Whether your tastes lie in the Delta, Chicago, Piedmont, or Texas blues, learn the techniques, progressions, and rhythmic patterns used by acoustic blues guitarists | By Orville Johnson CONTENTS Chapter 1: The 12-Bar Blues and Other Common ProgressionsChapter 2: The Blues Scale and Simple Lead LicksChapter 3: Blues ShufflesChapter 4: Fingerstyle BluesChapter 5: String Bending 101Chapter 6: Slide GuitarChapter 7: Open TuningsChapter 8: Swingin’ Blues SoloingChapter 9: Blues TurnaroundsChapter 10: Blues Harmony and Chord SubstitutionsChapter 11: Improvising on a MelodyChapter 12: Ragtime Blues FingerpickingChapter 13: Blues Rhumba and Ballad RhythmsBonus Song: "Careless Love" CHAPTER 1 The 12-Bar Blues and Other Common Progressions https://vimeo.com/677824254 Just about any place in the world where musicians gather to play tunes and jam, you can count on someone chiming in with, “Hey, let’s play the blues!” It’s a musical form with endless harmonic and rhythmic variations, but a basic structure that players recognize the world over. The 12-bar blues is the most common pattern, but it’s certainly not the only one. There are eight- and 16-bar forms and then there are blues forms that don’t fit any predetermined formula. The classic example of that is embodied in the famous quote from Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ wants to change,” which results in some 11-, 13-, and even 13½-bar forms! In this chapter we’ll stick to the common patterns but be aware that if you’re in a jam session and the song leader decides to stretch out the time a little, you’re better off following him or her than trying to force the tune into a mathematically correct form. 12 BARS, THREE LINES Let’s start with the most common 12-bar progression (Example 1). You’ll see that the 12 bars are divided into four bars of the I chord, two bars of the IV, two more bars of the I, a bar of V, a bar of IV, a bar of I, and then a split bar with two beats of I and two beats of V. The last bar that goes to the V sets us up to start over again from the top and is called a turnaround. We’ll study turnarounds a little more closely in a later chapter. Play through Example 1 using the simple strum pattern as noted. There’s a common three-line lyric form that goes with this 12-bar pattern. Here’s an example: Don’t you see that blackbird flying way up aboveDon’t you see that blackbird flying way up aboveLife ain’t worth living if you’re not with the one you love In this form, a single line that is repeated twice and asks a question or sets a scene is usually followed by a third line that provides a resolution. There are lots of examples of this form. B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have the Blues,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil,” Muddy Waters’s “I Got My Mojo Workin’,” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The Sky Is Crying” are just a few. If you’re in a jam and someone calls a blues with a “quick four,” that means that measure 2 will be a IV chord (Example 2) instead of a I. If you hear the leader say “breaks on the one” or “stop time” that will usually mean they’re going to play a chord just on the first beat of each of the first four measures, resting on the other three beats, and then return to a full rhythm on the IV chord in measure 5. Of course, these variations don’t change the fact that the form is still 12 bars long. You can find examples of this form in many genres of music, including jazz (John Coltrane’s “Equinox”) and country (Hank Williams’s “Move It On Over”). EIGHT-BAR BLUES The second most common form is the eight-bar blues. There is more chordal variety in the eight-bar form than in the standardized 12-bar progression, so let’s look at a couple of different ones. Example 3 shows the chord pattern for Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” It moves right to the V chord in measure 2 and supports a more interesting melody than many blues tunes. Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues” has an eight-bar progression that is more related to the 12-bar form (Example 4), traveling from the I to the IV, back to the I, and then to the V. Occasionally you’ll find tunes that have an eight-bar form for the singing and then switch to a 12-bar format for instrumental solos—Blind Boy Fuller’s “Bye Bye Baby Blues,” for example. This is something you might look out for in a jam session. It’s a nice way of stretching out the form to give soloists a little more room to play, but it could be confusing if you’re not ready for it. 16-BAR BLUES Another blues form you’ll encounter is the 16-bar blues. Once again, this form has a greater variety of chord patterns than the 12-bar blues, but there are a couple of progressions that show up frequently. Big Bill Broonzy’s version of “See See Rider” has a four-line lyric that looks like this: See see rider, see what you done doneSee see rider, you see what you done doneSee see rider, see what you done doneYou made me love you and now your man done come Look at the music to “See See Rider” and you’ll see that the chords for lines two and three are the same. So the difference between this type of 16-bar blues and the standard 12-bar form is that the first lyric line is sung three times instead of twice. This form could be interesting for an instrumental blues piece, because it gives you a little more space to create a more complex melody. Example 5 shows the chord progression for the Delmore Brothers’ “Deep River Blues,” which was popularized in the folk and bluegrass world by Doc Watson. This pattern looks a bit like two eight-bar blues welded together. In fact, it feels like it might be an eight-bar blues until you get to measure 8, where the progression lingers on a V chord before sending you back to the I chord and continuing the verse in measure 9, eventually resolving to the I chord in measure 16. Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot moreI’ve got those deep river bluesLet that river rise and fall, let it build a great big wallLord, I’ve got those deep river blues The repeating lines here are lines two and four. Another nifty sound in Watson’s version is the diminished chord in measure 2. The melody note goes from a major third to a minor third and then back again, and the diminished chord surrounds the minor third note with a measure of maximum tension before resolving back to the I chord. There are many ways to reconfigure the blues form, but if you get comfortable with the 12-bar pattern you’ll be able to drop into just about any jam session and call a tune that everyone can follow. SEE SEE RIDER CHAPTER 2 The Blues Scale and Simple Lead Licks https://vimeo.com/677824437 The scale most associated with the blues is the minor-pentatonic scale, which includes the root, minor third, fourth, fifth, and minor seventh tones. The chords in most blues progressions are major chords—they have major thirds. But by superimposing this minor-scale sound over the major-chord harmony you end up with a dissonant sound that people the world over recognize as “the blues.” Example 1 shows the finger pattern for an A-minor-pentatonic scale (the R’s in the music indicate the root of the scale). You might recognize this from other instructional material as a “blues box” or a “box pattern.” Once you have this pattern under your fingers, you can move it around the neck to different keys. But don’t forget that the spaces in music are just as important as the notes. Running these box patterns up and down with no spaces or phrasing equals instant boredom, not instant blues. BLUES RIFFS Before we start skittering up and down the scale let’s look at how you can get through a whole 12-bar sequence with a mere handful of notes. One cool thing about the pentatonic scale is that even though it doesn’t give you a lot of notes to work with, it does contain notes that will fit over every chord in a basic blues progression, and some will fit over more than one chord. Take the riff in Example 2. It starts on the and of beat three in the pickup measure and then rests until beat four of the second measure, where it repeats. Then you can play the same riff into the IV chord in measure 5 of the blues (Example 3). It’s the same lick, but now you’re playing it over a different chord. Talk about laid back! When the progression goes to the V chord, we’ll change the last note of the lick from an A to an E (Example 4) to make it fit the V chord better. Example 5 shows how they fit together in the full 12-bar blues. This repeated riff idea can really work dynamically if your band mates slowly ramp up the intensity of the rhythm as you work your way through the progression and then hit it hard as you come around to the top of the form again. A little explosion of pentatonic phrases right there can really blow apart the tension you’ve set up during the first 12 bars. Look up some slow blues numbers by Eric Clapton or B.B. King on YouTube and you’ll find many examples of riff repetition as a method of building tension and release in solos. MORE PENTATONIC POSITIONS Now let’s look at two more pentatonic “pockets” that will move you farther up the neck. We’ll stay in the key of A for the moment. Example 6 starts on the seventh fret and gives us a group of notes around frets eight through ten. Play around with these notes, listening to hear how they’re the same handful of intervals as the minor-pentatonic scale in Example 1, but at a higher pitch. Then let’s move it up a notch higher for one more pocket (Example 7). These notes, played at frets ten through 13, are the same as in the other pentatonic-scale pockets, but now you can cover a larger portion of the neck. And because all the notes in these pentatonic pockets are played in a closed position (using no open strings) they can easily be moved around the neck and used in any key. CALL AND RESPONSE Playing the kind of repeated riff we played in Examples 2–5 leaves a lot of space in the music and sets you up to use one of the most common devices in blues soloing: call and response. The idea of call and response comes from the church tradition in which the pastor or song leader sings a line of a hymn and the congregation answers, either repeating the line or singing a line that responds to the leader’s line. Let’s incorporate this idea in a guitar solo. You’ll play the riff as you did before but now you’ll fill up the spaces with other phrases that respond