You either have the blues, or you don’t. That’s obvious.
But while you may undoubtedly have the blues, you may not have a solid approach to practicing the blues on the guitar. The blues has a unique style and sound, full of lower pitches, flatter notes, and repetitive patterns. So, while you may feel the blues in your soul, it may not be so easy to express with an instrument.
Being schooled in the way of playing blues guitar isn’t a straightforward or sequential process. Though methodical and generally based on a standard chord progression, blues is highly-improvised and spontaneous.
Let’s take a look at some essential techniques to playing the blues. By applying these to your practice regiment, you’ll easily hone in on that distinct bluesy sound.
If you’re new to the blues, this concept may blow your mind. Once you put it into practice, you’ll recognize it as a definitive standard in a lot of songs. A repeated twelve-bar chord progression is the most common structure in the genre. Throughout the course of the song, you will be repeating each twelve-bar measure, which consists of four beats per bar. Try it out in a key you’re comfortable with. If you’re not sure where to start, try the E-A-B combination, starting out in the key of E. You could even cycle through the twelve bars with a G-C-D structure – it’s up to you. Just be sure to start and end on the same note after cycling through the twelve bars.
Minor chords are the sad and depressing cousins of their respective major chords. That’s why they’re perfect for playing blues. If the music you currently play doesn’t emphasize an occasional D-minor, A-minor, or E-minor, start adding them to the mix. Because minors consist of a flatted third degree of a major, they offer a more despondent and emotional tinge to your sound. When you’re strumming, be sure to follow through on all the strings in the note so you can emphasize that one string that drops down a fret or two. After all, that one note can make the difference between a cheerful song and a blues song.
Hearing “Seventh Chords” may conjure up memories of music theory and make you want to run and hide. There’s no need to hesitate – in the context of blues, anyway. Dominant seventh chords consist of four notes that really pack a bluesy punch. This is particularly true if you apply seventh chords to your transitions – that is, moving from one note to the next. For example, if you’re transitioning from a D major to a G major, toss in a D7th chord between the two. Some find these chords to be awkward and counterintuitive in relation to their parent chords, but once you master these, you’ll get a bluesy sound that’s easy to distinguish.
Hammer Ons/Pull Offs
Hammer Ons and Pull Offs sound great – and are a lot of fun – no matter what style you’re playing. However, there is no doubt that these are essential for the blues. There are a lot of different ways you can go about practicing these tricks and building up muscle in your fingers, but the simplest and most common place to start is hammering from your first finger to your third, encompassing a total of three frets. By taking your time and perhaps even playing along with a slow beat, you’ll be able to properly assess how much strength and force you’ll need to get sufficient sound from your hammering. Once you feel comfortable with hammering from your first to third finger, try a pull off. This technique is very different from hammering. Actually, it is like hammering – but in reverse. The only difference is, you want to be sure to pull your third finger down, not directly off; it’s that down motion that vibrates the string and subsequently produces sound. Pulling down, feeling down … that’s what the blues is all about.
A staple in blues, bending a string can give your guitar solo what it needs to qualify as “bluesy.” Firmly pushing down on a string on whatever fret you choose and bending it upward or downward essentially shortens the length between the note of choice and the bridge, changing the pitch of that note. If you’re a lead blues guitarist, adding random bends to a basic pentatonic scaling progression can go a long way for your big solo. By holding those bended notes and letting them reverberate for a couple beats, you can nail that blues sound. Just listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan or B.B. King – they were masters at getting the most out of one string/fret.
Try combining all of these techniques together in a sequential fashion. Once you’ve got the 12-bar form down, throw in some minor and seventh chords. When it comes time for a solo, throw in a basic scale progression full of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends, before going back into the cycle of bars.
Practicing the blues guitar shouldn’t give you the blues. Ironically, it can be a lot of fun and very enjoyable. This is due to the fact that despite a few standard forms of playing the genre, it’s off-the-cuff and inventive, leaving those bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and chord variations up to you.