One of things that trips up a lot of new blues guitar players is the huge number of ways to approach playing the blues (OK, that trips up a lot of more seasoned players too…)
Before you start, I think the primary question you have to ask yourself is: Are you playing alone or are you playing as part of a group?
But wait… that’s not as simple as it sounds (it never is, is it?)
If you remember the 3 elements of what makes music – you need rhythm, melody, and harmony (and remember they are in that order.)
If you are playing alone, with no singer (not even you,) then you are playing alone (we often call that playing solo, but it’s not the same as playing a guitar solo.)
As soon as you add even one thing – you singing, someone else singing, another guitar, a bass, a piano… anything else, you need to start thinking more of a “playing in a group” mentality.
However, if you’re playing with a singer, or another instrument that only can handle melody (sax, harmonica, etc.,) then your approach to soloing will be more of solo player because you still have to keep the rhythm going.
OK… so let’s say you’re playing rhythm in a group.
What are your possible approaches?
Obviously it’s going to depend on the style, feel, and speed of your tune. Something like the Tore Down rhythm might be applicable in one place while the Stormy Slide or Blues Half-Step might be more appropriate for others (all of these and more are found in my Blues Guitar Unleashed course if they don’t sound familiar.)
One of the most common rhythm ideas is the old “Blues In E” pattern that you probably already know and have used before. This works great for slow to moderate tempos, but if things pick up you’ll likely want something else as well.
Notice that in all of these cases, Melody is handled elsewhere and you can strictly just focus on rhythm.
If you do any fills between vocal lines or take a solo, that will all fall under the soloing approaches which are coming up shortly so read on…
Now… let’s say you’re a solo player.
Again, remember that you have to keep time first and foremost, so your soloing and melody will be limited to things you can do while also keep time. Yes, you can play licks occasionally, but you’ll have to keep them short and in time so that the rhythm doesn’t get lost.
A lot of people would call this “acoustic” blues even though it really doesn’t matter whether you play it on an acoustic or an electric guitar… it’s really just the style and it is seen more commonly on acoustic.
You have 2 basic options here: 1) play some rhythm and then play a melody in a call-and-response or back-and-forth type of situation, or 2) play melody and rhythm together (obviously a little trickier.)
A common example of the back and forth is what I call “Playing On The Porch” style playing. You’re playing a chord as the call, and a lick as the response. The lick is the melody and the approaches for that will fall under the soloing approaches which we’ll cover shortly.
An example of playing both rhythm and melody together is what I call “thump bass” where you hit the low bass note in quarter notes while playing melody over top of it. There is a good example of this on the information page for my Acoustic Blues Guitar Unleashed course about halfway down (the example from DVD 5,) or on the page for Playing On The Porch also about halfway down (the last video example.)
Alright… how about the soloing part?
Glad you asked!
Notice that no matter whether or not you choose to play solo, as in by yourself, or with a group, the soloing aspect or playing melody of any kind still falls under the same approaches.
You might have heard me call these soloing “levels” in the past, and it’s pretty much the same thing here but there might be some variation.
- Use the minor pentatonic/blues scale the whole time. No matter what notes you choose, they come from that scale. This is the easiest approach to implement and has the benefit that you really can’t choose any wrong notes. Some of them might not be perfect all the time (in fact, they won’t be often) but they’ll never rub you the wrong way.
- Mix up the minor and major pentatonic and blues sounds such that you play either sound over the I chord, and only the minor sound over the IV and V chords. This allows you to get more of the sound of the individual chords. It’s obviously a little more challenging and your ear needs to be better at hearing the difference between the I chord and the IV and V chords.
- Play “chord by chord” mixing both the major and minor blues sounds together for each chord. This is really a pretty high level way to play and takes a really good understanding of those scale patterns.
- Play more complete (diatonic) scales along with blue notes for really precise note choice… obviously this is the most challenging and sophisticated approach.
For about 90% of people I work with and even most of the people I see and hear, the first approach is the one they stick with and don’t leave. It’s the sound of the blues in its traditional form.
If you listen to most blues classics like, The Thrill Is Gone by BB King, Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Sky Is Crying by Albert King, and hundreds more… you’ll hear little more than the basic pentatonic or blues scale doing all the work.
Sure there might be the occasional nod or lick just outside of that 1st approach, but 99.5% of the blues you hear is that sound – so it must not be wrong.
At the end of all of this, what’s important is for you to know what the options are so you can know what you are working with and what other options might be out there.
If you’ve been playing in a group for a long time and are looking to improve your solo playing, start simply with something like the 3 elements video to get a better idea of what solo playing is all about.
Likewise, no matter what approach you use for your soloing, following the 3 blues rules always improves the sound of any approach you use.
And if you’re looking to expand your soloing outside of the more common soloing approaches, something like the Slow Blues Supplement or Major Minor Blues Shapes can help with that. But before you go venturing down that road it’s helpful to know what you’re in for 🙂