to the original riff. Example 8 is a response played up the neck, in the position illustrated in Example 6. We’ll use the same response for the I and IV chords and then alter it slightly for the V chord (Example 9). This works well as a phrasing tool for your solo and, if you’re playing in a group, it’s a way you could get two instruments to play together, one playing the “call” and the other the “response,” making for some cool band interaction (Example 10). SLIDES AND TRIPLETS Two other cool devices you can use in your blues soloing are slides and triplets. Let’s look at a lick in the key of D (Example 11). The two notes in the double-stop are the fifth and minor seventh, and the lick starts with three triplet strums. Use downstrokes to play these. Downstrokes add a lot of power and percussion to your playing. After the triplets, the next note is a downward slide from A to G on the second string. Just pick the A once and get the second note (G) from the slide. Using slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs gives you a way to play more notes without having to pick each one. As the tempos get quicker, you’ll find these techniques become very useful. Example 12 shows a lick in the key of G that relies on them. Use a hammer-on for the C–C♯, pick the D and G, pull off from F to D, slide down from C♯ to C, pick the B♭, hammer on to the C, and finish by picking the G. Eleven notes with seven pick strokes! Not only do these techniques help with your speed, they give your licks a smoother, more connected (legato) sound. When you pick each individual note the sound is more spiky and percussive. Mix these sounds together throughout your solo and you’ll make it more interesting and dynamic. Example 13 shows another triplet lick, this time in the key of E. We’ll use some alternate picking in this lick. As you play the first note at the third fret of string one, give it a little push with your fretting finger. You don’t want to actually bend it up an entire half step or whole step; just give it a little movement before you pull your finger away and hit the open string. This is one of those repeating licks that you can stretch out over several chord changes. Use a down-up stroke on the first string and a downstroke on the second. "PENT-UP TONIC" Now that you’ve learned three minor-pentatonic-scale positions and some common blues soloing devices, try using the ideas to come up with a solo of your own. Try repeating riffs in different registers, playing calls and responses both higher and lower, snaking up and down the neck through different patterns, and adding some slides and bends. Make your way through the piece “Pent-Up Tonic” to hear some ways this can work. If you’re having trouble finding your way around, or want to try playing in different keys, the easiest way to negotiate the guitar neck with these positions is to find the root note in the pattern (indicated by an R in Examples 1, 6, and 7), move to the root of the key you want to play in, and play notes from that pattern. (Hint: This is where knowing the names of the notes on the individual strings will come in very handy.) With a little practice you’ll be able to slide from key to key and keep a bluesy flavor in your playing. Practice using these scales and making up your own phrases. Don’t forget to leave some spaces in your phrasing and mix up long sustained notes with bursts of shorter, faster notes. Soon you’ll be improvising bluesy solos all over the neck. CHAPTER 3 Blues Shuffles https://vimeo.com/677824743 Protect the groove. If there were “Ten Commandments of Rhythm,” that would be number one. The part of the music that even non-musicians can understand and feel is the rhythm. If the groove isn’t happening, all the melody and harmony in the world won’t make up the difference. Many guitarists think that being a hot lead player is what it takes to get noticed but here’s a tip for you: if you can lay down a great groove, all the good musicians will want to play with you and all the dancers will want to hear your band. CHICAGO-STYLE SHUFFLE The words you hear most often in blues jams throughout the land are, “Let’s play a shuffle in E.” The shuffle rhythm has a kind of swing feel that always rouses the dancers and gets the party started. There are a lot of different ways to play this beat. Let’s examine a few. We’ll start with a Chicago-style shuffle that Jimmy Reed made famous with tunes like “You Got Me Runnin’” and “Take Out Some Insurance on Me Baby.” Example 1a is distilled down to just two strings. Notice that the first note of the pattern is the root of the chord and actually starts on the last eighth note of the previous measure—the and of beat four. Use downstrokes on everything in this example and be sure to use rest strokes as you move from string to string. If you’re not familiar with the concept of the rest stroke, this simply means that your pick or thumb comes to “rest” momentarily on the fifth string after striking the sixth string in Example 1a. Rest strokes add a lot of power to your playing and help your timing, because the brief moment you let the pick rest gives the note you just picked its full amount of time before you launch into the next note. This is crucial to good groove playing. You don’t want to rush or drag the time. The goal is to be “in the pocket,” and that means giving each note its proper length. Playing this pattern on the E and A (Example 1b) chords is pretty simple, but the B chord can be tricky. Let’s look at two choices for playing the B. The option shown in Example 2a can be difficult if your little finger can’t reach the sixth fret while holding the chord down. The alternative is to move up high on the fifth and sixth strings (Example 2b), which makes the stretch a little easier for your little finger. When you move up to play these two strings make sure your fretting hand is muting the top four strings so you don’t get any unwanted notes ringing out. This is a powerful groove that isn’t too tough to play, so it gives you the opportunity to really feel it rather than having to think too hard while you’re playing. Example 3 shows the Jimmy Reed–style Chicago shuffle on the entire 12-bar blues progression in the key of E. WALKING BASS Now let’s look at a “walking bass” groove that you can play fingerstyle using your thumb and index finger (Example 4a). The walking-bass pattern is normally characterized by four quarter notes to the measure, but for our fingerstyle pattern we’re going to add upbeats picked with the index finger. This allows you to play all the important beats on your guitar. The upbeat is where all the fun happens—the swing, the dance, and the feel all depend on how you accent that part of the groove. Experiment with heavier and lighter accents with your index finger and see how they affect the rhythm. Next, let’s put a pull-off in the line to spice things up a bit (Example 4b). When you get to the V chord in the progression, keep the bass walking right up the neck with a pattern using octaves on the sixth and fourth strings (Example 5). Example 6 puts all these patterns together into a full 12-bar blues. TEXAS SHUFFLE The Texas shuffle combines a walking bass with a big accent on the upbeat to create a really driving sound. Check out Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Pride and Joy” for a taste of the Texas shuffle. We’ll play this with a pick and use alternate picking instead of the downstrokes we used in the Jimmy Reed–style shuffle. To make the Texas shuffle sound right you need to have the pick coming up on the upbeats. If you tried to play this pattern (Example 7) with nothing but downstrokes it would sound jerky and stilted. Notice that we’re playing single bass notes on the downstrokes and hitting a few strings together on the upstroke, getting a very fat chord sound to power the groove. Chunky! To end this lesson on shuffles, try playing and singing this song I wrote about the place I live, “Rainy City Blues.” The rhythm pattern is a Chicago-style shuffle with the lowest two strings played by the thumb. You can use a pick for this, but if you want to play the intro and the melody behind the vocal in measure 12, use your thumb to pick the bass notes and your index and/or middle finger to play the treble notes. RAINY CITY BLUES CHAPTER 4 Fingerstyle Blues https://vimeo.com/677825252 Fingerstyle blues picking can generally be broken down into two styles—Piedmont and Delta. The Piedmont style originated in the Carolinas/southern Virginia/Georgia area, and the sound is defined by a steady alternating bass played with the thumb and a melody picked with one or two fingers. Proponents of this style include Reverend Gary Davis, Buddy Moss, Blind Boy Fuller, and John Cephas. This style gives the guitar a pianistic quality, separating the bass and melody lines and creating interesting syncopation between the parts. The Delta sound is associated with Mississippi and usually features a more monotonic thumping bass, slide guitar, and simpler melodies that stick a little closer to the pentatonic scale. Players in this style include Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. The Delta sound is considered to be darker and more intense than the Piedmont style, which can be positively bouncy at times. BASIC PIEDMONT STYLE Let’s start out with some basic patterns. Finger a C chord and play a p–i–p–m picking pattern (Example 1), using the middle finger (m) of your picking hand to play all the notes on the first string and your index finger (i) for the notes on the second string. Alternate bass notes on the fifth and fourth strings. Next we’ll add a pinch to this pattern, once again on a C chord. Play a fifth-string bass note and then pinch strings four, three, and two on the next beat with your thumb, middle, and index fingers. Start with a p–i–p–m sequence and then play the pinch pattern in the second half of the measure (Example 2). In the next pattern (Example 3), your thumb and index finger pluck together on the first beat, the thumb plays a bass note on the second beat, the thumb and middle finger pluck together on the third beat, and then your thumb plays another bass note on the fourth beat. In the last pattern, your fingers pluck a note every time your thumb plays a bass note (Example 4). Example 5 combines the last two patterns, playing the pattern in Example 3 for two measures and then the pattern in Example 4 for