Class up your solos with these 15 vintage blues guitar licks

The goal of this feature is to get you sounding more authentic in the vintage blues style. There are 15 examples to study and they have been split between five legendary players with three examples per player. The examples highlight a trio of concepts that you can learn and incorporate into your playing.

The electric blues revolution began with Muddy Waters’ 1948 recording I Can’t Be Satisfied. Muddy’s style can be viewed as Delta blues played on electric guitar. For the Muddy examples, use an open G tuning - from low to high, DGDGBD.

Open G has the same intervallic structure as an A-shaped major chord only now we can play this chord with a one-finger barre or indeed the slide.

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Elmore James was an influential slide player who often used an open D tuning (DADF#AD) for slide. Open D lets you play the notes of a six-string major barre chord with one finger; it also has the advantage of making the classic blues accompaniment riff extremely easy to play with two fingers. 

Otis Rush’s sound is typical of West Side Chicago blues. Otis plays a right-handed guitar left-handed so the strings are effectively upside down. To bend notes, the high strings are now pulled down and the hand has a lot more power when pulling (as with Albert King). The result is a powerful and aggressive bending technique. 

Hubert Sumlin is famous for playing in both Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf’s band in the 1950s. He cultivated a fingerstyle picking technique that used the flesh of the fingers to create nuances in his tone and dynamics. 

T-Bone Walker was one of the first electric blues guitarists. His still-modern sounding style influenced many players including BB King and Chuck Berry, who in turn influenced an entire generation. T-Bone’s bending style is of particular interest and it’s amazing how wide a variety of players still use T-Bone’s vocabulary in their playing.

(Image credit: Ian Dickson/REX/Shutterstock)

Muddy Waters

Example 1

Here’s a classic open G tuning intro riff. It is reminiscent of the way Robert Johnson would start a tune, and of course, Johnson was a big influence on Muddy.

Note the change in feel between straight and triplet quavers. It’s easy to tweak a note here or there to make this your own.

Example 2

This classic accompaniment riff has a nice forward momentum. Use your fingers to pluck the strings as opposed to a flat pick.

To keep things tidy, you can rest the fingers of your picking hand on unwanted strings to mute them and stop excessive slide noise.

Example 3

This final Muddy Waters example is a classic turnaround phrase that you can hear in the playing of many of the '60s, and indeed, today’s blues greats.

The use of a chromatic C# to go from the IV chord (C) to the V chord (D) sounds so cool.

Elmore James

Example 4

This is a classic blues lead riff used by almost anyone that owns a slide and has stumbled across a guitar tuned to open D.

You can be fairly aggressive with the attack and slide vibrato - indeed, for authentic results you find that more is in fact more!

Example 5

Here’s an example of how easy it is to play the classic blues and rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment figure with this open D tuning.

Simply barre the strings with the first finger of your fretting hand and use the third finger to add the ‘boogie’ aspect...

Example 6

This classic turnaround is not dissimilar to the kind of sound that Robert Johnson used in his playing.

This idea has been handed down from the earliest blues players and is still used today by modern guitarists everywhere. Sounds great on acoustic or with a dirty, distorted tone.

Otis Rush

Example 7

This first example from Otis contains some classic blues vocabulary. You can easily hear where some of Eric Clapton’s Bluesbreakers-era licks came from. Clapton loved Rush’s aggressive string bending and vibrato and it’s very evident in his cover of Otis’s All Your Love.

Example 8

This example is another collection of great blues phrase fragments. This time you can hear a little bit of Jimmy Page in the proceedings. It may be no coincidence that Led Zeppelin also covered Otis’s track, I Can’t Quit You Baby.

Example 9

The final Otis Rush example might be simple but the catchy rhythm makes it sound so cool.

As you’ll find with so many blues licks, this idea can be made to fit over all three chords with a little modification, and again you can tweak a note here or there to make it ‘yours’.

Hubert Sumlin

Example 10

This example features a very important blues riff performed ‘Sumlin’ style. This lick works for all three chords if you move it to fit the respective harmony, so try also playing it over the IV chord (C, at the 8th fret) and the V chord (D, at the 10th fret).

Example 11

This is a sweet-sounding lick using a fingering position that BB King also favours - King was influenced by Sumlin and also T-Bone Walker.

The slide from C to D (first string, 8th to 10th frets) is a Sumlin favourite and always sounds great.

Example 12

To finish off our section with Hubert here’s a neat little turnaround lick that’s great to use as it is or you can modernise it with distortion.

Be sure to include all the finger slides as the secret to sounding authentic here is in the articulation.

T-Bone Walker

Example 13

Here’s one of T-Bone's favourite licks. He would often play many variations of it during a solo.

It’s also the basis of one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic licks. SRV often included the b9 (Bb) to add chromatic interest, but the contour remains similar to T-Bone’s original template.

Example 14

This one is another T-Bone favourite and outlines the tonality of the A7 beautifully. This is the kind of idea that players like Chuck Berry would go onto establish as the cornerstones of rock ’n’ roll, and which The Stones and AC/DC would adapt to their own inimitable styles.

Example 15

This final chord riff is both simple and effective in equal measure. T-Bone would often use chords to play lead,  shifting them around the neck chromatically, and this idea was taken up by Jimi Hendrix (live Red House) and Eric Clapton (Sitting On Top Of The World).

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