Arm yourself with eight essential blues tricks to take you on a path to better phrasing and soulful improvised lead lines.
Each of these easy lead guitar techniques has been distilled from the styles of many of the most important blues artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and more.
All these players use many of the same techniques and ideas and this is at the heart of learning and developing your blues playing style: learn the basic licks and phrases and then make them your own.
Gradually, you’ll start to notice them peppered throughout the recorded history of blues and beyond. Finally, remember to never be afraid of playing a blues cliché, since they only became that way purely because they sounded great in the first place.
Once you've worked your way through this lot, give our 25 blues-rock guitar licks you need to know a go.
1. Quarter-tone bends
This essential trick will help bring life to ordinary fretted notes. It’s a string bend, but less than a semitone, so it’s really just a subtle expression.
When you get to the top of the bend mute the string otherwise you’ll get the sound of the note bending back down again, which can sound dissonant.
Quarter-tone bends tab (right-click to download)
2. String rakes
Rakes can be picked in either direction, down or up. The idea is to pick the muted strings and then sound only the fretted note at the end of the rake.
The mute is achieved by flattening one of your ‘spare’ fingers over the strings you want to mute and simply fretting the note you want to hear with a free finger.
String rakes tab (right-click to download)
3. Dissonant doublestop bends
This technique is used generally by more aggressive blues players such as Eric Clapton and Gary Moore.
The idea is to bend two strings at the same time and create a dissonant clash by bending the higher string further than the lower one. Use two fingers for a precise approach or use just your third finger for a looser vibe.
Dissonant doublestop bends tab (right-click to download)
From Hendrix to Mayer, legions of players have used two-note chords (aka ‘diads’) to give a more chord-like vibe to their solos - a great alternative to a basic minor pentatonic scale approach.
Try moving our lick to other positions on the fretboard so you get used to playing in different key signatures.
Diads tab (right-click to download)
5. Sliding diads
This sliding minor 3rd diad idea sounds great over a blues progression in A.
That’s because we hit all the important notes from an A7 chord and the ever-present minor pentatonic scale. It’s common in blues to use both the minor 3rd and the major 3rd so we’re targeting both of these (C and C# notes) as well as the minor 7th (G).
Sliding diads tab (right-click to download)
6. Fluid bends
This Albert King-inspired lick is based on a gradual bend up on the second string.
It’s important to note that this takes place in the middle of the string - it becomes much harder the lower you go. Support the third finger bend with your first and second fingers for maximum strength and leverage on the string.
Fluid bends tab (right-click to download)
7. Two-note trill
Jimi Hendrix makes great use of trills in the breakdown in Voodoo Child. The technique boils down to a series of fast hammer-ons and pull-offs using just two notes.
Practise slowly at first, ensuring that your timing is even and steady. Most important is a good ‘snap’ movement as you play the pull-off so that every note rings out loudly.
Two-note trill tab (right-click to download)
8. The BB King 'zinger'
The original BB King ‘zinger’, as it’s known, simply slides down from a high root note of whatever key you’re in, nearly always somewhere high up on the first string.
It’s a really effective trick that can help break up pentatonic scale pattern ideas. Just make sure you’ve got a solid lick up your sleeve to follow it with.
Now you've mastered these eight tricks, we recommend you get your teeth stuck into 25 blues-rock guitar licks you need to know…
The BB King 'zinger' tab (right-click to download)