two measures. Notice that through all these patterns your middle finger plays the first string and your index finger the second string. Practice these patterns on the C chord for a while until you feel like you’re playing smoothly and in time. It may take some time for your thumb to get comfortable keeping a constant beat but keep at it. One morning you’ll pick up your instrument and, suddenly, you’ll be able to do it! Now let’s mix these four finger patterns together to play the 12-bar piece “Pitter Pattern.” You’ll notice that when you go to the F and G chords (the IV and V in the key of C)your picking-hand thumb alternates between the sixth and fourth strings. Don’t losethe tempo as you switch chords, and keep your fingers close to the strings when you pick. Make it roll. Then make up some variations of your own. PITTER PATTERN After you get better at hitting the individual strings with your thumb to keep the bass line going, try this variation: roll your thumb across two or three strings on each thumbstroke as you keep the alternating-bass rhythm (Example 6). This can add some extra fullness to the sound of the chord and, if you really get it right, it can sound like two guitars playing, with one strumming chords and the other playing a melody. Look up some videos of Mississippi John Hurt on YouTube and find some with nice close-ups of his right hand to see this technique in action. Hurt was a master of this and it can add a lot of percussive power and rich tone to your rhythm. Once you’re able to keep the bass going and maintain a pattern, your next goal will be to make your fingers play an independent melody line while your thumb keeps steady time. But we’ll get to that in a later chapter. DELTA BLUES FINGERPICKING The Delta style of fingerpicking keeps your thumb busy too, but instead of hopping from string to string you do a lot of thumping on one string at a time. This method is sometimes called “monotonic” or “dead thumb” bass. You can give it a more percussive sound by muting the bass strings—touching the bridge with the palm of your picking hand. Sometimes you don’t even really need to hear the tonality of the note, just the percussive thwack of your thumb on the string. Try this on the low E string (Example 7) using a shuffle rhythm as noted. It should sound like dum da dum da dum da dum da, with the da’s a bit shorter than the dum’s. While you keep the beat in the bass, fret strings two and three with your index and middle fingers at frets three and four, respectively. Slide into this position and play a triplet rhythm as shown (Example 8). It will take some practice to keep the rhythm thumping while you play triplets against it, but here’s a tip: it’s OK to let your thumb take a rest occasionally while your fingers keep playing melodies. Once you establish the shuffle rhythm with your thumb, if you leave it out for a beat or even a whole measure in places, the listener will still feel the pulse. In fact, it actually contributes to the dynamic feel of the tune to release the intensity of the bass line in places. It feels so good when it comes back! When you’re playing two strings together up high as in Example 8, you don’t always need to use individual fingers for each string. Try brushing the two strings with upstrokes from your index finger. Notice how the sound of the double-stops blends differently when you brush them together rather than picking them discretely. This gives you another way to vary the dynamics of the sound. One other thing to try, as we did with the Piedmont style, is to occasionally let your thumb roll across two strings instead of one. Make sure when you do it that the extra note you roll across is part of the chord you want to hear. There’s a fine line between adding some fullness to the chord and sounding sloppy. Let’s put these ideas together in a 12-bar piece called “Blue Delta.” This tune is based on Example 8’s triplet lick, which appears in the E-chord measures. When the 12-bar progression goes to the IV (A) chord, I play a series of descending sixth intervals against an A in the bass (measures 5–6), and when it goes to the V (B7) chord, I play a syncopated fingerpicking pattern on the first-position chord (measure 9). There are also a couple of nice string-bending licks in measures 2 and 10. As you play through this piece, try attacking the strings in different ways and varying the rhythms you create between your thumb and fingers. That will make your playing sound less mechanical and open the door to letting your feelings influence the sound in the moment, instead of just playing the song as you practiced it. That’s when you’re really playing the blues. BLUE DELTA CHAPTER 5 String Bending 101 https://vimeo.com/677825381 When you take a guitar solo in a band you fill the spot usually occupied by the lead singer. You become the focus of attention and the other players support you, creating a solid rhythm that you can play against. Wouldn’t you like to be able to get the same kinds of sliding, slurring, sensuous sounds out of your guitar that a vocalist can get from his or her voice? You want your guitar to sing! But singers can get pitches that are in between the notes you’re limited to by the guitar’s frets. That’s where string bending comes in. It’s a technique that gives you access to those in-between tones and lets you phrase your melodies more like a vocalist. On acoustic guitar you’ll do most of your bending on the unwound first and second strings. To get ready to bend, use your ring finger to fret the note you want to bend. Place your index and middle fingers on the same string behind your ring finger so you have three fingers touching the string (see photo below). This adds a lot of strength and control to your bending technique. Bring your thumb up over the neck so your hand is in a gripping position. When you bend the string your hand should feel like you’re squeezing the guitar neck. GET IN POSITION One key to good-sounding bends is intonation. It’s essential to play in tune! Here’s a way to work on that: start with a half-step bend at the tenth fret of the second string (Example 1a). Before you bend the string, play the note you are aiming for (B♭, at the 11th fret) by fretting it normally, and get the sound of this target note in your ears. Now bend the A note a half step up. Do the same with a whole step, from A to B. Play the B note at the 12th fret to get it in your ears, and when you bend, try to make it reach that pitch (Example 1b). If your strings are light enough, try for a step and a half (Example 1c). That won’t be easy with typical acoustic string gauges, but it’s worth a try. The important thing is to play your target note, get the sound in your ears, and then bend to the note and get it exactly in tune. Try to notice how much strength it takes to go a half step, then a whole step. Have you heard the terms “kinetic memory” or “muscle memory”? When you repeat a motion enough times, you get a feel for the amount of force you need to exert to make it happen. Place your index and middle fingers on the same string behind your ring finger so you have three fingers touching the string. DROP BENDS Muscle memory will be important for the next technique, the drop bend. Here, instead of raising the note, we start with the string already bent, then pick it and lower the note. You still want to play in tune even though we can’t hear if the note is pushed up far enough before we pick it. If you practice the target-note intonation exercise mentioned in Example 1 and notice how your hand and wrist feel when you do it, the drop bends will come pretty easily. Let’s learn a couple of licks that use these techniques. Like Example 1, Example 2 starts with your ring finger on the B string at the tenth fret. Make sure you’ve got your index and middle finger on the string as well and bend this A note up a whole step to B. Keep it bent as you move your index finger over to the eighth fret of the first string. Play that note and then put your little finger on fret ten and pick that note. Then pick the note you’re still holding on the second string and drop-bend it down to the starting A note. As you do that, move your index back to the eighth fret of the second string and finish the lick there, lifting your ring and middle finger off to uncover the index finger note. The big challenge of this lick will be getting used to holding a bent note while moving your other fingers to play notes on an adjacent string. The key is to keep your thumb over the neck so you can maintain the squeezing leverage between your thumb and bending finger as your other fingers move. The next lick (Example 3) starts with your middle finger on the third string at fret 12. Pick that G note, then play the second string at fret 11 (B♭) with your index finger. Put your ring finger on the second string at fret 13 and in the same motion bring your middle finger over so you have three fingers on the second string to support the upcoming bend. Pick the C note at the 13th fret and bend it up a whole step and hold it there. Fret the first string at fret 13 with your little finger and then drop-bend the second string back down to fret 13. To complete the lick, play the 11th fret of the second string and the 12th fret of the third string with your index and middle fingers, respectively. BLUE BENDS Let’s examine the notes we’re using in these two licks and how they affect the sound of the bends. In Example 2, the notes are G, A, B, C, and D, with the bend moving the A note up to B. Speaking in terms of intervals, we’re bending the second note of the scale up to the major third. In Example 3, we’re playing G, B♭, C, D, and F, with the bend pushing the C up to D—the fourth up to the fifth. Play these two licks a few times and notice which sounds more bluesy. The first lick uses the first five notes of a G-major scale and the note we’re bending isn’t considered a bluesy note. In the second lick, however, we’ve included the minor third and minor seventh of the scale and the bent note moves the fourth up to the fifth. Much bluesier! If we were to assign genre classifications to these two licks, we might say the first one is kind of country while the second is definitely blues. Could we make the first lick a little bluesier? Of course we could! Instead of bending up a whole step from A to B, just go up a half step to B♭ (Example 4). Play everything else in the lick the