Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series designed to give you a solid foundation in this essential style. In the previous lesson, we talked about using syncopation to create rhythmic interest. This time, we’re going to look at how to use rhythmic contrast in playing blues—mixing up quarter notes, eighth notes, and eighth-note triplets.
Start simply, by picking the low open E string with your thumb in steady quarter notes. You can then start to look at playing different kinds of rhythms over that, first with the simplest thing, which is just to add a pinch with a finger on the high E string (Example 1a). You could instead play something broader on top—the high E on beat 1 only (Example 1b). Next, you could think about taking those quarter notes and playing a note in between every pinch—in other words, playing the high E in steady eighth notes (Example 1c). Finally, you could do eighth-note triplets, three per beat, instead of straight eighths (Example 1d).
So now you’ve got these different values—quarter notes, eighth notes, and eighth-note triplets—and you can start to play around with where you put those notes in relationship to the whole bar. Try starting with a quarter-note high E on beat 4, as shown in Example 2a, leading into another high E on beat 1. Then play a pair of eighth notes on beat 4 (Example 2b), before turning those eighths into triplets (Example 2c). Or, keep the two eighth notes on beat 4, adding another eighth on the “and” of beat 3 (Example 2d).
So far you’ve just worked on rhythms, getting the picking hand used to what’s going on when you coordinate your thumb and finger in different combinations. Now it’s time to add the fretting fingers. Example 3 is built from the same rhythmic foundation as Ex. 2a, but adds fretted notes on strings 1 and 2. Whenever you see the quarter-step bend sign in the notation, nudge the string toward the ceiling, for a bluesy effect, like I do in the video. With eighth notes on beat 4, Example 4 builds on Ex. 2b. Put these kinds of ideas together and they start to sound like blues phrases.
Once you’ve mastered the previous figures, you can start to play things that sound a little more idiomatically bluesy. Example 5a features characteristic slides, and an emphasis on the flatted seventh (D), while Example 5b adds the flatted third, G. You can mix things up further, adding triplets on beat 4, as shown in Example 5c. While these figures begin on a pickup, or incomplete measure, Examples 6a–b kick off squarely on the downbeat, mixing up quarter notes, eighths, and triplets, and introducing additional pitches—the flatted fifth (Bb), for instance, adds a particularly effective blues sound into the mix.
Put all of the above concepts together, as shown in Example 7. Remember the basic idea: If you can maintain a sense of when you’re playing quarter notes, eighths, or triplets, and how you’re positioning them in relation to the beat, then you can develop a good rhythmic awareness. And a stronger understanding of rhythm and phrasing can go a long way towards making even simple blues licks sound really effective. So have fun working on all of this until the next lesson, when I’ll introduce you to the concept of accenting the offbeats.
David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. www.fretboardconfidential.com