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This article was originally published in issue #41
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Where do we possibly begin with such a massive a subject as playing Blues guitar? Everybody sounds different playing it and it can be as diverse as Jazz when it comes to your approach.
With Walter Trout and Warren Haynes interviewed in this issue, how could we not get right back to the Blues? Michael Casswell offers us a very distinctive Guitar Interactive Tech Session.
Where do we possibly begin with such a massive a subject as playing Blues guitar? Everybody sounds different playing it and it can be as diverse as Jazz when it comes to your approach. There are many schools of thought about it and the purists can be very dismissive of you if you do not remain faithful to the genre within the context of your playing.
Personally, I have found the biggest critics with the most opinions end up being the most average players, so the thing to remember is that it is better to be able to play this tricky style with plenty in reserve in terms of your technique, theory, knowledge and versatility rather than being limited to basic pentatonic shapes. If you are limited to basic pentatonic shapes, then you can still sound great if you have great touch, phrasing, feel, tone and passion. A little knowledge can certainly go a long way in Blues, but right now, whilst writing this, I'm listening to Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather rip through 'All Blues' which is pretty much a masterclass in all that is possible within an advanced Blues like improvisation. Listen to Scott Henderson play the same track and you get all the whammy bar goodness thrown in for good measure. Carlton, Lukather and Henderson, with their supreme musicianship, are just as relevant to the term 'Blues' as the names BB King, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, that can all play just three notes and sound just as cool. Playing Blues guitar is as advanced or as simple as you want to make it, the only rule being that it must sound like it comes from the heart and that you mean it, which is also the tricky bit!
I would strongly advise before anything you develop a few obvious ground rules. This means a very good knowledge of major and minor pentatonics in all keys. There are countless lessons all over the Internet as well in past issues of GI, and you don't need me to run through the shapes and sound of them as part of this Tech Session. The same applies to vibrato and string bending. The Internet is awash with everybody showing you how to do it! I even have a Lick Library DVD out on the subject (shameless plug! - Ed), but trust me, if your vib and bends aren't happening, then neither is your playing. Blues is all about expression, and that comes from the touch you have as a player, so pay extra special attention to these basics.
Our backing track should be fun to improvise over and is basically the classic I,lV,V (1,4,5) chord progression we all know and love. The curve ball to keep you on your toes is the fact that the track modulates through a few key centres and within each key, I am going to switch my thinking, and my guitar, to approach each 12 bar sequence with some different aspects you may find helpful to use within your own playing.
So we start with the 'less is more' approach and mixing the major and minor pentatonics. I grew as a player listening to Eric Clapton and he was my first major influence when I picked up the guitar aged 11. He is a master of Blues dynamics and phrasing, with a beautiful vibrato, and is great player to listen how you mix and switch between the major and minor sounding pentatonics. To get you started with this concept, try playing the major pentatonic on the (l) chord, then switch it to the minor pentatonic for the (lV) chord. For the (V) chord you could play the major pentatonic belonging to that chord, or play the minor pentatonic belonging to your key centre, but highlight the root notes that belong to the (V) chord. Eric is a master of this and was doing it from very early on in his career. Also for this first run through of our key of E 12 bar, I am leaving plenty of space between phrases, which sometimes creates a question and answer type sound. Space works great, as long as when you play something, it sounds soulful and bluesy. Again, touch, vibrato and feel are key for it to work, and Eric is the man if you need an example of a master at work. I broke out my old '63 Strat for this run through, which goes twice round the 12 bar before we modulate.
Moving to our first key change, we go up a tone to the key of F#. I'm hoping by me using my Les Paul, I can get a little more fire in there, in the style of Joe Bonamassa, the late great Gary Moore and our cover artist Warren Haynes. These guys take a Les Paul and rip it up with big tone and more than a little Rock chops in their approach. Big bends and repeating patterns consisting of 3/4/5 note alternate picked lines which either run up the pentatonic scale shape, or down it. The trickiest repeating sequence has to be groups of 5. Try descending down your favourite shape in groups of 5, starting at each point of the pentatonic. This gives strong elements of the great Joe Bonamassa or even Eric Johnson, which is where Joe openly admits drawing inspiration from. Another element to think about is piecing together some licks rather than phrases. If you have a favourite lick then don't be frightened to sit on it and repeat it. This can work great (depending on the lick) and is a classic Blues phrasing trick.