same as before. Notice that by just changing the major third (B) to the minor third (B♭), the lick suddenly becomes more tangy. Generally speaking, the notes in the blues scale that lend themselves to bending are the second (bent up to the minor third), the flat five (bent up to the fifth, and the flatted seventh (bent up to the root). Play around with these sounds, bending up to them or drop-bending down from them and you’ll discover a lot of sounds you’ve heard from the likes of Albert King, Eric Clapton, or Duane Allman. All of the licks here work in the key of G but since they haven’t used any open strings you can move them to any key as long as you remember where the root note is. These licks end on the root of the key, so look for that spot in whatever key you’d like to play them in and let it rip! Here’s a little number called “Let’s Get Bent” that uses these licks and some variations over a 12-bar blues progression. Go for a liquid, sensuous sound and make your guitar sing. LET'S GET BENT CHAPTER 6 Slide Guitar https://vimeo.com/677825499 It's hard to say who first got the idea to break the neck off a bottle and slide it along a guitar’s strings to make music. We know of a primitive instrument made by African American slaves called the diddley bow that was played with a slide. It was sometimes made by attaching a string or wire to the side of a one-room house, pushing a couple of rocks under either end of the string to act as bridges to give it tension, and using an implement of some sort to slide along the string, essentially using the house itself as a resonating chamber. Composer and music publisher W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues”) credited his introduction to the blues to a guitarist he heard in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, who “ . . . pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian musicians who used steel bars.” Though its origin is mysterious, the singing sound of slide guitar has long been an essential part of the blues, from early practitioners Tampa Red and Son House to modern sliders such as Sonny Landreth, Derek Trucks, and Ry Cooder. CHOOSING AND USING A SLIDE There are a lot of choices in materials and styles of slides nowadays. Glass is still very popular, brass and steel have their advocates, and you can get ceramic and stoneware slides as well. They all produce different tonal qualities, so the choice is up to you. But there are some other factors to consider. If you’re wondering which finger you should put the slide on, I prefer the slide on my little finger so my other fingers can still grab chord shapes, but there are excellent players who use their ring or middle fingers. The slide shouldn’t be longer than your finger. Ideally, just the tip of your finger should be visible. It should also fit snugly on your finger so you don’t have to exert energy to hold it in place while sliding. HAND POSITION AND DAMPING Now that you have your slide in place, let’s look at how to position it on the strings (see photo). Place your hand so the tip of the slide is touching the first string and your other fingers are touching all the other strings as if you’d just laid your hand flat across them. Those fingers are going to be damping the string noises that come from sliding, especially those on the wound strings. There are times when you might like a scratchy, raspy sound, but if you want to play clean melodic passages, damping becomes pretty important. PICK BLOCKING Let’s play an exercise using an E-major scale on the first string (Example 1). We’re going to play this first exercise without sliding so that we can concentrate on intonation. Pick your note with any picking-hand finger and then place that same finger down on the string to stop it from ringing. This is called pick blocking and is a damping effect you perform with your picking hand. Now move the slide to the next note in the scale with your picking finger down on the string, so there’s no sound, and pick the next note. Your motion for each note will be pick the note, pick block, move the slide, pick again. Make sure every note is in tune. Now let’s do the same exercise but add slides (Example 2). You’ll pick your note, then slide to the next note, and pick block to stop the note. Make sure you don’t pick and slide at the exact same moment. You want to hear the attack of the note, then the slide, then a clean ending—pick, slide, stop. Here’s one more exercise using the same scale (Example 3). Pick the open string, touch the slide to the string near the nut, and slide all the way to the 12th fret. Make sure the timing of your slide sounds even and you stop it right in tune at fret 12, then pick block to end the note. Repeat this move, stopping at frets 11, nine, seven, and so on down the major scale. This will be challenging at first because you’ll more than likely slide past the note or sound jerky and/or halting as you slide up. Work on getting your slide to sound smooth and make sure each note you land on is in tune. After you’ve practiced these exercises with the major scale, let’s change a couple of notes to add some blues mojo. Lower the third and the seventh one half step (one fret) each. This gives you the minor third and minor seventh of the scale—the “blue notes” we’ve talked about in previous chapters. Run through the same exercises with this scale (Examples 4a–4c). SLIDE IN OPEN TUNING Even though it is possible to play slide in standard tuning, and many great players have done so (Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker), a lot of slide playing is done in open tunings. Using an open chord allows you to lay the slide across four, five, or six strings at once to make a chord or to fret some chords using just one or two left-hand fingers. Because all the strings are tuned to the same chord, it greatly lowers your chances of hitting wrong notes, and if you’re playing solo you have access to some nice bass notes to thump on as you play a melody on top. Let’s try some slide in open D (D A D F♯ A D), a tuning favored by Elmore James, RyCooder, and others. Tune your sixth, second, and first strings down a whole step each, and tune your third string down a half step. Let’s start with a shuffle rhythm to a 12-bar blues pattern. In open tuning you just need one finger on the fifth string (alternating between the open string and second fret) to get your shuffle going (Example 5a). Then use your index finger at the fifth fret to barre a G chord, while your ring finger frets the fifth string at the seventh fret on beats two and four (Example 5b). Move the same fingering up to the seventh fret for an A chord (Example 5c). These are the I, IV, and V chords in the key of D—all you need to play a 12-bar blues. But now you need some slide licks to make it really groove. Here’s one that is often referred to as the Elmore James lick (Example 6). James found a way to include variations of it in almost every song he ever recorded, so it seems only fair to name it after him! It’s a powerful sound at the 12th fret but it can work at any fret since we’re tuned open. Pounding the triplets at the 12th fret sounds great, but try some rhythmic variations when you use it on other chords in the progression so it doesn’t get monotonous. You can use the same rhythmic idea on a single string as well as on a full chord, and this will yield a different tonality. Work out on this 12-bar excursion in D called “A Little More Elmore,” and after you’ve got it down, try making up your own variations by playing with the rhythmic phrasing of the licks without changing the notes. It’s amazing what a little rhythm can do! A LITTLE MORE ELMORE CHAPTER 7 Open Tunings https://vimeo.com/677827254 Imagine that you live on a desert island, you’ve never seen a guitar before, and a traveling sailor leaves one behind for you. It’s in standard tuning. What would be your first move? Chances are, you’d attempt a chord shape or two, make some awful sounds, and then start twisting the tuning pegs until you could strum across the strings and hear the sound of a full chord ringing out. Congratulations, you’ve just discovered open tuning. Open tunings have been used by many of the great blues guitarists, including Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Duane Allman, and Robert Johnson, for slide and fingerstyle techniques. In this chapter we’ll take a look at the two most common open tunings used in blues, G and D, learn basic chords and a few classic licks, and see how these tunings relate to each other. OPEN G-TUNING Let’s start by getting into open G (D G D G B D) from standard tuning. Lower both E strings a step to D and lower your fifth string from A to G. Strings two, three, and four stay the same. This is an important thing to remember because it means that everything you already know in standard tuning on those three strings—chord shapes, scale patterns—still applies. The basic I–IV–V chord progression in G is easy to find (Example 1) just by strumming the open G chord and barring the fifth fret for the C chord (IV) and the seventh fret for the D chord (V). But after playing chords this way for a while you’ll probably welcome some different voicings. Down near the nut you’ll find a couple of cool chords. Putting your fingers on the fingerboard as if you were playing a regular C-chord shape in standard tuning yields as powerful a chord as you’ll ever hear (Example 2a). This puts the flatted third of the G scale (the seventh of C7) in the bass, laying some serious hot sauce on that chord grip. The D7 shown in Example 2b isn’t quite as gnarly; the seventh on the second string blends into the chord a little more, and the D notes on the top and bottom give it a nice ringing, droney sound. Move up to the top four strings and try the G major, G7, and D major chords shown in Example 3a. The notes you’re fretting on the middle strings are the same as in standard tuning, but to play a D chord in open G you have to fret the first-string note two frets higher than its usual position. Same with G major. The G7 chord shape looks just like an F shape in standard tuning. You can also add the F♯ on the fourth string to that D shape, which gives you a movable chord. For example, you can move it up to the seventh fret for another G chord (Example 3b). It’s good practice to find all the similarities you can between chord shapes and patterns you already know and the