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Blues Phrasing & Expression

Blues Guitar Quick-Start Series - Lesson 9/12

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Welcome to the ninth video of the Blues Guitar Quick-Start Series. For your blues lead guitar so far, we’ve been talking about the blues scale, where root notes are located, and how to choose your notes in the blues scale to fit over the chords in the 12-bar blues progression.

In this lesson, we’re going talk about feeling and style. We’ll look at techniques like phrasing, bending, vibrato, and sliding. These elements can add a new level of self-expression and emotion in your playing. We’ll look at them one by one and show you how to apply them to your blues solos.

The first element we’ll look at is phrasing, which always makes me think about blues singers and call and answer themes. When playing a blues solo, you don’t want to sound like you’re playing through a scale shape. Instead, I like to think about blues singers. If you haven’t listened to much blues music, I would recommend listening to some blues singers and taking note of their phrasing. When they sing, you can generally tell they have something to say and want to make a statement.

Sometimes this is how you want to think about your blues solos. This can go hand in hand with repeated themes. If I start a blues solo by stating a theme, I’ll take a break for a few beats and then restate the theme. This breaks my phrasing up and makes it seem more natural, and it makes the solo more cohesive.

For the lick I play as an example in the video, I can play it, wait a few beats or measures, and then play it again. Of course, I can always end it a little differently too. Next time you pull up a jam track, think about your phrasing and repeating themes. In your leads, try breaking up your phrasing to make it sound like a blues singer, and then have a stated theme that you call and answer to.

Next, let’s talk about bending. Bending can be a part of your self-expression and sound, and it’s a sound that we’ve come to expect in the blues. That whining sound from bending is a normal part of blues music. Bending can be half-step bends, whole-step bends, or even further. The important thing to know is that bending is a tool to make your music sound more like the blues.

I’ve got a couple of licks that incorporate bends. The first lick is heavily emphasizing the root note of the 1 chord, so the E note. Place your third finger on the third fret of the B string and bend that D note a whole-step so it becomes an E. Play the open high E string, and then the E note on the second fret of the D string. Really, we’re hitting three different E notes in this lick.

One tip I have when you’re bending a whole-step is to get as many fingers as you can to help with the bend. This makes it easier on the primary finger you are bending with.

The next lick I have for you starts on the 4 and bends up to the flat 5, which is basically a half-step bend. Bend the second fret of the G string up a half-step and up and let it back down, and then play the open G string. Come down to the second fret of the A string, play an open D string, and then finish with root note of the 1 chord on the second fret of the D string. This lick really emphasizes the 1 chord too.

Another tip for bending is to double-check your bends. If you’re bending up a half-step, then check the sound of the note against the actual fretted note that is one fret higher. It’s always a good idea to double-check your bends.

The next element we’ll look at is vibrato, which is a self-expressive tool that can give your solos their own unique sound. At a basic level, vibrato is bending a note and letting it back down over and over again There are two different elements to customizing vibrato to convey emotions and feelings through your blues solos.

The first element is the speed of your vibrato. It can be slow or fast which, as you can see in the video, sound very different. Choosing your vibrato speed simply depends on what you want to convey at the time. Work on both slow and fast vibrato, so you have the skills ready when you want to use them.

The second element of vibrato is the width of your vibrato. You can have shallow vibrato that is barely noticeable, or a wide vibrato that is really noticeable. Experiment with both, see what you can come up with, and develop a unique voice with your vibrato. Think of blues singers again. They all have a unique way of using vibrato.

Sliding is another stylistic element that can add a unique flavor to your guitar playing. Sliding is starting at one note and moving it up or down the fretboard to another note in one motion. Depending on which note you start on and which note you slide to, it can have a big effect. Sliding can add a bluesy sound, or even jazzy sound, to your playing.

To help you with your sliding, I’m going to show you two different blues licks that achieve different sounds. One lick slides to the flat 5 note, and the other slides from the flat third to a regular third.

On-screen, you can see the tab for the first lick, and it starts with the slash beside the 3. That means that you’ll slide up to the third fret of the G string, and you’ll do that from below on the second fret. Play the open G string, then the second fret of the G string. From there, play the open D string, then the second fret. Play the open G string again, rest, and then finish off with second fret of the D string, which is the root note of the 1 chord.

Practice that lick, and spend some time sliding up and down to the flat 5 note. Sliding to the flat 5 note can add a bluesy sound to your playing.

The second lick we have will show you how you can slide up from the flat third of the blues scale up to a regular major third. Again, we have the tab on-screen for you to take a look at. Start on the third fret of the high E string and slide up to the fourth fret, and then play the open E string. Play the third fret of the high E string, and the open E string again. Next, play the open B string, then the third fret of the B string. Play the open E string again, and finish off with the second fret of the D string, which is the root note of the 1 chord.

Play around with these sliding ideas. Try sliding up and down to the flat 5, slide up from the flat third to the major third, and see what you can come up with.

These are a few stylistic tools you can use to express yourself better when playing guitar. Think about each of these tools, try experimenting with them, pull up the jam tracks, and see what you can come up with. Be sure to incorporate these techniques into your daily practice to get really good at them. Check out my example in the video to see all of these techniques and how they work together.

In the next lesson, we’re going to talk about blues turnaround licks. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or comments.

Next Lesson - Turnaround Blues Guitar Licks