Our next key moves to A, and for this the purists among you will recoil in horror as I pick one of my old Valley Arts guitars which have EMG pick ups and the infamous Floyd Rose tremolo, both of which are like sunlight to a vampire for your average Blues purist. But hey, it happens to be a killer guitar and Blues comes totally from the player, NOT the guitar! There is some thinking behind the decision to use my VA in that the guitar sort of represents the more muso approach to a 12 bar, with note choice highlighting the chords you are playing over, some chromatic phrases, pentatonic substitution, the introduction of the mixolydian mode and generally taking a more Fusion approach.
For this approach you are considering the strong note choices for each chord, so you need to know where your roots, minor and major 3rds, dominant 7ths, 9ths, 5th and b5ths all are and how they sit within your phrasing and improvisations. Investigate how great the mixolydian mode works within Blues. Try not to limit yourself to box shapes and get some passing notes happening. The obvious guys to listen to are the true greats of guitar, such as Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Mike Landau. These guys can cross over in genres and be masters within each. But listen to them play Blues, and you will find out how beautiful the guitar is as an instrument and how expressive and musical you can be within a Blues context. I openly lay my cards on the table and say I draw a lot from these guys and have tried to creep a little of what they might do into our key of A improv.
As we move to the key of D I break out my 335 and a glass slide. The undisputed masters of Blues slide would be players like Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks, who generally likes to use open tuning. It's another proposition to keep your guitar in regular tuning and play some lines using the slide. Everybody has a view and opinion on how you are supposed to do it but I say you have to just dive in and do what works for you. My big influence, pre-Internet as a kid, was Jeff Beck. I think I saw him playing slide on TV once and I figured that is how you are supposed to do it, so it just stuck. Your main criteria are pitching, vibrato and muting. There are plenty of tutorials out there to research (including my own Pro Concepts column for GI!), with many different opinions, but try to hold on to the fact that there is no right way or wrong way, there is just your way.
So as we come back to E for our last 12 bars and I wanted to involve the whammy bar. I broke out one of the best Strats I own, which is a custom shop prototype of the Jeff Beck Strat. This guitar was one of the first 12 ever made, and was on display at the 1991 NAMM show. Again, purists might recoil at my use of the whammy bar, but they obviously don't appreciate the Blues mastery of Scott Henderson and Jeff Beck, and how they might approach a Blues improv. You guys all know how I generally incorporate trem use in my playing, and it has been something I've worked on for a very, very long time, in fact ever since I bought the '63 Strat played at the top of this tutorial, when I was 14. It came with a trem system, so I just started using it. So again there is no right way or wrong way, it just has to sound bluesy. Maybe try to think of the whammy bar as a way to impersonate using a bottleneck, but again your pitching and vib with the bar are the elements that need the most work.
I hope you enjoy playing and experimenting over my backing track. Remember that good Blues playing is the best foundation for more advanced playing. It teaches you touch, feel, dynamics, vibrato, string bending, expression, phrasing, and that's just for starters. Many players out there think that Blues is a simple genre to play, when in fact it is one of the hardest. I've only scratched the surface with stylistic approaches that can be taken within Blues because it's a massive subject with a huge diverse melting pot of exponents, from BB to SRV, Peter Green to Joe Bonamassa, Eric to Jimi, all have their own take on it and something to teach us. I'm still learning to do it at any decent level myself.major, C/E, D minor, Dm/C to B7. We outline the B7 chord with an arpeggio that isn't used that often by Gilmour, the B dominant 7th arpeggio, but I've performed it in a Gilmour-esque way to show how you can add flavours of his playing to other techniques and approaches. We conclude with bends that outline the chords of E7#9 to E7b9 before concluding the solo over the final.