shapes and patterns in open tunings. Then, instead of approaching an open tuning as if everything is completely new, you can take comfort in the fact that many things you’ve already learned still apply, and you won’t feel so much like you’re in an alien land. CLASSIC OPEN-G LICKS Now that you can get around a chord progression in open G, let’s learn a lick. Example 4 shows a classic that works well played with your fingers or a slide. It can be heard in Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” and many other blues tunes in open G. Roll your thumb across the bass notes and play the notes on the third string by sliding your finger or using a bottleneck to slide from the second fret to the fourth. There’s a lot of room for expression in the way you hit the G note (fifth fret) on the first string. Harder or softer, straight on or with some vibrato, sliding into it or nailing it—you decide. DOUBLE-STOP HARMONIES It’s easy to play harmonies in open tunings, so let’s look at some double-stop combinations that will allow you to play melody and harmony notes at the same time. Here are two patterns (Examples 5 and 6), the first on adjacent strings one and two and the other on nonadjacent strings one and three. To play each of these patterns you just need two shapes. The adjacent-string shapes in Example 5 consist of both notes at the same fret and both notes one fret apart. There are many ways to finger this, so try whatever feels natural to you and then explore alternatives. The shapes in the nonadjacent-string pattern in Example 6 have a one-fret span and a two-fret span. Let’s play a simple melody and mix up the two patterns (Example 7). Combining this double-stop method with a single-string approach gives you a lot of expressive ways to state a melody. OPEN-D TUNING Let’s move on to the other most common open tuning used in the blues: open D (D A D F♯ A D). To get into open D from standard tuning, lower your E strings to D, your B to A, and your G a half step to F♯. (If you’re going to open D from open G, you need to raise your fifth-string G to A, lower your B to A, and lower your G to F♯.) One thing that makes open-D tuning great for slide playing is that the root is on the first string. That means you have an entire octave’s worth of notes on the first 12 frets of that string. A lot of melodies, especially blues melodies, fall within one octave so you can play them easily without having to reach up too high or move down to a lower string. (The root-to-root octave in G tuning starts at the fifth fret and extends up to the 17th, which can leave you in awkward places if you try to play an entire melody on the first string.) TNING SIMILARITIES As you get more into playing in open tunings you’ll discover that it’s important to learn not just the letter names of the notes in the tuning, but the intervals. For example, if we named open-G tuning with the intervals of the chord, it would be spelled 5 1 5 1 3 5, and open-D tuning would be 1 5 1 3 5 1. Look at those numbers for a moment. Do you see a group of intervals that is common to both tunings? The 5 1 3 5 group appears on the first four strings of open G and the four middle strings (two, three, four, and five) of open D. What does that mean? It means that everything you’ve just learned to play in open G can be moved over one string when you’re in open D. It comes out sounding in the key of D, of course, but all the patterns and shapes we just covered in G can now be used in D. For example, move all the chords on the first four strings in Example 3a over to the middle four strings in open D and you get Example 8, while the “Little Red Rooster” lick in open D looks like Example 9. Follow this principle with any new open tuning and you’ll find that you can usually identify groups of two, three, or four strings that relate to a tuning you already know. So, instead of starting from zero, you may already have a knowledge base to work from, even in a tuning you’ve never tried before! The double-stop patterns we used in G (Examples 5 and 6) work on strings two and three and strings two and four in open D (Examples 10 and 11). But let’s try a new pattern on strings one and three in D tuning (Example 12). Pick out a simple folk melody, harmonize it with this string set, and—boom!—instant Ry Cooder (Example 13). Cooder uses open-D tuning a lot. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can do with open tunings. They give you a full sound, easy access to chord tones, and simple chord shapes, and once you get the hang of recognizing interval patterns and how they relate across tunings you can make up your own tunings as well. So start twisting those pegs! CHAPTER 8 Swingin' Blues Soloing https://vimeo.com/677827534 In previous chapters of Acoustic Blues Guitar Basics, we’ve looked at some techniques and strategies for playing lead guitar in a blues context. In this chapter we’ll continue with some more scales, arpeggios, and note-targeting techniques, along with some ideas about playing jump or swing blues lead, a style rooted in the big band sound of the 1940s. Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, and T-Bone Walker were proponents of this style. Modern groups like Roomful of Blues, Brian Setzer, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy have carried it on and a revival of swing dancing revved up interest in it. Bands in this style often have horn soloists or horn sections and the grooves are usually uptempo 4/4 shuffles. Let’s take a look at some things you can add to your guitar pickin’ toolbox to get you up to speed on this boogie-woogie bandwagon. MAJOR-PENTATONIC SOUNDS We’ve already worked on the minor-pentatonic scale in “The Blues Scale and Simple Lead Licks,” and while it covers a lot of territory for blues lead guitarists, it’s not the only scale you need to know. The flatted third and flatted seventh intervals add a kind of darkness and tension that are indispensable for the lowdown blues, but when you’re going for more of an uptempo, swinging feel they can sound a little harsh. For that, you need something a little more smooth and glossy. Let’s take a look at the major-pentatonic scale (Example 1), which is made up of the root, second, major third, fifth, and sixth intervals. The major third identifies this as a major scale and the notes we’ve added to the triad notes are in the major scale as well (the second and the sixth). I used the major-pentatonic scale, in this case, G major, as the basis for the swing-blues solo in Example 2. The solo begins with a two-bar lick centered around a G shape at the third fret, which is repeated in measures 3–4. When the blues progression goes to the IV (C) chord, I move the lick up to the eighth fret. Notice that the fingering is the same. MIXING MAJOR AND MINOR Take a look at the last lick before the turnaround (measures 9–10). This lick includes the sixth and major third that define our jazzier approach. If we replace the major third and sixth notes with a minor third and minor seventh we revert to the more bluesy sound of the minor pentatonic (Example 3). Now let’s alter the lick on the C chord to give you a sense of how these scale notes we’re using change the sound (Example 4). Originally I just moved the first G lick up the neck to fit over the C chord. But we can also take that original lick and modify it, playing it down at the third fret (measure 5) and beginning the lick on the flatted third of the G scale (B♭), which is the flatted seventh of the C chord. Ultimately, you’ll see that a mixture of these two pentatonic scales can help you navigate several styles of blues guitar. Let’s look at a chord progression with a sliding chord shape that’s perfect for mixing up the sound of these two scales (Example 5). It starts out as a sixth chord, in this case A6, with the root, third, and sixth on strings two, three, and four. When you slide this shape down a whole step (Example 6) those intervals turn into the flatted seventh, ninth, and fifth. These two note clusters create a harmonic setting that includes notes from both the major- and minor-pentatonic scales, so, as a soloist playing over this, you now have a lot of choices regarding the notes you use to create your phrases. You can use this groovy chord shape/slide to play through an entire 12-bar blues rhythm pattern (Example 7) that is perfect for soloing over using both the major- and minor-pentatonic scale sounds. LEARN TO BREATHE Listening to the horn players who pioneered the jump blues style can be a source of many ideas for your solos. The best idea to take away from horn soloists: breathe! One thing that defines the great blues guitarists is that they don’t just run up and down scales spewing out a mindless noodle-rama; they play phrases that have a beginning, middle, and end. Horn players are forced to play phrases like this because they have to stop and take a breath every once in a while. Guitar players don’t have to breathe, but the music sounds a lot better when they play as if they do. Very important tip #2: play with intention. When you hear boring blues guitar soloing what’s usually going on is the guitarist is twiddling through scales but never committing to a musical phrase. Scales are not music. They are the raw material from which music is made. You have to put the notes together in an order and rhythm that communicates an idea. Think of playing a solo as if you’re telling a story. Speak in sentences. Use punctuation and dynamics. Go slow, go fast, get loud, get soft, get somewhere in between. TARGET NOTES When you first explore the idea of phrasing you may wonder how to find a good note to end your phrase on. An easy way to get started is to “target” the notes of the chord that is playing behind you while you are soloing. Let’s start by targeting the root notes of the chords. Notice in Examples 8a and 8b that each phrase ends on the root note of the chord indicated above the notation. This gives a solid feeling to your musical statement and makes it sound like you know what song you’re playing. But targeting the same notes all the time gets a little too predictable. Let’s try it again and end the phrases on the third (Example 9a) and fifth (Examples 9b and 9c). Now mix it up, but keep ending your phrases on a chord tone. You can certainly get a lot more creative with the notes you end your phrases on, but practicing this way can help you get a feeling for how to