Learn 7 of the greatest blues guitar licks of all time

Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970) performing at Madison Square Garden, New York City, 18th May 1969.
(Image credit: hoto by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

If you play anything inside of the larger genre of rock music, the chances are it has descended from the blues in some capacity. Whatever era of rock-based guitar music you love, you’ll be able to trace back a family tree of inspiration to the same place.

What we now know as blues-rock stems from masters such as BB King and Buddy Guy through to players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix that took the genre and presented it to a larger audience in the 1960s.

All guitar players that play lead should have a library of licks in their repertoire, ready to pull out and use at any given time. Blues licks are particularly useful to have banked for when you need to improvise or jam something. They make a great starting point.

A great way to develop this vocabulary is to learn licks from some of the greatest players.

In this lesson we’re going to learn seven classic licks from seven of the greatest blues players. All the licks featured are transposable and can easily be moved around the fretboard and used in any key.

1. Freddie King – Hideaway 

This iconic track has been covered by many artists, most notably John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring a young, fresh-faced Eric Clapton on guitar.

This Freddie King track features a call and response pattern between lead guitar licks and some chordal work.

You can think of this as a question-and-answer idea, a popular form to use in blues music. One instrument plays to ask a question and the other instruments answer the question with their phrase.

This lick goes between open string minor and major pentatonic licks and a series of 12 bar blues shuffle patterns which start on the “a” of the beat

2. Buddy Guy – Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues

This Buddy Guy lick is an A minor pentatonic lick that shows you don’t need a lot of notes to create great music. The lick is very spread out with plenty of sustained notes. 

The front end of the lick is a free-time setup phrase that happens before the track starts. The track only officially starts when the full band come in with the main riff, everything prior to that is just Buddy Guy starting the song on his own.

Licks like this are useful to know if you’re writing your own music, or looking to introduce a blues track with just the lead guitar. 

This lick could also be considered a turnaround lick that you would play over bars 11 and 12 of your blues progression to turn the pattern back around the first chord.

3. Led Zeppelin – Since I’ve Been Loving You

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is known for his aggressive, sloppy blues runs but this track of the bands third album, Led Zeppelin III, shows a more tender side to his playing.

The lick in question here is the intro lick which has also become one of Page’s most iconic guitar moments. This lick is in the key of C minor, but Page also introduces some notes from the A natural minor scale and even lands on and focuses on those notes at specific points.

The 2 and b6 intervals from the natural minor scale are not notes often employed inside more traditional blues playing.

Adding these notes that are “outside” of the minor pentatonic is a great way to add some new flavours to your playing. This technique can be applied with any modal scale where new intervals can be added to introduce new feelings to the music.

4. Cream – Sunshine of Your Love

This Eric Clapton guitar solo is jam packed full of great licks and it’s quite hard to single out one lick in this solo. This is a solo worth learning in it’s entirety as it really showcases everything we loved about Eric Clapton in that specific time period.

The lick to learn here is this phrase from the point the solo changes feel from the verse groove to the chorus. This lick features a lot of bends and some slippery runs between the first and second shapes of the D minor pentatonic scale.

You’ll notice that a lot of the bends played in this solo aren’t full step bends, there is a lot of under bending here. While this technically introduces notes that are flat for the key, when played at speed create a more vocal like style of phrasing.

All the under bent notes are not hung on for too long which is an important detail in how to make them work. If you hang on them too long, it makes the flat note more apparent.

5. BB King – The Thrill is Gone 

No list of great blues licks could exist without a featuring of BB King. This lick is the opening lick from the first guitar solo of the track The Thrill is Gone.

One thing anyone will tell you about BB King is that he really doesn’t need a lot of notes to work well. BB can say more with fewer notes than most people can with hundreds of notes. 

This uses the first and second positions of the B Minor Pentatonic scale. When playing in the BB King style you need to show a lot of restraint and not give in to the urge to fill in every gap with notes. BB King leaves a lot of space in his playing for the notes to breathe.

A lot of this lick takes place inside the second position of the scale and uses a lot of quarter tone bends on the index finger. This is one of the most common BB King guitar style characteristics. First finger bends inside a lick may feel strange at first, but it gives you an instant BB sound.

6. John Lee Hooker – Boom Boom

This track from John Lee Hooker is a blues standard that everyone should learn, but it has its challenges. The trickiest thing here is going between the lead lines and the chord riff that happens between each lick. This is also a call-and-response style idea.

The lead licks are all in the key of E minor and are played in the open position. The licks themselves are pretty straightforward and the only techniques on show here are slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs.

The changes from the lead lines to the chords and back again are quite quick so if you’re a newer player and you haven’t quite got your speedy chord changes nailed, this might present some challenges. 

7. Jimi Hendrix – Red House 

For the track Red House, we see Jimi step away from his more psychedelic rock leanings and dive straight into a more traditionally played 12-bar blues arrangement.

This lick is the lick that starts the song off and much like the Buddy Guy lick you learnt earlier, is mostly a free time lick that you can also use as a turnaround idea in your own playing to bring your blues back to the start.

This lick is based in the B minor pentatonic scale, although the original would have been recorded with the guitar tuned down a half step to Eb rather than the standard tuned version you hear in this video.

In the final, faster phrase of this lick you’ll also notice a note from outside of the pentatonic scale, Jimi is introducing the 2 interval from the natural minor scale.

Leigh Fuge

Leigh Fuge is a guitar player and content creator with a love for all things '80s. When he’s not creating gear demos for his Youtube channel he’s teaching students via his online guitar course Right Notes Music Tuition. Off camera he spends most of his time travelling around the UK performing at functions and corporate events.  www.instagram.com/leighfugeguitar