rd string. Sloppy rhythms are the first clue that you haven’t spent much time playing with either a metronome or a real drummer.

With Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 we keep the basic rhythm of the phrase almost identical. We throw in a few grace-note hammer-ons in Fig. 3 and a grace-note bend in Fig.4 to illustrate our mantra: Do more with less.

Hopefully these few examples are starting to help you see the endless possibilities that exist in this quest for simplicity. Keep playing with those notes, maybe not always using all four. Try changing it up to just three notes, then maybe even just two notes. The tasteful permutations are virtually limitless!

Now, lets explore this a bit further. Try playing all of the previous phrases in other fretboard positions, then try playing them in other keys.

All right, back to A minor pentatonic. In Fig. 5, we use two classic phrasing tricks: quarter-step bends and octave displacement. To give that C on beat one a bluesy sound, just give it a little twist, but don’t reach all the way up to a C#. That small tweak is the quintessential sound of the blues. At the end of the phrase, instead of playing another A on the 4th string, we bump it up an octave and play it on the 1st string. Dig your pick (or finger) underneath this string and give it a little snap for emphasis.

As I mentioned before, the triplet is probably the most important rhythmic pulse in any kind of shuffle-based music. We have what could be a never-ending lick in Fig. 6. Slide into the first triplet and use some left-hand vibrato throughout to give the figure an Otis Rush sound.

Finally, we have Fig. 7, which can also be used as a “looper”—much like Fig. 6. The trick is to keep the triplets in time and not lose your place in the form. At first it will be a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, but stick with it.

Now that you have some new licks in your arsenal, try them out over Fig. 8, which is a basic 12-bar blues in the key of A minor. Remember, you can easily transpose these licks to work over the IV and V chords in the form.

Record yourself playing a rhythm part and get tasteful with your soloing! Don’t forget to breathe in between your phrases. Explore all the variations and combinations of phrases you can come up with in using just a few notes. Articulate. Accent. Add flavor in your attack and approach to each note you play. Breathe. Think about what it is you’re trying to say and capture it. Sometimes less is better. Simplicity—it can be one of the biggest challenges you give yourself as a guitar player, but the end result is well worth the effort.

WAMA-nominated Lisa Lim is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based out of Central Virginia. Lim has been touring and performing in various bands for the past two decades. Her current bands, The Lisa Lim Band and Lisa Lim & Over the Limit, perform throughout the Virginia and DC circuits. She is a faculty member at National Guitar Workshop and is in high demand as an instructor across the mid-Atlantic region, offering seminars and private and group lessons. For more information visit