Watson was a pivotal influence on Frank Zappa, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
• Learn essential blues licks.
• Combine open position and higher positions.
• Focus on the subtleties of bends and accents. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Houston native Johnny “Guitar" Watson might not be a household name, but he was a pivotal influence on Frank Zappa, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan among others. He's one of those figures that seems to lie just under the surface of pop culture. He invented the catchphrase “bow wow wow yippy-yo yippy-yay" and he isthe “gangster of love" that Steve Miller keeps talking about.
The thing that interests me about Johnny “Guitar" Watson is that despite his expansive explorations as an arranger, recording artist, and keyboard player, when it comes to guitar soloing, he really sticks to the blues. As a jazzy dude, I take this as a lesson in and of itself about how much can be said without using anything too fancy. We're going to explore some of Johnny's go-to licks and learn what his blues was all about.
Since Johnny often played with a capo, we'll be doing all of these licks in the key of E and taking advantage of open strings. You can easily move these licks up to any part of the fretboard, which he also did.
A big part of Johnny's sound comes from the fact that he played without a pick, just slapping and popping the strings super hard with his thumb and index finger. You can try this technique or pick it however you want. For these examples I'll be using a hard pick because I just can't play individual notes fast enough with my thumb like Johnny does. Either way, pay close attention to the notes that are marked with an accent and exaggerate the dynamics.
We'll start things off in Ex. 1 with probably the most essential guitar lick I know. Once you get this lick under your fingers you'll notice that just about every blues guitarist uses some version of it. You'll hear Johnny use it to build his phrases in every part of his career, no matter what style of music he's soloing on top of.
Ex. 2 gives us pretty much the whole open position scale shape in a nice funky phrasing. You can hear something similar to this in “Base Station One." I like this lick a lot because of how easy it is. There's not really anything too flashy, and yet the rhythm is so satisfying. I especially love the emphasis on the A notes in the second measure, giving it the unresolved feeling of the “call" part of a “call and response" phrase.
In Ex. 3 we're continuing to use every bit of the open position, but now it's getting a little fancier. This example shows the tendency Johnny has to hammer on the 3 on the 3rd string and slide up to the 3 on the 6th string. You can hear this lick on the opening of “A Real Mother For Ya." Try to get the bends nice and clean with a clear distinction between a full bend (whole-step) and a half bend. The last phrase (marked “piano") is deceptively hard and should be practiced on its own, slowly. It's almost like an afterthought but is still played very cleanly. You could pull-off from the B to the A, but Johnny tends to pick these kinds of quick, quiet phrases and it really adds a special quality to his playing.
Ex. 4 explores the lower register of the open position. This lick can be heard in Watson's song “Tarzan." The dynamics are clutch here. Try to get the quiet, individually picked notes very clean. The distinction between those notes and the heavily accented hammer-ons at the beginning gives the phrase all of its feeling. The last two notes demonstrate Johnny's tendency to throw in a little afterthought sass in what I would call a very bebop style.
Ex. 5 takes us to 3rd position. Johnny tends to spend a lot of time in this area, milking just these few notes infinitely with his feeling and phrasing. In the second measure we have an example of one of the ways he would typically bring it back down to open position with a super-fast and clean run. On the long G note just before that, wait until the very end to give it that slight quarter bend.
Ex. 6 moves up to the 7th position where Johnny occasionally ventures. This particular lick is from “Do Me Bad So Good" (which bears a striking resemblance to “Billie Jean" five years before the MJ hit came out—but that's for another article). Play all the notes in the 10th fret with your 3rd finger (using 1st and 2nd to help bend) and the notes in the 8th fret with your 2nd finger, leaving your 3rd finger ready to play the last notes. This also gives the 8th fret bend an inexplicably different sound, which is one of those things that makes the guitar magical.
A few moments later in the same solo we get Ex. 7. This is a personal favorite because this lick both anticipates a chord change and uses chromaticism (there's my jazziness coming into play). We also get a glimpse into how Johnny connects the areas of the fretboard together in his mind since we start in 5th position and end in the same 7th position that we used in the previous example. The bends are interesting as they basically overshoot the major 3rd of the chord, but it just doesn't sound right without them. As before, play the 8th fret notes with your 2nd finger.
Ex. 8 brings us full circle to the simple lick we started with in the first example. This variation adds in a very cool F#. It's also flashier and more in the style of his pre-funk days. This is from “Three Hours Past Midnight," which apparently inspired Frank Zappa to play the guitar. Don't worry so much about the exact rhythm for this—it's really an approximation. The tempo is slow and the licks are fast. The important thing is getting the right notes on the downbeats.
