Learn to Play Better Blues Guitar

Blues guitar is one of the most popular styles of guitar playing out there. But, just because it's popular doesn't mean that it's easy...

If you're feeling stuck in your ability to play in the blues style you may need a few tips to help get you moving in the right direction.

Blues may be a simple style when it comes to its use of scales, chords and harmony, but what it lacks in musical and theoretical complexity it makes up for in feel. If you ain't got the feel, you ain't got the blues.

The blues guitar sound is full of songs that involve the guitarist bending strings. Bends, as well as hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides, give the blues guitarist the ability to imitate the way singers use various inflections while singing melodies.

However, unlike hammers-ons and slides, bends are not guaranteed to be in tune. Since there is nothing worse than an out-of-tune bend in the climax of a great solo, we need to pay special attention to training ourselves to make sure our bends are always in tune.

When you bend a string, it is supposed to be bent up to a specific pitch. The most common bends are up a whole step (the distance of two frets), or up a half step (the distance of one fret). For example, if you are on the 8th fret of the B string (the note is a G), and you bend up a whole step, it should sound like the 10th fret of the B string (the note is an A).

If you are going to bend up a half step from the 8th fret on the B string, you bend it up to make it sound like the 9th fret (the note is an Ab or G#). Here are a few ways to practice being in tune:

- Play the note you are going to bend to first, get the sound of the target note in your ear, then drop to a fret below it and practice bending up to it, and focus upon getting it to be the same exact pitch as your target note..

- Plug into a guitar tuner, and practice bending from one in-tune note to another, either a half step or a whole step away. The display on your tuner will let you know how well you are able to target your bends.

- Practice unison bends. Unison bends involve playing two notes, the note you are bending and the note you are bending to, on two adjacent strings. When doing this, take special care, and make sure that they are exactly the same two notes. To get started, practice the examples below:

 Click on image to enlarge:

Be sure to practice this all over the neck of your guitar, since it will take different amounts of strength and accuracy to bend in tune along various parts of the neck. The goal is to train our muscles and our ears to be in tune with the bend technique no matter where we are on the guitar neck.

A lot of players tend to overlook this aspect of learning, and just end up digging into individual licks they enjoy. Even worse, they never learn whole songs, just pieces like the intro or the chorus riff. The importance of having a lot of licks and ideas available to you cannot be overstated, but there is a lot more to be gained from learning the entirety of a solo.have an attitude of learning songs as a whole, not just select parts.

Learning an entire solo gives you a chance to see how the soloist paced themselves, and how they built their solo from the beginning to the end. It also gives you a chance to see how the soloist utilized space, where notes were applied and when they choose to stop on a scale tone and allow it to resonate. When we look at individual guitar licks, we don’t get to see what led up to them, and what came after them. It is these aspects of a guitar solo that will make you stand out from the rest.

Typically, a solo should serve the song it is within, and should be viewed as your turn to speak and convey how you feel. What you choose to say in your guitar playing should serve the song in some way.

For example, if you're playing over a slow blues song, it may not be the time to unleash your fastest licks, back-to-back. In other instances, a more uptempo song may need all of your fastest licks. Keep your ears open, and think about what it is that you are trying to express.

Does how you're playing actually add to the song, or are you simply letting your fingers speak? Don’t forget that the song has a melody. You can quote it in your solos, or you can simply use the rhythm of the melody to relate your idea back to the melody. Leave space. Sing along with your playing.Once you have these concepts together, your music will take on a whole new direction.

Repetition can be viewed in a few different ways: repeating your idea verbatim, repeating the rhythm but changing the notes, or playing variations on your original idea and allowing them to morph into brand new ideas.

This is such a crucial tool for crafting a good solo. If we think about it, do lyrics typically have a bunch of unrelated ideas through the duration of the song, or are the lyrics all along a central theme? Typically we will find the lyrics are all around one idea, but when a lot of people go to take a solo, they tend to play a bunch of unrelated ideas stringing them together one after another.

Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it doesn’t. Wouldn’t it make more sense if instead of playing 100 ideas or guitar licks in a solo, we played three or four, and got as much out of them as we could?

Here are some ideas for how to practice this:
- Play the lick, and have a different ending each time
- Vary the rhythm a few different ways
- Keep the rhythm the same but change the notes
- Play an idea, then “respond” to it (“call and response”)

This probably doesn’t need to be said, but always focus on listening to famous guitar players (and any other instrumentalists who you enjoy, and who you want learn from). If you haven’t already, you’ve got to check out the following blues guitar players:

- B.B. King
- Freddie King
- Albert King
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
-The Allman Brothers Band
- Eric Clapton
- Mike Bloomfield
- Muddy Waters
- Robert Johnson
- Robben Ford
- Larry Carlton
- Charlie Christian
- Tinsley Ellis
- Albert Collins

There are many, many more tips worth mentioning, but this should get you started as you continue to learn to play better blues guitar. Hopefully there are a few names here that you don’t yet know. Keep practicing!



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