5 Damning Errors Blues Guitarists Make
Every time you play Blues on stage you do your best but your solos do not sound great? Are your friends at the jam session telling you that all you need is ’just a bit more experience’? Do you wonder how great Blues player make their solo sound exciting?
What most “old cats” will tell you is that you should learn “how to break the rules” (but what rules anyway? ) or that you simply have to “let it go”. Forgive me for being blunt, but these are only good-sounding platitudes that are unlikely to be of any help to you. I have heard a lot of these from musicians who can’t or won’t explain you in detail what your musicianship is lacking. And hey, if your Blues solo do not sound great, this means that you are definitively missing something and you better discover it soon if you want to become a better player and leave your buddies with their jaw on the floor. Taking years to learn from trial-and-error and is not really an option you want to take.
Well, in my experience most Blues players that are not yet accomplished tend to do all the same 5 mistakes until someone warns them. Every single one of these mistakes can prevent your solo from sounding great, and you may not even have noticed them yet! Or worse, you know that you are doing one of the things I list below, but you think it’s ok because it sounds good to you, or it makes your life easier. Well, forgive me for saying that, but being a Blues player does not excuse you from studying your instrument. And now that I have captured your sympathy with this last statement, let’s have a look at some of the problems that may prevent you and many other Blues players from realizing their musical potential.
1 Starting your phrases only on downbeats
The curious thing about this issue is that it is absolutely obvious to any listener, while it’s very difficult to notice if you are the player. The problem here is that it’s more natural for most players to start their phrases only on downbeats, so unless you are paying conscious attention to it you are most likely doing it. Of course, after a bit of training there is no need to pay it constant attention. Since in general listeners care more about rhythm than pitch (if you go out of time everybody notices, if you play a wrong note many don’t notice) if all your phrases have the same rhythmic structure it sounds like you are just repeating yourself.
My solution to this works in 3 steps:
1. Improvise a solo starting all your phrases on upbeats. This is not easy to explain in written form so I recommend you watch the video on Blues guitar mistakes I made (see link later in article) to explain this exercise in an easy way. Few suggestions: keep your phrases simples, and don’t worry too much if you are sounding too repetitive: this is just the first step.
2. Again, improvise a solo, but this time start one phrase on a downbeat, the next on an upbeat and so on. The idea here is to get accustomed in switching between the two with ease, so again keep your phrases simples and don’t worry if it sounds all the same.
3. Finally, start your phrases freely on either the downbeat or the upbeat without following a rigid scheme. The idea now is to try to keep the listeners surprised and engaged: when they expect a downbeat give them an upbeat and vice versa. If you can master this simple exercise then you are on your way to become a great improviser!
2 Bending out of pitch
It may have happened to you that you hear someone improvising on stage and every now and then one or two notes sound out of tune. It’s clearly not the guitar being out of tune, otherwise the whole solo will sound bad. What I just described is the most common symptom of a player that bends out of tune. Every time you bend a string you should bend up to a very specific pitch, and not simply bend “up”.
Sure, in the Blues style we also have the “smear” bends i.e. bends of less than a semitone from the original pitch, but these bends are the exception not the rule, and should definitely not used as an excuse for not working on the intonation of your bends.
The easiest way to learn how to bend in tune is to use a tuner to check if you are hitting the target pitch precisely. Since the tuner is unforgiving you may not be able to do it the first time you try, but if you stick to it it will become second nature in little time.
3 Never playing the interval of a 4th
Most Blues player NEVER play the interval of a 4th because, if you are using mostly pentatonic patterns, to play this interval you need to perform a quite difficult movement called the “rolling motion”. This technique allows you to play two consecutive notes on the same fret but on different strings. Now the problem is that if you never play the interval of a 4th, then a listener can definitely tell that there is something missing even if they may not be able to name exactly what is wrong.
There are two things you need to do in order to solve this problem:
1. Learn how to perform the rolling motion correctly. Since it is not easy to learn it form a written article, I have prepared for you a free video on Blues guitar explaining the rolling motion.
2. Once you have learned the rolling motion, write some licks that use it. In general, if you don’t implement a new technique in your playing as soon as possible by writing some musical ideas with it, then you will forget this new technique soon.
4 Never moving from one position of the fretboard
The workhorse most Blues player rely on is the basic old pentatonic “box” pattern. It is a great pattern to get started, but somehow it seems that the majority of Blues players never move from this position for all the solo, and even between solos! But there is only so much you can do with a single pattern, and only so many licks you can play in it.
There is also the problem that if you don’t move from this position then your solo will never change register (i.e. it will never move away from the pitch you started the solo with). As we stated before, our ears do not really care too much about pitch, they care more about rhythm. They also care more about register than pitch, so if you never move from that position of the fretboard your solo will sound like it’s not “going anywhere”.
A quick fix for this problem is to use the same “box” pattern one octave (12 frets) apart. For instance, if you are playing in the key of A, the minor pentatonic “boxes” will be at fret 5 and at fret 17. If you alternate between these two positions your solo will already sound more interesting. This is only a quick fix, though: the real solution consists in learning your scale patterns in a way that allows you to move freely without thinking too much.
5 Always playing the same pentatonic/blues scale
The most popular scale to use on a Blues is the minor pentatonic/Blues scale (they are essentially the same scale). Now, I like my pentatonic scale as much as any other guy, but this does not stops me from noticing a number of problems with using this scale all the time. Two of them are:
1. The minor pentatonic/Blues scale is definitely overplayed, so much that many players think that this is the only possible option. Well, this is of course not true, there are a number of other scales that sound great on a Blues while still keeping the “Bluesy” flavour. You want to know what these other scales are, so that you can choose among them and be free to express yourself in original ways.
2. The minor pentatonic/Blues scale is actually not the correct scale for a Blues chord progression, and I don’t mean it in an “academic” way. Let me explain. No matter on what chord we are on the standard Blues progression, the minor pentatonic will always have at least one “wrong” note. Pro Blues players know that (either because they studied it or by ear) and avoid them. You may have heard that saying “it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”? Well, the meaning of it it’s that you need to avoid these “wrong notes” otherwise your solo won’t “glue” to the chord progression.
It would be easier with a video…
I agree! It is quite difficult to understand some of the points that I made above if you just read about them. For this reason here you can find a Video on Blues guitar mistakes that I prepared for you. In this video I go through the 5 mistakes above with examples and strategies to eliminate them. Have fun!
About the Author
Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist who loves the application of music theory to guitar playing.