Get inside the techniques of a modern blues master and add some fire to your solos.
• Learn some ripping open-string rhythm riffs.
• Create rhythmic tension through repetition.
• Understand how to combine colorful notes with pentatonic sounds.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Though he’s only 33, Gary Clark Jr. has already shared the stage with such blues greats as B.B King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton—each of whom can now be counted as a fan. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Gary appears humble, yet confident, and this vibe is mirrored in his playing, which simmers with style and intention. His music is an intoxicating cocktail of blues, rock, soul, gospel, hip hop, and R&B. Despite all these influences, one thing remains: Gary Clark Jr.’s songs always have a captivating groove that serves as the bedrock for his soulful blues licks. In this lesson, we’ll delve into the man’s riffs and licks, and explore his influences.
Let’s begin with an example of his groove-based riffs. We’ll start with a low and washy groove in E minor (Ex 1). To give the riff real punch, let those open strings ring on beat 2. When supported with a tight backbeat, they’ll give you that infectious, head-bopping effect that Gary does so well. His riffs are usually relatively simple, but he adds little variations to keep them interesting without losing that all-important groove factor. Including the 9 (F#) in the fourth measure adds some harmonic interest, and also serves to pull the riff back around.
Ex. 2 provides a contrast to the more open and ringing rhythm parts in the previous example. This time we’re using short, muted power chords on the downbeats, while laying down a solid groove on the upbeats to create variation and keep the riff ticking over. The tonality here is A minor, but with the added 6 (F#) in the second measure for extra flavor.
Gary understands that one essential trait of blues guitar is heartfelt phrasing. Ex. 3 uses a technique that builds that slow burn and adds a sense of “question-and-answer” to his phrasing. We’re using the E minor pentatonic (E–G–A–B–D) scale to construct a repeating phrase and then cap it with different endings. This approach gives the listener something to latch onto, and Gary uses it all the time.
Gary is incredibly adept at moving around the beat, whether that means laying back or pushing ahead. Sticking with the E minor pentatonic, Ex. 4 illustrates how he stays in one place on the neck and plays with rhythmic variations before stepping out of the musical roundabout to resolve the line. He often keeps patterns like these going longer than one measure—and does so with ease.
We’ve already touched on this a little, but Gary likes to add one note to a pentatonic scale to give it some extra color and enhance the sophistication of his lines. In Ex. 5, we move to the key of B minor. The phrase opens with some classic blues vocabulary, which is followed by a slow bend and release from the 9 up to the b3 and back. We emphasize the 9 again in measure three before ending the phrase with a big released bend on the 4th string and a slide up to the 5 (F#).
In addition to working open-string riffs into his rhythm parts, Gary also likes to include open strings in his lead lines—a nod to the old Delta blues players. In Ex. 6, the open strings are surrounded with some bends and slides, which makes the technique even more intriguing. Check out how Gary might fret notes on the 3rd and 2nd strings, while using open strings to create a drone effect.
Ex. 7 is an example of Gary’s articulation—particularly how he’ll often use fast hammer-ons to give notes a different attack. To get that grace-note effect, the trick is to play all the hammer-ons at the same speed.
You can hear the influence of the late Chuck Berry in Ex. 8, which is like something Gary might play over his tune, “Travis County.”Delivered over a pumping rock ’n’ roll blues in C, this idea uses some classic repetitive “Chuck” bends and some Jerry Reed-esque sliding double-stops.
Hints of Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan often infiltrate Gary’s improvisations. Ex. 9 opens with some minor pentatonic vocab that isn’t a million miles away from something you might hear from SRV. This is followed by a succession of bends that are straight-up Albert King.
We end this journey with a technique that Gary is very fond of—the unison bend. He uses unison bends all the time and varies their speed to either get a snarling dissonant warble or a throaty chorused sound. Ex. 10 uses both. You can milk the first one a bit by taking a little time to get to pitch, whereas the last two require quicker bends. Add a fuzz pedal and some vibrato, and you’re halfway there!
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
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Dunable announce new Minotaur model featuring Grover Rotomatic Keystone tuners.
The Minotaur's DNA is rooted in their classic Moonflower model, which Dunable discontinued in 2017. However, they have long since wanted to create a fresh take on a carved top guitar design, and various attempts to rework the Moonflower led them to a brand new concept with the Minotuar.
Dunable's goal is to give the player a guitar that plays fast and smooth, sounds amazing, and gives maximum physical ergonomic comfort. The Minotaur's soft and meticulous contours, simple and effective control layout, and 25.5" scale length are designed to easily meet this criteria.
- 25.5" scale length
- Dual Humbucker
- one volume, one tone, push pull for coil splitting
- Grover Rotomatic Keystone tuners
- Grover Tune O Matic bridge with brass Kluson top-mount tailpiece
- jumbo nickel frets
- 12" fretboard radius
This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
Adding to the company’s line of premium-quality effects pedals, Missing Link Audio has unleashed the new AC/Overdrive pedal. This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal – the only Angus & Malcom all-in-one stompbox on the market – brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
The AC/OD layout has three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone. That user-friendly format is perfect for quickly getting your ideal tone, and it also offers a ton of versatility. MLA’s new AC/OD absolutely nails the Angus tone from the days of “High Voltage” to "Back in Black”. You can also easily dial inMalcom with the turn of a knob. The pedal covers a broad range of sonic terrain, from boost to hot overdrive to complete tube-like saturation. The pedal is designed to leave on all the time and is very touch responsive. You can get everything from fat rhythm tones to a perfect lead tone just by using your guitar’s volume knob and your right-hand attack.
- Three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone
- Die-cast aluminum cases for gig-worthy durability
- Limited lifetime warranty
- True bypass on/off switch
- 9-volt DC input
- Made in the USA