Blues music is actually the initial reason I started learning guitar in the 3rd grade. I remember hearing a Stevie Ray Vaughn song come across the radio, and I immediately fell in love with the blues. Hearing the blues made the guitar genuinely come alive for me. The sweet sting of sadness and pain mixed in with a tone like no other. It was beautiful even at such an early age it moved me in ways I can’t explain.
Blues guitar is hard to learn since it is not all something that can be taught technically, but felt emotionally. Here are 5 main areas of focus when you want to learn blues guitar.
- Blues Structure
- Rhythm guitar
- Lead guitar
You just can’t show feeling the blues. The blues holds so much emotion inside of it that if you merely are a technical player, but the music doesn’t move you, it will show right through your playing. This goes for no matter how well of a professional player you are.
Traditionally blues is based around a 12 bar progression. At first, glance if you have any basic knowledge of playing chords, a 12 bar blues can seem quite elementary. This is actually quite far from the truth. One of the reasons I don’t believe that blues guitar is easy to learn is due to the subtleties that we don’t hear right away.
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You need to understand that in Blues, just like Jazz, often, less is more. During a 12 bar blues sometimes its the silence and space given that allows for the emotion of the music to come through.
Think about all the different ways BB King can play the same 4 to 6 notes. It’s unbelievable he could play the same 6 notes, yet change the phrasing to fit what he wants to express emotion. This allowed him to show a completely different emotion while still using the less is more technique. But you have to remember it doesn’t always hit you square in the face. The differences are subtle, it takes a big ear to hear them.
This is where understanding the world of true blues guitar starts to unfold. Let’s take a look at some of the fantastic aspects of learning blues guitar, and how it can make you a better player, regardless of the type of music you prefer to play.
The first step to learning how to play the blues on guitar is to start listening. You have to listen to hear the trait and the emotion involved really.
A beginner guitarist will hear a 1/2 step bend, but a professional guitarist will listen for more. Not only the bend and hitting the appropriate note, but how did he attack the string? Was it a soft attack, or a stinging strike of the string? Was there subtle vibrato, no vibrato at all? What was the guitarist trying to express emotionally?
Having an understanding of this part of blues takes time, patience, and listening to a lot of it.
Have you ever heard a rock or metal guitarist play the blues? Even though technically they can play the parts, it just comes off flat and uninspiring. This is because they haven’t en-captured the language of blues guitar, and understanding the expression that comes from it.
Rhythm Blues Guitar
Learning to play Rhythm blues guitar is one of the best things you can do as a guitarist. I don’t believe that blues rhythm is overly complicated as and in of itself. The part that fascinates me is being able to lock in with the bass and the drums and keep the progression on the beat.
Often during blues, there are solos, and the rhythm has to keep the beat sometimes going for an extended period of time. Keeping that steady beat can often be harder than you ever imagined, primarily if you are consciously focusing on it.
I remember a time when I thought I was playing a 12 bar blues quite well. Then my instructor brought out the metronome, and to my surprise, I was actually all over the place. One bar I would be slightly ahead of the beat and then try to adjust; I would lag and fall behind the beat. Becoming consciously aware of exactly where the beat is, will make you a 100 times better guitarist.
Don’t over complicate the progression. Especially in the beginning of learning blues guitar. It’s easy to want to get sucked into cool intro licks and runs but if you aren’t completely locked in with the internal rhythm and chord forms, keep it simple.
Simple and consistent will always be the backbone to blues rhythm guitar.
Many guitarists, myself included are intrigued by the blues due to the massive lead guitar involved. Traditional blues is really all about call and response. When I am thinking about blues lead guitar, I am always trying to make the guitar sound like it’s having a conversation with itself.
This is what the blues greats do. Listen to Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, BB King, SRV, even though they all have their own unique twists and styles and tones. They are all when broken down note by note merely phrasing licks to sound like the guitar is having a conversation.
This is also the reason that blues solos can build dynamically so well. You can play the same lick yet with soft picking or a full step bend to express an emotional difference allowing for the solo to build and then climax.
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Why learning the blues often leads to frustration.
One of the reasons that learning blues guitar can often lead to frustration is due to the lack of licks in your ‘lick library’. What I mean by this, is there are many guitarists out there who only know one pattern of the pentatonic scale. Just being able to use one pattern of the pentatonic scale can make a guitarist feel quite limited. The reason for this is they no longer have access to the entire fretboard but in return are stuck to a pattern where the root note is on the 6th string only.
If you really want to break out of this, you must learn all 5 patterns of the pentatonic, Major, and minor scales. Once you learn these, you need to learn how to find the root notes on all the strings, not just the low E. This will open up the neck of the guitar for you, allowing to play from the open position fluidly all the way up into the highest registers on the neck.
In doing this, you will be able to express unlimited emotion and style, and hopefully, create your own style of lead guitar all and of its own.
Bending those strings!
I don’t believe any other style of guitar playing allows the guitarist to learn how to bend strings as well as blues music does.
Have you ever heard someone bend a string, but not correctly? It’s awful on the ears. Yet, when you understand a guitarist bend correctly, it sings in a way and expresses emotion as I’ve never heard before.
Bending is a real skill that also has a touch of an art form to it. For example, have you ever tried playing the note a half step up, before deciding to bend up to it? WOW! Mind-blowing, when you truly listen to see if you are hitting it dead on, or if you have to do a little searching around to catch it. This goes the same for a full step bend, or even a step and half bend for that matter.
It is such an incredible exercise and allows for excellent muscle memory to be formed, soon enough you’ll be able to bend and hit your target immediately, allowing you to sound like quite an extinguished blues player.
Have you heard BB King do his famous butterfly vibrato? Often he starts his guitar solos with this vibrato that has been named butterfly. This is due to the quick movement of the finger allowing for that light stinging sensation to ripple through our ears. It’s magnificient and is so simple.
Yet, many guitarists struggle to reproduce one of the most incredible vibrato bends ever. Because like we spoke about earlier, this isn’t so much technique as it is feeling.
I know we have touched quite a bit on the emotional aspect of playing blues guitar. This is probably the most significant element of this style of music. When it comes down to it, you could play one note, with enough emotion to turn heads.
It’s no secret that blues music is powerful, and can literally move people to tears, which is why it’s such a sought-after artform by guitarists, and other musicians.
If you have any desire to learn blues guitar, absolutely do it! Is it easy, no not really, but most often things that aren’t easy are the most rewarding. Start with listening to more blues music with the intent of critical listening. Then work your rhythm. Keep it simple at first, keep an excellent, consistent, simple rhythm going will do much more than an overcomplicated attempt that is all over the beat.
From there, work on learning your scales in all 5 positions. Lastly, work on building up your licks, playing them in different shapes, and phrasing them to make them your own. Most importantly have a blast!
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