hit correct-sounding notes, eliminate clams, and make your solo flow. ARPEGGIATE Another way to add a coherent sound to your soloing is by using arpeggios. This helps in two ways: the repeating chord tones are always “correct” notes and playing the root, third, and fifth notes of a chord forces you to include interval skips in your playing instead of reeling off scale passages. Lets look at a few arpeggio-based licks. The first two (Examples 10a and 10b) are based around the G shape at the third fret, while Example 11 is based around the D-shaped G chord at the seventh fret. The next step is to add a few nonchord tones to your arpeggios as a way to move between positions. In Example 12 I use an A note to connect some arpeggio-based licks in the two positions. There’s no formula for soloing over blues changes that works for everyone. You need to take all the ideas we’ve talked about in these chapters, practice and play around with them to incorporate them into your playing, and then start searching for the sound in your mind and getting it to come out through your fingers. Be patient and enjoy the trip. As B.B. King once said, “The blues aren’t a science, the blues can’t be broken down like mathematics. The blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never as simple as they look!” CHAPTER 9 Blues Turnarounds https://vimeo.com/677827424 A turnaround is a melodic or chordal passage that typically takes up one or two bars at the end of a blues progression and leads you back to the I chord and another 12-bar cycle. Blues guitarists have been coming up with new variations on the turnaround for decades—93-year-old Delta bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards has been quoted as saying he actually remembers when people first started using turnarounds and that before that everyone just stayed on the I chord until the singer started up again. Imagine that! In this lesson we’ll look at a few examples that illustrate different ways you can spice up those transitional bars and give a musical signal to the listener that you’re bringing it back around to the top of the form. TURN IT AROUND Music is all about tension and release, movement and resolution. A common example of this that is familiar to even beginning guitarists is the movement of the V chord (also known as the dominant) to the I chord (the tonic). In Example 1, you can hear the dissonance as the D♯ and A notes of a B7 chord cry out for resolution to an E-major chord, with D♯ moving up to E and A moving down to G♯. Ah, home again! In a 12-bar blues progression, this dissonance is often used somewhere in the last bar to set up the return to the top. One simple way to accomplish this is to play the I chord (E) through the 11th bar and the V7 chord (B7) for the 12th bar (Example 2). Another common chord turnaround for the last two bars is I–IV–I–V7, with two beats on each chord (Example 3). For a ragtime sound, try playing I–VI7–II7–V7, with two beats per chord (Example 4). Looking for something jazzy? Try turning the VI7 and II7 chords from Example 4 into minor chords (vi7 and ii7), as in Example 5. TURNAROUNDS, DELTA STYLE Chord-based turnarounds like the ones shown in Examples 2–4 work well because they sound great, clearly state the harmony, and are easy to play, but many musicians look at the turnaround as an opportunity to show off some flashier moves—blues music is full of such flourishes. Example 6 shows a lick that some people identify as the “Robert Johnson turnaround.” It features a descending line that moves against a static sustained note. It requires a bit of a stretch, but it’s not too tough if you use the right fingering. Fret the high note with your little finger and use your remaining three fingers to grab the fourth-string notes (use your index finger to grab the notes on the third and second frets). We can use this one melodic idea to create several variations if we play around with some different rhythmic approaches. In Example 6 we’re playing two eighth notes for each of the first three low quarter notes, but you can try playing those high notes as triplets, as in Example 7, or quarter notes, as in Example 8. Each of these rhythmic changes gives this same handful of notes a different feel. Mix them together at will and make your own variations (Example 9). You can also easily move this turnaround into any key. Example 10 shows this lick in the key of D. Let’s move to the key of E and use a variation of our moving line/static note strategy (Example 11). The low line moves through E, D, C♯, C, and B, and the open first string is the static note, but this time we’ll play a faster rhythm that gives each trio of notes a low-high-low sound that can get positively rollicking if you get it going fast enough. Here’s a simple Lightnin’ Hopkins–style lick that says it all with rhythm instead of melodic movement (Example 12). Brush the top three strings with your index finger as you hammer the triplets and get greasy with the slide on the third string. Once again, you can vary this turnaround by changing the triplets to eighths or quarters or mixing them together. THICKEN UP YOUR SOUND Some of our examples sound pretty open because of the wide distances between the intervals, but let’s stay in the key of E and fatten up the sound by adding another note to the mix. You’ll notice a lot of guitar-based blues songs are played in the key of E—all of those available open strings are perfect for pull-offs and slides, plus the guitar really resonates and rings in that key. In Example 13, we’re still using the idea of a moving line against a held note, but now our moving line will include two notes. The low note mirrors the chromatic movement from the Robert Johnson lick, but now we’re adding a harmony that starts on the fifth of the chord while using the open first as our static, ringing note. The result is a richer sound, and finishing this move with a bass run up to the B7 chord tells everyone we’re going back to the top! Of course, what goes down can certainly come back up. Take Example 13 and start by fingering the G♯ and B notes at the nut; move your line up instead of down (Example 14) and you’ll hear a sound that Muddy Waters used to great effect on several songs. Instead of the moving line/static note sound, let’s try a turnaround that features some additional harmony. The turnaround in Example 15 features a I–IV–I–V chord progression in the key of D. Notice we don’t change the bass note as we go to the IV chord. When the top note changes from F♯ to F we hear the implied change from D to G7, then back to D as the F moves back to F♯. The low D note functions as a root with D and as a fifth in the bass with the implied G7. This is the type of thinking—adding more harmony, different chord substitutions, and more scale choices—that helped early jazz evolve from the blues. Let’s go back to E and thicken the sound even more to the point where we’re using fully fleshed out chord movement (Example 16). Your thumb plays bass notes while the highest voice is moving this time. We are still using the ♭7, 6, ♭6, 5 motion, now on top, and when we add full chords to this we come up with E–E7–A–Am–E–C7–B7–F7 resolving to E. We now have a chord change for every beat in the last two bars and chromatic movement in the bass line with the last three notes, G, F♯, and F. Sounds like we grabbed a cab uptown to hear T-Bone Walker’s brand of jazzy blues! Learning how to successfully employ blues turnarounds takes hard work and practice. These examples offer a good bit of vocabulary to get you started—using each of the examples in this lesson to stand in for the last two bars of Example 2 will give you a feel for what each one feels like in the context of a real 12-bar blues pattern. For more practice, listen to some of your favorite blues recordings and pay attention to the way different players approach bars 11 and 12. CHAPTER 10 Blues Harmony and Chord Substitutions https://vimeo.com/677829474 Looking back in history to the time and place where the blues began takes us to the Southeast United States just after the Civil War. The slaves had gained their freedom but still put in a lot of time working the fields, building levees, handling mules and horses. Music helped them endure. The songs they sang as they worked were called “field hollers,” and these songs, along with religious spirituals, make up a lot of the melodic and rhythmic motifs that eventually morphed into the blues. The music was most often unaccompanied singing. Sometimes a song would be used to maintain a work rhythm, sung in time with a swinging ax or scythe blade. Chords and harmony didn’t enter the musical picture until a little later. The Piedmont or East Coast style of blues was influenced by the ragtime piano harmony that emerged around the turn of the 20th century, while the Delta blues remained pretty primitive in comparison. On early recordings we hear a lot of Delta blues songs that have only one chord. Check out Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Bo Weevil Blues” or Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues” to hear how a strummed rhythm and melodic slide lick make up the entire accompaniment (Example 1). Here’s a bass line riff that propels Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” and turns up in several other Delta tunes (Example 2). As blues harmony began to emerge, the I, IV, V chord changes we’re used to hearing today became common. In this chapter we’ll examine blues harmony and touch on the idea of chord substitutions. BASIC CHORD THEORY One great thing about the blues is that you don’t need a degree in music to be able to play and communicate effectively. But it can help to know how chords are built. Let’s start by looking at a major chord. Chords are built in thirds. We’ll start with a C note, add an E (a third above C), and then a G (a third above E). This gives us a C-major triad. If we want to extend the chord we keep adding thirds. The note a third above G is B. That’s the seventh note of the C scale so the name of this new chord is C major seven (Cmaj7). Think back to “The Blues Scale and Simple Lead Licks.” One of the intervals in the major scale we change to give it a bluesier sound is the seventh. Let’s do that with this B note and lower it a half step to B♭. This makes our chord a C dominant seven, or just C7. The I, IV, and V chords in the key of C are C, F, and G. Let’s