Blueprint for Learning to Play Guitar Blues
Think the blues is an easy genre to learn and play? Go through this checklist, and it just might not be. I will cover old techniques up to advanced techniques as well.
The blues is a genre near and dear to my heart. It is one of the first genres of music to lyrically and melodically mix the tragedy of real life for the average person, without being too profound.
It is one of the first down-to-earth genres that could be played in a saloon.
Being the father genre of a number of sub-genres, as well as a precursor to the evolution of the pentatonic scale, the blues is an interesting genre with both classic and modern elements included in its theory.
Here is a checklist of skills required to learn and play the blues well.
Basic Blues Theory
Here’s a little rule of thumb: if you’re playing a genre, learn the theory.
To play the blues, here’s what I recommend players look up:
- 12 bar blues progression: this progression is simply a pattern of chords/notes that are played in a specific sequence, lasting 12 bars in duration. It’s a pretty common, well-known chord progression in music theory. Click here for a great article for your reference.
- Cadence and timing: please don’t be one of those players whose play is all over the place. Time your notes according to the tempo of the song, and off-time/syncopated notes should be played with purpose and intention. Intention helps to remove sloppiness.
- the pentatonic scale: learn both the minor and major pentatonic scales to provide a basis and foundation on which you can fall back on, should you get lost
- the blue note: on the pentatonic minor scale, there is a pitch between the 4th and 5th notes that is called the “blue note”. It looks like this:
- learn the blues major scale as well: the blue note here is between the root note and the 2nd note in the scale.
- how to play parallel major and minor blues scales together: in music theory, “parallel” means to play the scales where the 1st note begins with the exact same pitch. Playing both the major and minor blues scales is great for rock n roll and major blues keys.
One more advanced tip would be to learn to tastefully add dissonant notes: the “blue note” in theory means a dissonant note in the composition; a note/pitch that does not belong to the scale being played. There are a number of creative ways to do this:
- “Lead-in” notes: if you are leading into the root note, play the pitch a half-step to the root note. For example, if you’re on the 5th, and your goal is to get to the root note, play the minor 7th, then an augmented 7th, then the root note.
- On the key of E minor, that would be: D — D# — E
- Hammer-on and pull-off the blue note: when you are trilling or tapping notes in rapid succession, include a blue note when hammering on a note, and pulling off of it. It adds emphasis to the fact that you are playing a dissonant note in a structured form.
- In a major scale composition, play a root dominant 7th chord, or a dominant 7th triad. On a guitar (again in the key of E), a dom7th triad would look like this on the 12th fret:
In this image, the dominant 7th functions as a blue note in a major key because strict major keys require a major 7th, not a minor 7th-equivalent (as illustrated in the image).
And there are many more ways to add a dissonant note.
Techniques of Blues
Blues contains more technique than “boomer bends”. Let’s go over the ones that I believe are necessary:
- Whole step/half step bends: let’s get the bends out of the way. Whole step bends (equivalent to 2 frets) and half step bends (equivalent to 1 fret) are pretty obvious. Chicago inner-city blues players in the 60’s and 70’s were known for using techniques like this. That’s probably why we call it boomer bending, since it’s quite old.
- Note: pay special attention to pitch. To improve your sense of pitch for bends, choose a note you want to bend to, like a whole step up for instance. Play that note 2 frets up, then go 2 frets lower on the same string, and pick and bend the string until the pitch matches that of the note 2 frets up.
- Quarter step/quarter tone bends: this one is a little tricky. Players must hit a pitch, bent up to half-way under a half step (1 fret). You can use this technique to end a passage or solo. I’ve heard it done well on the root note, minor 3rd, and minor 7th. It gives your play a vocal-like phrasing when used sparingly, and is inherently bluesy; you’re adding dissonant pitches to a passage where the emphasis is dissonant pitches.
- Hammer-ons/pull-offs: when strings are hammered on or tapped, rather than pressed and picked, it phrases the notes differently. Use hammer-ons for fast passages (legato). Mixing picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs will make your play sound varied and diverse. Try experimenting on what sounds good to you.
- Trilling: Use trilling (rapidly hammering-on and pulling-off the same position) when you are playing lead and need a break and work through your next move. Trilling also sounds good when ending a passage. Some intervals that work well are the root — minor 3rd, and dom 7th — root.
- Finger picking: with or without a pick, learn to pick multiple strings with your other picking fingers. It allows players to hit low strings, and higher strings simultaneously. Skilled blues players will often hit low strings and play lead on high strings at the same time. This technique is often used in more old-school “Mississippi swamp” blues music.
- Pre-bend: I like this technique a lot. It means to bend the string before picking, and when picked, the note descends. It gives your play a vocal-like quality, as if your guitar is singing soul. Use it sparingly and only to lead into another note.
- Slide: this technique is neglected a lot in modern play. When playing a note on a string, and you’re jumping up a large interval, try sliding up the same string rather than picking a higher string in the same position. used to add flavor to the passage, and if played purposefully off-time, suits blues music.
- Barred chords: this one is important, as the key can change, you’ll need to be ready to change along anywhere on the fret board. A great way to stimulate your sense of rhythm and melody is to start each measure with the appropriate barred chord, and play lead for the rest of the measure.
- Bonus — The Texas Shuffle: this was Stevie Ray Vaughn’s signature technique. It means to pick in a circular motion, down on a low string(s), and up on treble (higher) strings. Can be used with barred chords and open chords. This is a difficult technique, but if you can nail it, you can add it to your lead and rhythm repertoire.
Some criticism of the blues often includes the point that “players are allowed to be sloppy”. Let me help you re-frame what that actually means in music theory.
The blues is about tastefully creating/including dissonance, which means pitches that are not scale-perfect or pitch-perfect are included in the composition purposefully to create a “bluesy effect”. Do not confuse this with “being allowed to play sloppily”.
I say that because if “slop” is one’s standard for playing the blues, that person is doing it wrong.
Recognizing if a pitch is off is important in playing the blues, as it enables you, as a musician, to play with precision rather than slop. For example, recognizing the right pitch:
- enables you to bend notes with precision
- catch the right note/key that a band is playing
- allows you to add off-pitch notes (like quarter-step bends) with intention
- over time, enables you to add dissonant notes off-scale with more awareness, which adds flavor to the music
When players develop a better sense of pitch, it fine-tunes their musical senses. Every time an experienced player hears their own play, any dissonant note, or quarter tone bend, will be added to their play a lot more intentionally.
When that dissonance present in the blues is structured into your play a lot more frequently, it becomes another structured genre: jazz. So by developing your blues play, you form a basis for playing jazz as well!
Maybe that’ll be another blog post, though.
That’s a lot of words about the blues, and in my opinion, not quite deep enough to represent the actual musical depth the blues can have in both theory and technique.
I hope that by reading this post, you have a better idea of what you can learn to really improve your blues play.
Godspeed, and see you in the next blog!