Born in the south of the United States in the 19th century, the blues-influenced modern guitar playing more than any other genre. Jazz, Rock n Roll, Funk, Metal, and most genres where the guitar is one of the main elements have elements of blues in them. As a seasoned guitarist, I will add in this blues licks guide the basics of what you need to know and practice to become a better blues guitarist.
Bottom line up front: Learning blues licks is a great way to start as a lead guitarist and expand your vocabulary. Beyond learning the shapes and techniques, listening to as much blues guitar as possible is important to implement the right feel and dynamics in your playing.
Good knowledge of intervals and the pentatonic scale will eventually help you blend the major and minor pentatonic like the pros.
As Jimi Hendrix famously quoted, “The blues is easy to play but hard to feel.” That is true; however, I will detail techniques, licks, and theory aspects that can make it even easier for you.
The Blues Pentatonic Scale
The friendly pentatonic scale that we all know and love can be turned into a blues scale only by adding one new note; The so-called ‘blues note.’
For all of you that might need some help with the pentatonic scale in the tabs chart below is the 1st shape of A minor pentatonic scale:
The minor blues pentatonic scale is formed by adding the Flat 5th. In the A minor scale, the flat 5gh is the note Eb and as you see in the tablature, you can find it in the 6th fret of the A string or one octave higher on the 8th fret of the G string.
There is more than one position of the Am pentatonic and blues scale, and they are highly connected to the CAGED system. There are five shapes of the pentatonic scale that you should eventually learn to connect the entire fretboard.
Pro tip: Once you learn the licks of this article, a good exercise is to play the same licks in different pentatonic scale shapes all over the fretboard. Doing this, you connect the fretboard and give a new sound to a familiar lick.
Beginner Blues Licks
I highly advise you to pick up your guitar and follow the tablature. One other thing you should not worry much about as a
- The classic blues lick is the full-step G string bend. You only have to play the D and G strings and essentially only two frets. Don’t be extra careful with the bend. If you don’t reach the pitch of the 9th fret (E note), your lick will sound bluesy.
- This other lick is still based on the A minor pentatonic; however, it’s higher up the neck on the 3rd shape of the pentatonic scale. It’s a fundamental lick as it helps you with the techniques of bending and releasing notes.
As with all full step bends, you should aim to bend using the third finger while having the other support it. Bending the 15th fret up to the 17th fret pitch then slowly releasing the bend while having it ring can be tricky. A good tip is not to use too much strength and let the tension of the string that naturally wants to go down dictate the release of the note.
- Going back to the basic pentatonic shape, you can play a very simple lick using only the B and high E strings. I especially like to teach this lick to beginners as the bending on the 8th fret of the E string is a lesson in itself. As with other licks, you should aim to bend the note exactly one fret but not put much pressure on it as it’s unnecessary.
- The last
beginnerlick involves hammering on the 7th fret of the G string and a classic full step bend followed by a smooth release. If you can play the lick above, you can. It is tricky to get the hammer on’s strong and intent. That feel is everything, and small dynamics define ‘feel’ on guitar.
Intermediate Blues Licks
- This lick is one of the most iconic blues/rock licks that many greats from BB King to Jimi Hendrix and Jimi Page have played in their solos.
It’s not a hard lick, but getting it with the right feel can be tricky. You should pay careful attention to bending the 8th fret of the B string. Bending the B string in the middle of the lick might require you to do it with the pinky. Like any other normal whole step bend, have the other fingers back you up.
- This lick is based on C minor pentatonic scale and uses the famous quarter step bend blue players use to create tension.
The whole idea behind blues solos is tension and release. The small bend and bluesy notes are like a statement that does just that! A good approach is not to think of these small bends as bends at all, but just a ‘coloring’ you put to a note.
- This pentatonic lick is based on the D minor or F major pentatonic and blends different types of bends with a short run on the scale. I would give a tip to try and play the last notes while palm muting.
- This last lick is a Major pentatonic that blends the minor scale into it. The only difference betwen a major and minor pentatonic lick is the root note around which the melody gravitates. If we want to play a lick in the A major scale, we can use the F#minor pentatonic (relative minor scale) but gravitate mostly towards the A note.
Blending major and minor pentatonic scales in blues solos is a concept you grab with time and only when you are to solo efficiently in either minor or major keys.
Blues Guitar Music Theory
What improved my blues playing was learning how to recognize intervals and triads.
You can become a great blues guitarist without studying theory. However, a good grasp of intervals will tell you what note of the scale or chord you are playing. You will effectively find notes everywhere on the neck without memorizing shapes.
In the previous example of the blues scale, we mentioned how the flat 5th is the blues notes. Recognizing Interval by ear will help you find the flat 5th anywhere without even thinking about the scale. Even if you find that you are having a hard time initially, proper ear training will prove helpful in the long run.
Triads are three-note chords that can be played in multiple positions on the neck. When playing the pentatonic scale, we outline some of the chords that make up the Key we are playing. Knowing these triads separately will ultimately prove to be more helpful than memorizing scale shapes.
Many blues songs are played using alternate tunings like Open-G. These tunings require a completely new look at the fretboard and playing the lead. A good ear and music theory can help you adapt faster to any new tunning.
Music theory and ear training take time and require patience. Many of my students that skipped these two and only learned solos through tablature eventually had to go back to the basics. I advise you to practice by setting aside 15-20 minutes at least times per week and focusing on these two elements of music.
Guitar Techniques for Playing Blues Licks
Working on your technique is something you can make while learning blue licks. Most modern genres of guitar rely on the same techniques. There are some that are more specific in blues than others.
Bending strings is essential to playing blues lead guitar. The best blues guitarists all were masters of bending and immediately distinguishable by how their bends sound. What makes the blues special is the quarter step or even smaller mini-bends that make a note sound just slightly sharp.
This bending technique makes licks sound more ‘tense’ and ‘bluesy.’ Double and unison bends where two strings are played, and you bend one while holding the other are very popular.
Sliding Into Phrases
Sliding into phrases is another distinctive technique of blues guitarists. It implies starting to slide before starting a lick and landing on the first note. You can slide either on the string where the lick starts or any string above or below it.
Double Stops are essential to getting a ‘rough’ bluesy vibe. This technique usually involves barring down on two strings and playing them simultaneously. Adding some bends will make the guitar sound funky and aggressive.
Muting with both your hands is very important. You can mute the strings that are not being played either by placing your hand close to the guitar bridge, muting the fingers of the left hand, or both simultaneously.
String rakes are common in blues and then transferred to all other guitar genres. A string rake implies muting all the strings with your left hand except the one you are fretting and strumming all of them. The muted string noise is authentic and a great intro to your solos.
The Blues Phrasing and Feel
It’s common to say that famous blues lead guitarists, “He can make the guitar sing.” The secret to doing that is very straightforward. Think like a singer!Think of your licks as the melody of a singer and phrasing as the articulations of the voice.
Your skills improve significantly when you start to hum melodies and follow your ears instead of your hands. If it’s complex initially, a good trick is to learn the vocal melodies of blues songs, not only the guitar parts.
Question: How do you remember blues licks?
Question: What is the Easiest Blues Song for a
Beginner to Learn?
Question: What are the 3 Chords in Blues?
Final Tips on Playing Blues Licks
Besides learning licks and practicing them to a metronome, you should also find two or three blues guitarists and try to learn their solos. The only way to truly memorize musical concepts is to learn the small details.
The best part is that you can be a complete
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