Help me learn to play the blues...
August 26, 2006 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn to play the blues... Basically, I'm looking for info - scales, riff cheat sheets, etc. that will allow me to build a basic repertoire of blues chops like this man plays:

Now, obviously, I'm not expecting to be able to play like Buddy Guy anytime soon (or in my lifetime,) but I also recognize that what he's playing isn't very complicated. It's *how* he plays it that makes it so compelling.

Anyway - if you know of any good web resources to help one get started building some basic blues guitar chops, send em my way...
posted by stenseng to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely learn solos directly from records. You'll need some basic skills before you tackle such a task, but fewer skills than you might think - as you say, what Buddy (and BB, and Albert, and Stevie, etc) are playing isn't complicated. Bear in mind that getting the right notes is less than 50% of the battle - it's playing the rights notes correctly that counts. Listen VERY carefully (to the recording and to yourself), bite off small, manageable chunks, and follow your bliss - if there's a tune that you think is cool, by all means, learn it.

(This in addition to all the other concrete info about pentatonic scales and whatnot that will soon be filling this thread)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:09 AM on August 27, 2006

The fundamental secret blues scale you need in the minor pentatonic. Get that down in E and you're off to a (technical) good start:


Those five notes, and the movement between them, defines a huge amount of the melodic character of blues playing. Get yourself familiar with the pentatonic, and listen to blues guitar albums and see how it gets used, and how folks use variation from it to good effect, because it's the dalliances and sojourns off that really add character.

And what fingers_of_fire says—small manageable chunks. Learn licks, not solos; get to understand how you can string a couple of three-note licks together, how you can pace them, how much or how little space you can put between them. One little bit at a time.

And for the love of god, let it breath. The space between notes and licks is as important as anything. Blues is about drama and wanting and being made to wait. No constant riffing, unless you're Stevie Ray.
posted by cortex at 9:11 AM on August 27, 2006

Unfortunately has been shut down again by The Evil Empire, but you'll still be able to use sites like Harmony Central, Tab Robot, Ultimate Guitar, and even You Tube to help you learn.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 9:14 AM on August 27, 2006

Chordie is the new OLGA.
posted by scottreynen at 12:34 PM on August 27, 2006

You won't sound like much of a blues player if you stick to the minor pentatonic too strictly. It's good for a minor blues or a more rock-type tune, but otherwise you're better off using a blend of minor and major pentatonics. Guys like BB King did that a lot. You'll also want to use the flatted fifth (blue note) sometimes. So, combining the major and minor pentatonics with the added b5, in E, you'd get:

E F# G G# A Bb B C# D

You certainly won't want to treat that like it's a scale and start doing sequences with it, but all of those notes will have their place, and you have to use your ear and taste to decide how to utilize them. And there's no reason you can't fill in the cracks even more; well-placed chromatic licks can be very nice. Major licks tend to work best over the I and V chords, and minor licks tend to be more suitable over the IV chord. This is because the minor third of the scale is the flatted seventh of the IV chord. Good blues players have a syntax to their playing; they don't usually play the changes the way jazzers do, but they will target chord tones for effect. This is another thing you'll learn to hear eventually. But the sooner you start letting your ears guide you rather than thinking of being trapped in some kind of set scale pattern, the better.

Also, you'll want to work on your vibrato and your bends; practice bending by a 1/4 step, 1/2 step, whole step, and 1 1/2 steps.

And of course, phrasing is crucial, but the best way to pick that up is by listening to your favorite players.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:43 PM on August 27, 2006

Roy Bookbinder has a few very good instructional DVDs on fingerstyle blues guitar.
posted by TheCoug at 3:43 PM on August 27, 2006

Okay gang! I'll play a bit, and post some horrible mp3 of my wanderings in a day or so!
posted by stenseng at 9:55 PM on August 27, 2006

remember, stenseng, manageable chunks - that's the virtue of scales in a nutshell. What ludwig_van says is absolutely true - you can play any note anytime, over any chord in any song - all it takes is 100% commitment. While you're developing that, I strongly second cortex's scale. Put more generally, think of it like this -

I - bIII - IV - V - bVII

That'll give you:


plus 8 others. Many blues musicians also use:

I - II - III - V - VI

That'll give you:

E F# G# B C#
A B C# E F#
D E F# A B

But this second scale won't work all the time in a blues progression*, whereas the first scale will. So you need to be very careful, listen to how the notes sound against the chords, and make tasteful decisions. Plus, as you transcribe, you can consider the decisions that BB King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, et al made in similar situations. Then just do what they did. No shame in that at all.