play a short progression with these chords (Example 3a). Listen to the sound. Now make all three of these chords dominant-seventh chords: C7, F7, and G7 (Example 3b). Play the pattern again and listen. Much higher blues quotient, right? We also talked earlier about how the tension between the minor-pentatonic scale played over major chords creates a sound that we recognize as “bluesy.” Now we’ve brought that tension to the chord itself. Notice that in a C7 chord the third, E, is a major third while the seventh (B♭) is a minor seventh. Try using these dominant-seventh chords to play 12-bar blues progressions in different keys. The major/minor sounds bumping against each other in the chord make it sound like blues even before you lay any lead lines on top. These three chords have powered a million blues tunes. NINTH CHORDS Musicians are a curious and creative bunch and as soon as they’d established this foundational harmony for the blues, some folks naturally wanted to change or add to it. One of the first steps they took was to further extend the chord. Add a note a third above the seventh and you have a ninth interval. In C this would be a D note, making it a C ninth chord (C9). This chord is spelled C, E, G, B♭, D. Here are a couple of ways to finger a ninth chord (Example 4). What do you think about the sound of this chord? How does it compare to the C major triad and C7? It’s still bluesy but adding the ninth gives it a color we might call jazzy. Try sliding the ninth chord up a step and back down on a slow blues (Example 5) and you’re in T-Bone Walker territory. CHORD SUBSTITUTIONS Early-20th-century jazz was rooted in the blues. But these jazz musicians weaned on the blues began to feel hemmed in by the standard harmony and started the search to expand the sound, even to the point of adding different chords entirely. This is where the idea of chord substitution comes in. Here’s a simple concept to get you started understanding chord substitutions: any two chords that have two notes in common can be substituted for each other. Let’s analyze one of the most common chord substitutions with this in mind. In the last two bars of a 12-bar blues (the section often referred to as the turnaround) in C we would usually play a full bar of C and a full bar of G7 (Example 6a). Instead, let’s make that measure of G7 two beats of Dm and two beats of G7 before we go back to the C (Example 6b). Spell out these two chords and we get D, F, A (Dm) and G, B, D, F (G7). We can also play a Dm7 (D, F, A, C) instead of the Dm. Notice that the Dm and Dm7 chords share D and F notes with the G7. This is enough similarity for these chords to fulfill the same function, and enough difference to alter the sound and give a soloist a more interesting harmonic backdrop to play against. You have probably noticed how the sound of the V7 seems to demand a resolution to the I chord. This pattern is evident in every style of Western music from folk to blues to classical. When we add the Dm7 to a measure of G7, what we’re hearing is a harmonic motif known as a ii–V–I progression. In the key of C this is Dm7–G7–C. It definitely works as a chord substitution at the end of the 12-bar blues but do you think we could use it anywhere else in the progression? Try this—in measure 4 of the 12-bar blues, which would normally be four beats of C7, change to two beats of Gm7 and two beats of C7, leading to four beats of F7 in the next measure (Example 7). We’re pretending for a moment that the F isn’t the IV chord of C but a I chord, and then we place a ii7–V7 in front of it borrowed from the key of F. What we end up with is a jazzy sounding way of moving from the C to the F. You can experiment with putting this change in front of other chords; just think of the chord you want to resolve to as the I chord and then calculate the right intervals to use for your ii7 and V7 chords’ roots. DIMINISHED CHORDS/PASSING CHORDS Let’s check out one more chord concept. A chord progression is, by definition, a journey through a particular set of chords. The main chords are the big signposts of your trip, but there are also chords you don’t linger on that get you from one place to another. These are often referred to as “passing chords.” A chord type that often gets this tag is the diminished chord. Example 8 shows a couple of voicings for diminished chords. We can put these chords in two places in the 12-bar blues. In measure 6, swap out two beats of the F7 for an F♯dim (Example 9). Notice how this makes the bassline move from F to F♯ to G, giving us a smooth path from the root of the F chord to the root of the F♯dim to G, which is the fifth of the C chord. If you spell out F7 and F♯dim, you’ll notice that F7 (F, A, C, E♭) and F♯dim (F♯, A, C, and E♭) share three notes: A, C, and E♭. Let’s use a different diminished chord in measure 8 of the blues. Instead of a full measure of C7, we’ll play two beats of C7 and two beats of C♯dim and make measure 9 a Dm (Example 10). Once again, like the F7 and F♯dim, the C7 and C♯dim share three notes, allowing us to substitute the C♯dim for the C7. Notice that the Dm chord is the ii in a ii–V–I progression that leads us back to C in measure 10 of the blues. These passing chords help form a well-connected bass line, giving a nice flow to our trip through this progression and creating a more interesting background for a soloist. Let’s put all these ideas together in a full blues progression in C (Example 11). CHAPTER 11 Improvising on a Melody https://vimeo.com/677829628 Here's how Webster’s defines improvise: “ to create and perform spontaneously or without preparation.” It’s amazing, however, how much preparation it takes to be able to play music without preparation! Improvising is what happens when all the study, practice time, scales, rhythm patterns, and music theory combine into spontaneous music making. Every musician feels or hears a sound that inspires them to want to play music but it takes time and effort to develop the skills needed to really access that sound. That’s called finding your voice. It’s something to aspire to and to notice and enjoy when it happens. In previous chapters we’ve talked about lead guitar techniques, blues scales, licks, and soloing ideas like call-and-response and repeating riffs. In this chapter we’re going to pull from all of these and add a few more concepts, all with the goal of finding your own way of improvising on a melody. A 'MARY' MELODY To get started, we need a melody to work with that everybody has down cold. How about that one about Mary and her little lamb? And let’s put a Jimmy Reed shuffle rhythm behind it to move it from the schoolhouse to the local nightclub and give us something to work with (Example 1). Review the melody a couple of times. Find it in more than one place on your guitar neck (Examples 2a–c). Usually when musicians think about improvising on a melody their first thought is something like, “I need to come up with a variation on the melody notes.” Think about this, however: music is said to have three elements—melody, harmony, and rhythm. All these elements are fair game for improvising, not just the melody notes. If you ask many master musicians about improvising, a common theme emerges: it’s all about the “time.” How a player manipulates the time (or rhythm) is more important than notes or chords. In light of that, let’s start by exploring how we can change the time feel to make it more expressive. If you play Example 1 as written it feels very straight, evoking the children’s song we all remember. With one adjustment to the rhythmic phrasing we can change that. Play the melody but don’t play any notes on downbeats. In Example 3 the melody is played in the same octave as in Example 1 but most of the notes have been displaced and lengthened or shortened. Hear how changing this one aspect of your rhythmic approach suddenly takes this once singsong children’s tune and gets its mojo working? It’s certainly not a blues classic yet, but, hey, we just got started! Getting off of the downbeats pulls us into a “behind the beat” blues feel. Let’s stay with the melody notes a bit longer (Example 4) and add some blues guitar techniques like slides (the first eight bars) and bends (bars 9–16) to the melody in the upper register. This melody has several third intervals—one of our favorite notes to quiver and shake. In measures 9–12 notice that the melody is mostly played on one string using a series of upward bends and drop bends. Add some vibrato and slow the drop bend notes so they pull behind the beat a little to make it sing. As you go through these examples be sure to play around with your own rhythmic interpretations. Try leaving out a couple of notes or stretching a note or two across the bar lines. Everything you do to blow up the straight up-and-down feel of the original rhythm gets you closer to a bluesy/jazzy improvised vibe. MAKE THE NOTES BLUE Now that we’ve got a little grease in the rhythm let’s take a look at our note choices. Rather than replacing all the melody notes let’s add some notes from the minor-pentatonic scale. Since we’re going for a blues sound we can use notes from the A-major scale but change the major seven (G♯) to a flatted seven (G) and the major third (C♯) to the “bluesy” third, which is that place between the minor and major we’re working over with our string bends. It’s a little more minor than major but everyone hears it a little differently—how you hear it is one of the things that defines your sound. In measures 2 and 5 of Example 5 we’re pushing the flatted seven (G) on the second string up to match the root on the first string. Hold the bend as you hit the first string to get the two notes to vibrate together. In measures 4 and 7 push the minor third (C) just enough to make it “blue” but not enough to make it major. That in-between place is where all the blues power lives. SHIFT OCTAVES Let’s keep adding more elements to our improv toolbox. Earlier we located the melody in three places on the fingerboard. As we go through the melody this time let’s move it from low to high and back (Example 6). This is a common way of building intensity as you play your solo. There are lots of ways to get from here to there on the guitar neck. You can snake your way up, connecting scale notes smoothly with slides and bends, as in measures 3–4, or just make a dramatic leap at some point and leave the listener gasping (measure 8)! COMBINE LICKS AND MELODY Another common approach to improvisation involves mixing guitar “licks” with melody statements. Licks are predetermined phrases that work over certain chord progressions regardless of the melody of the song. As in learning to speak a new language, having a vocabulary of short phrases at your fingertips is useful, and every guitarist has a bag of licks that come in handy when they don’t really know the melody of the song they’re improvising on. While some guitarists are happy to play solos with nothing but licks, if there are no melody notes in your solo, listeners won’t know what song you’re playing. An approach that is more satisfying is to look for the spaces in the melody line and take advantage of those spots to drop in some of your favorite licks. For instance, in measures 13–14 of Example 6 there’s a triplet lick that fits between two melody statements. These are just a few ideas of how to put your own stamp on a melody. A good improvisation will draw from all the techniques, scales, harmony, and rhythm patterns you’ve internalized and distill them into your own creative approach to the song. That’s when you’ll find out just how much practicing, playing, and preparation it takes to be spontaneous! CHAPTER 12 Ragtime Blues and Fingerpicking https://vimeo.com/677829782 In the “Fingerstyle Blues” chapter of Acoustic Blues Guitar Basics, we introduced some picking patterns and the Piedmont-style of alternating bass and began the task of separating the roles of the thumb and fingers. The idea behind this is to play more pianistically, to maintain a steady bass line with the thumb while voicing a melody with your fingers on the top strings. If you’ve worked a bit with these patterns and can switch at will between them while keeping your thumb grooving, you should be ready for this chapter, in which we’ll look at some syncopated ragtime-influenced blues fingerpicking. BLIND BLAKE Let’s take a look at the style of one of the greatest Piedmont players, Blind Blake. Not much is known about Blake’s life, but he recorded around 80 tracks for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932 and became known as the “King of Ragtime Guitar.” He was fond of chord progressions that were reminiscent of ragtime piano tunes and played with a bubbly, bouncy rhythm. We’ll start with a progression that turns up in several of Blake’s tunes (Example 1). Notice that this is a 16-bar form and the chords follow a I–III–VI–II–V pattern in the key of C (C–E–A–D–G). There’s a special chord in bar 15 that we’ll talk about in a bit. Before you try to fingerpick this, strum the chords a few times to get the form and the sound of the chord progression in your head. It’s easy to get locked into the 12-bar/three-chord blues form because it’s so common and we’ve used it in most of our studies so far, but this is a chance to stretch outside your comfort zone and play with a new sound. In Example 2 there’s a solid alternating-bass line all the way through the piece and most of the treble notes fall on the same beats as the bass notes. Assign your middle finger to the notes on the first string and your index to the notes on the second string. In measures 4, 6, 7, 12, 13, and 15 there are some notes that don’t fall on the thumb beats. This will be your first real challenge—to place these notes between the thumb beats. Go slowly and notice the spaces between the quarter notes. Eventually, you want to see (and hear) the low and high notes as two separate lines, but for now it’s good to keep them connected and think about how they fit together. The chord in bar 15 is commonly called a “slash chord.” We notate it as Ab/C or “A♭ over C.” That means we’re playing an A♭ triad over a C note in the bass. When you see the / symbol, the name to the left of the slash is the chord and the note to the right is the bass note. In this case, the Ab/C creates a dramatic sound as the C bass note changes function from the root of the C chord to the third of the A♭ chord and then resolves back to the C chord. This is a sweet move and once you’ve heard it you’ll recognize it in other ragtime-influenced chord progressions. Example 3 adds more of the kind of melody that Blind Blake would play, with more syncopation and some of his favorite phrases. It’s a bit of a stretch getting your little finger up to the fifth fret on the A7 chord in measure 3, but rocking the note from the A to the G is a motif you’ll hear in many ragtime guitar tunes, so add that one to your bag of licks. The melody in measures 7 and 8 constitutes another lick you can extract from this piece and throw in whenever you have two bars of G7 to populate. Be sure you’re using the G fingering with your ring and middle on the bass strings because you’ll need your little finger free to fret the melody notes on strings one and two. An interesting thing happens in measure 7. Up until now the alternating-bass line and melody line haven’t really intersected, but in this measure the melodic phrase includes one of the thumb notes. As you improve your finger/thumb independence you’ll be able to overlap lines more without losing the groove your thumb is laying down. The better you get at that, the more you’ll be able to phrase complicated melodies in a smooth-sounding way. JAUNTY THUMB ROLL One of Blake’s signature rhythmic ideas was a “thumb roll” in the bass. This quick note before the downbeat of the measure adds a unique bounce to the groove. To pull it off, let your thumb roll off the lower string, come to rest on the next one for a split second, roll off that one, and then pick up the regular alternating-bass line until it’s time to change chords and do it all over again. In Example 4 the thumb roll doesn’t happen on every chord change. It’s the kind of technique that spices up your rhythm but if you put it in too much, it becomes predictable. After you get this little rhythm bump happening, use it to season the groove to your own taste. Work on this piece for a while and try to get it up to a moderately quick tempo. If you play it too fast, the thumb roll will lose its bouncy quality and the whole thing will get robotic. Think jaunty! CHAPTER 13 Blues Rhumba and Ballad Rhythms https://vimeo.com/677829830 Earlier in this lessons series, we covered the Chicago-style shuffle rhythm commonly heard in blues music. The shuffle is everywhere in the blues, but it isn’t the end-all rhythmic figure of blues music. In this lesson, we’ll add a couple of additional patterns to our repertoire: the blues rhumba and a slow 6/8 blues ballad rhythm. GOIN' TO NEW ORLEANS You might not be able to call yourself a serious blues player without some familiarity with the regional shuffle patterns associated with Texas and Chicago, but the city of New Orleans also figures pretty heavily when we talk about blues grooves. With its proximity to the Caribbean islands and its history as a port city and cultural melting pot, New Orleans brings what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge” to our catalog of rhythms. Example 1 shows the bass line for a rhythm known as a blues rhumba or mambo. Example 2 shows how you can add an upstroke to this pattern, approximating what drummers call a “press roll” on the snare drum. This lets you mix bass notes with percussion on one guitar, laying down a solid groove that would fit tunes like “Iko Iko” or “Mardi Gras Mambo.” When you play this upstroke, the strings should be muted as you “rake” across the strings, sounding more percussive than melodic or chordal. Try lightening your grip on the pick as you rake it back so you can hear the strings sound individually rather than as a chunky chord. Example 3 shows an entire 12-bar progression with the blues rhumba groove. SLOW IT DOWN After all this mamboing the dancers might be ready for a slow number—something like “Bring It on Home To Me” or “Mathilda” played in a 6/8 ballad rhythm. There are a couple of ways to approach this on guitar. Example 4 shows how to arpeggiate the chords, playing all the eighth notes in the measure and giving the groove a smooth, rippling feel. To add some percussive thwack, try arpeggiating the first three notes and hitting a muted chord with an upstroke on the fourth eighth note (Example 5). If you’re playing in a band, the drummer should be hitting the snare on this beat, and you’ll be fattening that sound with your guitar lick. Tip: watch the drummer’s hand as he comes down on the snare and make sure you’re not ahead or behind—it sounds a lot better when you hit that backbeat together. Example 6 is an entire progression played with the 6/8 ballad feel. PROTECT THE GROOVE As with the blues rhythm patterns we’ve studied in previous lessons, there are a few general principles to keep in mind. Relax—an important part of blues phrasing is the behind-the-beat feel. Don’t play so far back that you drag the tempo, but relax your feel just enough to give it a slightly lazy bounce. Give all the notes their full time; don’t rush to the next note. Notice the upbeat and how you accent it. A lot of the swing and feeling of the groove is determined by that beat, so be aware of what’s going on with the upbeat. And, above all, protect the groove! BONUS LESSON Careless Love "Careless Love” is a classic tune from the early-20th-century New Orleans jazz songbook. Buddy Bolden’s band, one of the pioneering groups in Dixieland style jazz, was known for its version. The song has since been recorded by artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan. The song’s melody has been a vehicle for many lyrics, all revolving around love, betrayal, and murder, perennial subjects for traditional music. Like many traditional tunes, “Careless Love” has been arranged in many different styles, mostly leaning toward blues and jazz—although it has survived country, folk, and pop treatments as well. Inspired by Lonnie Johnson’s version on his 1965 recording Unsung Blues Legend: The Living Room Sessions, I decided on a bluesy ballad interpretation. Johnson’s recording of “Careless Love” has a relaxed, mournful vibe that I pursued rather than any particular guitar figures. I put it in the key of E, a great solo-guitar key and, luckily, a good singing key for me. You’ll notice that while I vary the accompaniment patterns throughout the tune, I try to never lose the feeling of the pulse, the relaxed groove. That’s more important than any of the notes.