One final note: If you slow these recordings down (like I did) to learn them, you'll hear a distinct swing in his playing. It's subtle, but I tend to think it tells the listener a lot about what they're listening to. For a more in-depth explanation about the concept of swing, I have a couple of YouTube videos on the subject.
Of course as with all blues players, knowing the licks is only half the story. The real genius comes in the phrasing and timing of it all. Take this as your cue to start diving into the excellent recordings (and unfortunately sparse live videos) of Johnny “Guitar" Watson!
For a look at the life of Johnny “Guitar" Watson check out the “Forgotten Heroes" article by Michael Ross. In my research this was by far the most in-depth article I found, and it's right here at Premier Guitar.
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Colorful note groupings can bend the ear of the listener—and spark creativity in your own playing.
• Understand mini-scales and how to fit them into your soloing.
• Work on moving up and down the neck fluidly.
• Create your own characteristic mini-scales. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
We all hit the wall occasionally when it comes to our musical vocabulary. You feel like you’re always playing the same ideas over everything. Our topic today is designed to give you a boost of creativity and help you break out of that rut, using what we’re going to call “mini-scales.”
What Is a Mini-Scale?
Instead of using an entire scale, we will just pick out four notes and treat those as a “mini-scale.” This tightens up the sound and actually makes for more interesting melodies. When used over the right chords, it also eliminates the issue of having “bad notes” to avoid. To form these mini-scales, you can either start with a scale and take notes away, or just pick four random notes within an octave.
Ex. 1 is the first four-note mini-scale I incorporated into my own playing. It was heavily influenced by (and possibly stolen from) Kurt Rosenwinkel. The notes are 1–b2–4–5. You could think of it as a version of the G Phrygian scale, minus some notes. This example is just one octave—up and back down—to give you the basic idea. You should play it in 3rd position, starting with your 1st finger.
Ex. 2 expands this further by taking this same set of notes and continuing it over the entire position, which is roughly two octaves. The articulation can be personalized of course, but I like to slur the half-steps as indicated. This makes the fingering more efficient so you can play it faster.
Isn’t This an Arpeggio?
When we think of an arpeggio, we think of outlining the full function of a chord. That’s usually 1–3–5–7 and then the extensions. But that’s not exactly what we’re after here. We’re looking to grab a handful of colorful notes and play them over a couple of octaves, thereby creating a self-contained sound. It could be a normal arpeggio, but it might not be. It might not even contain the root. Once you have your self-contained sound, you can move it all over the place.
For example, right now we’re calling G the root, which would imply a Gsus(b9) chord. But try playing this same set of notes over Ab. Now we’ve got a really cool Abmaj7(#11) sound. Or you could play it over an F and get an Fm6/9 sound. You can hear all these in Ex. 3. There are a ton of possibilities that you can explore, just try putting different bass notes under your mini-scale and see what you come up with.
Let’s look at a different mini-scale. In Ex. 4 I use 1–3–5–b6. Start in 2nd position with your 2nd finger, and then slide up into 3rd position after the D. Once again, I like to slur the half-steps to make things smooth and fast. Some ideas for chords on this one: G7, Cm, Ebmaj7, B7(#9).
To get the most out of these mini-scales, we can work out the fingering so that we flow up the neck horizontally, which gives us a lot more range. In Ex. 5 we take the fingering for the first octave of our previous scale and repeat the exact same fingering up the neck. This is a pretty tricky lick, but it’s really effective once you get it up to tempo. Start slow, use a metronome, and focus on the fingering. The fingerings might seem odd at first, but they will help to propel you up and down the neck.
Another example of the horizontal method is Ex. 6, which uses 1–#2–3–b7. We’re in the key of E to take advantage of the low 6th string. This one uses two notes per string all the way up and back down, and we keep the fingering the same to make things as easy as possible. These horizontal licks take some time but focus on the patterns that repeat.
Real-Life Playing Scenarios
My main goal with this concept is to open your ears and mind to more possibilities. If one of these mini-scales sparks an idea, go with it! You don’t need to master this technique by any means. But there are some real-life playing scenarios where these mini-scales can come in handy.
Check out Ex. 7 which uses our first mini-scale (1–b2–4–5) combined with some rhythm to get a long musical phrase. And as we’ve already discussed, this works over several different chords, including Fm6/9. So next time you’re on a minor funk jam, give this a shot! I practically guarantee it will turn heads (hopefully in a good way).
You can also combine this concept with a more functional vocabulary, as you might use in older jazz standards. Ex. 8 shows a situation where you’re playing a minor IIm–V7–Im. You don’t have all the time in the world, but you can still weave the first mini-scale idea into a bigger bebop phrase.
Now that you’ve got a handle on the concept, go nuts! This is a great way to get some brand-new sounds into your playing and songwriting.
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