Inject your blues with a healthy dose of twang.
• Learn how chord shapes can help you to visualize the fretboard.
• Combine Mixolydian, Super Locrian, and blues scales.
• Create long, flowing phrases that outline the progression.
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The influence of blues reaches so far it’s difficult to find another genre it hasn’t touched, whether harmonically, melodically, or even rhythmically. It’s no surprise to hear rock and jazz musicians playing the blues, and its influence can be heard all over funk and soul music.
The beauty of this is that it works both ways—there are many influences you can bring into your blues playing, and to me there’s no cooler way to do this than borrowing a little twang from hot country players.
Like blues, country is a pretty broad genre with many different eras, so when it comes to looking for inspiration, there are tons of greats we can draw from. A good place to start is with the late outlaw country legend, Merle Haggard, and his classic tune, “Workin’ Man Blues.”
The form is a basic 12-bar blues with a bit of a break on the IV (D) chord near the end. Compositionally it’s nothing too difficult, but it’s the type of tune that will get called during a jam, and whether you’re into Roy Nichols, Albert Lee, or even B.B. King, you’ll be able to get by if you know how to navigate this classic.
We’ll look at 10 different licks that will work in various places in the progression. The key to really mastering any of this lies in understanding why the lick works, so you’re able to play it in any key—or even over different changes. Having the ability to transpose anything you might play in one key or position to another is invaluable.
In terms of note choice, we’re treating it like a blues player would for the most part: Over any dominant 7 chord we’re going to base our ideas on the Mixolydian mode. In the key of A, this would be A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G. Basically, it’s a major scale with the 7 lowered by a half-step.
Emulating pedal steel is a cornerstone of country guitar, and Ex. 1 offers a prime example of this technique. The phrase starts with a bend on the 2nd string up from the B to a C# while holding E on the 1st string. In the second measure, we play a little chromatic idea that lands on the 3 before descending to the 5 and then ending on the root.
Ex. 2 shows a cool way to move into the IV chord. Here’s how we get there: An Albert Lee-inspired triplet idea with double-stops outlines the A7 chord in the first measure. In measure two, we pretty much stick to the A Mixolydian scale, though the b5 (Eb) appears as a passing tone along with the b3 (C), which functions as an approach tone to C#. We finish by landing on F#, which is the 3 of the D7 chord—our IV.
Ex. 3 is a little jazzier, something you’d expect from Western swing-influenced pickers. There are lots of ways to analyze this lick. Personally, I’m thinking of a basic F#m7b5 arpeggio (F#–A–C–E) combined with some added color tones. Also, you could think of the second measure as floating in and out of D Lydian dominant (D–E–F#–G#–A–B–C). I just focus on how cool that G# sounds against the chord and add it in for some spice. The lick ends as we land on the root of A7 before sliding down to the 6 (F#).
Ex. 4 begins with the same pedal steel idea we saw before, but in the second measure we’re getting really outside by using the A Super Locrian scale (A–Bb–C–Db–Eb–F–G). There are many ways to find the Super Locrian scale tones, but the most common one is to visualize the melodic minor scale that lies a half-step higher than the chord root. In other words, here we’d use the Bb melodic minor scale starting on A to create the A Super Locrian scale. Notice how we’re implying an altered A7 that resolves to the IV chord (D7). We hit the latter with some slinky 6ths and a classic descending lick based on D Mixolydian (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C).
Ex. 5 outlines the V-IV-I part of the progression in a pretty straight-ahead fashion: E Mixolydian (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D) over E7, D Mixolydian over D7, and A Mixolydian over A7. And we’re including a bit of chromaticism over each change: Approach the 3 of each chord from the b3. This is a classic concept and one you need to master to nail this style.
The muted triplets that open Ex. 6 are very much in the style of the great Roy Nichols. I’m actually just slipping into the first note of the triplet with my third finger, then sliding up two frets while picking a triplet. You could try playing these ideas using the first three fingers as well. To finish the lick, we explore more classic descending Mixolydian vocabulary.
Ex. 7 is a trickier, open-string lick featuring position shifts. The open 3rd string serves as the 4 on the D7 and the b7 on the A7. We start with a D7 idea for a measure, then move up to the “A” shape at the 5th fret, and finally the “E” shape at the 10th fret. You see these CAGED ideas all the time from country players. When the harmonic outline is this pronounced in their playing, it’s a dead giveaway that they’re picturing chord forms on the fretboard.
Over the A7 we use the “C” shape and move down to the “E” shape again, offsetting both against the open 3rd string. The last measure has a little Jerry Reed-style pattern using the b5 in a double-stop. The final move goes through a quick triplet before ending on a double-stop that outlines the V chord (E).
In Ex. 8, we hit the V-IV-I movement again with a lick that fits in the “G” shape of the CAGED system. In measure one, we add some chromatic sparkle by using Bb as an approach tone (Bb–B) and then passing tone (B–Bb–A).
Changing to D7, we stay in the same place on the neck, so our perspective needs to shift as we rip through some D Mixolydian vocabulary around the “E” shape. We end the phrase by landing on the root and jumping up for the “B.B. King” ending.
Ex. 9 features a fast, repeating motif (b3–3–5) against an A7 chord. We do this for a whole measure to build up tension before playing another chromatic-laced, slippery little A Mixolydian run that resolves to E7.
Our final phrase (Ex. 10) spans 14 frets in just a couple of measures, so you need to really take care to not get lost. I’m relying on chord shapes to keep me grounded—seeing a “C” shape moving down to a “D” shape, then to an “E” shape at the start of the second measure before finally hitting the “G” shape. The beauty of this system is that I’m free to do whatever is required, wherever I happen to be on the fretboard. This isn’t just a long run of notes to remember. To resolve the idea, we have more chromatic sixths that lead us into the 3 and root of D.
Here’s an extended backing track for you to play over, as you experiment with some of these ideas. If you listen to hot-rod country pickers, over time you’ll find their licks creeping in to your blues playing.