*By the way, just for the sake of thoroughness, here's your basic 12 bar blues progression:

I | IV | I | I |
IV | IV | I | I |
V | IV | I | V |

Now, check this out:

I   IV   V
A   D   E
E   A   B
G   C   D
D   G   A

hope this makes sense. Happy pickin'.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:58 PM on August 27, 2006

And to clarify, fingers_of_fire's first scale is the minor pentatonic, and the second scale is the major pentatonic. But I can't agree with the assertion that the major pentatonic won't always work while the minor will. In a major-key blues, the minor pentatonic's third clashes with the I chord. On the other hand, the major pentatonic's third clashes with the b7 of the IV chord, etc. Neither one "always works." Different notes will be more apparopriate at different times.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:05 PM on August 27, 2006

Technically correct, ludwig_van, but you could count all the stars in the sky and you still wouldn't get anywhere near the number of utterly kick-ass solos that we all know and love and can sing note-for-note that use the minor-pentatonic (or blues scale) over the one chord. That tension between the flatted-third of the scale and the major third of the chord is precisely why the flatted note is called a "blue" note.

But stenseng, don't take my word or ludwig_van's. Just go and transcribe a bunch of solos by the greats, and you will find the best solution for yourself. And the music you play will be personal and come from your heart, and I sincerely hope that I get to hear it.

(feeling a little poetic tonight. So sue me.)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:58 PM on August 27, 2006

I realize that, fingers_of_fire. I'm not saying don't play minor pentatonic over the I chord. I'm saying it's inaccurate to say that the minor pentatonic "always works" while the major pentatonic doesn't. They just sound different.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:33 AM on August 28, 2006

I guess it depends on what you mean by "always works". If you mean that you can analyze the notes and find that there are no clashes, then I agree with you that there is a clash between the flatted third of the blues scale and the natural third of the I chord (also, incidentally, the flatted seventh of the blues scale and the natural third of the four chord. And the flatted third, the flatted seventh, and the root of the blues scale with the fifth and the natural third of the five chord).

Conversely, the major third of the major pentatonic to me sounds blatantly WRONG over the four chord of a blues progression (except in the very particular case of when it is used as a passing tone). I mean WRONG in a sense that doesn't apply to any combination of note and chord available from the blues scale. I just do NOT hear the four chord of a blues as a major seven chord - to me it completely drains the music of any kind of bluesy vibe. It can be musical and beautiful, sure - but bluesy? Not to these ears. And I reckon that if we look at the many great artists we've referenced in this thread, we'll find that their practices tend to agree with this principle as well.

But as for stenseng, who's just trying to get his feet wet in the ocean of blues imrpovisation - none of this matters at all, yet. Play the blues scale (or minor pentatonic, or whatever you want to call it) to your heart's delight, confident in the knowledge that you are using some of the same resources and skills that your favorite guitar players used to make your favorite music. From his perspective - it always works.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:01 AM on August 28, 2006

Conversely, the major third of the major pentatonic to me sounds blatantly WRONG over the four chord of a blues progression

Sure, if you hang on it. That's why I said minor pentatonic works better over IV. The perfect fourth found in the minor pentatonic isn't a good resting place during the I chord, either; ditto with the minor third over the V chord. Every scale/chord combination has dissonant notes.

There's nothing superior about the minor pentatonic. It's perfectly possible to play the blues with the major pentatonic, it will just be a different sound. And like I said, most blues players use both at the same time.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:12 AM on August 28, 2006

The perfect fourth found in the minor pentatonic isn't a good resting place during the I chord, either

Tell that to Bonnie Raitt.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:19 AM on August 28, 2006

It is evident that I need to learn some basic music theory. =)
posted by stenseng at 2:15 PM on August 28, 2006

stenseng - less than you think. Start with one key - say, A. You'll need to know how to play all the chords in that blues progression that I wrote out above (and you should probably treat them as seventh chords - ie, A7, D7, and E7). You should understand rhythm enough to be able to play four beats to a bar with a good sense of time - play with a metronome! And you should be able to play the blues scale in A - using the most common fingering, it starts on the sixth string on the fifth fret. Going low to high:

6th string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 8th fret (4th finger)

5th string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 7th fret (3rd finger)

4th string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 7th fret (3rd finger)

3rd string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 7th fret (3rd finger)

2nd string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 8th fret (4th finger)

1st string - 5th fret (1st finger) and 8th fret (4th finger)

Hope that's somewhat clear. There are probably clearer ways to present that, but I thought I'd try to dispel the big bad beast of music theory, since you brought it up, inspired by my go-'round with ludwig_van.

Anyway, good luck.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 6:13 PM on August 28, 2006

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