Guitar Basics: A Bluesy Lick You Need to Know

This blues lick is fairly easy to play on guitar, and when played well can create a very evocative sound that will add movement and interest to your accompaniment.

One of my favorite licks can be used to accompany bluesy songs in the key of E. It’s fairly easy but, if played well, can create a very evocative sound that will add movement and interest to your accompaniment. You can use it behind a 12-bar blues, or play any section of it for a measure or two. 

For this lick, you only need to know three two-note shapes, using E, A, and E7 chords to imply an E7 (Example 1). Pick the notes on the fifth string with your thumb and the third-string notes with your index finger in a pinching motion. This gives you two harmony notes that move up and down together in the interval of tenths. 


Once you are comfortable playing those note combinations, add the open first string between each pinch (Example 2). You can use your middle finger on the first string, but I find it more comfortable to pick this note with my ring finger. To add an extra bit of color, hammer on from the G to G# (third string) with your first finger at the beginning of the measure. The underlying feel, as in many blues songs, is a triplet rhythm, so the strong beats get two counts, and the “ands” of the beat get one. This feel will become more obvious as you change the time signature to 12/8 to stress the triplet feel. Just remember that the strong beats occur every three eighth notes (or one dotted quarter) in 12/8.

Let’s make this lick a little more interesting by coming back to the third string after playing the open first string (Example 3). Now you’re playing each of the beats of the triplet. You can also substitute the open sixth string for the third beat of each three-note phrase (Example 4). 

One of the nice things about this pattern is that it can easily be moved up the neck, so you can continue playing it when the song goes to the A7 (IV) chord. Since the open E (first string) is part of the A chord, the picking-hand pattern still works (Example 5). If you want to play this against the B7 (V) chord, try playing the open B string instead of the E on the second beat (Example 6). Now put all the pieces together to make a 12-bar blues progression (Example 7). I hope you enjoy this simple lick and find lots of places to use it.


Guitar blue lick you need to know, music notation examples

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.

For more roots and blues fingerstyle guitar instruction:

Happy Traum
Happy Traum

Happy Traum is a revered folk guitarist and educator from Woodstock, New York.

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