Warren Haynes offers advice on breaking out of blues guitar clichés

Warren Haynes is a master player – and years of experience playing at a high level with a range of artists has given him some valuable insight into the guitar. In a recent video interview with Sweetwater's Mitch Gallagher for the US retailer's Gearfest 2021 online event the Gov't Mule man talked about his career and lessons learned. 

You play better if you're just playing one note at a time, and it's not a pre-established lick followed by another pre-established lick

Haynes has always been an incredibly versatile player and when Gallagher asked him about how he would advise a guitarist on breaking out of box-centric approach to  blues scale soloing, he had an interesting perspective that we could all take onboard… 

"Well, my friend Mike Barnes, who is a great guitar player that I grew up with, I remember him saying at a very young age - he was talking about some local musician and critiquing his playing, and he said, 'He's a lick player.'

"And I was like, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Here's a lick, there's a lick, everything's a lick. You play better if you're just playing one note at a time, and it's not a pre-established lick followed by another pre-established lick.'

"I took that to heart at a very young age and have always tried to just let the next note be influenced by the previous one and not know in advance what I'm going to play until I actually get there."

Haynes believes it's using your musical instinct that is key – but it also benefits from being influenced by new styles. 

Warren Haynes

(Image credit: Justin Borucki / Future)

You just got to turn your brain off and go with your instinct

"When you play year after year after year, you can kind of trust yourself to get out of a bind if you paint yourself into a corner. If you play something and you're not exactly sure where to go, then instinct will probably take you there if you let it.

"You just got to turn your brain off and go with your instinct. I tend to love players that sound like they're just flowing, and as you mentioned, not caught up in the box. I don't like to hear something where someone starts a phrase and you know how it's going to end.

"So, I always try and encourage people to throw themselves curveballs, and if you start out a blues lick, then end it up with a little twist that someone wasn't expecting.

"There's no right and wrong in music, and the more different music you listen to and expose yourself to and learn from, the more you're going to be able to find your own voice because your own voice is a combination of everything you've ever learned."

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Warren Haynes

(Image credit: Warren Haynes)

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The guitarist also highlighted the value of taking influence from band members when it comes to coming up with ideas.

"That's the beauty of having a band I think," says Haynes. "Sometimes the songs will start out a certain way in my head and wind up going a whole different direction. I've learned through the years to be more and more open to that.

"But if I have ideas about certain melodies, harmonies and certain rhythmic sections, I'll bring them all to the table," he explains. "Maybe they all make the cut, they don't. You never know. The instrumental sections are always fair game and for that matter, the approach to everyone's parts leaves room for improvement. We're talking amongst ourselves about how to make the song better and try different things, and not just for our own instrument."

That idea of open-mindedness and trust even extends to the recording studio.  

"If somebody has an idea of what I should play that might make it better, I'm open to idea and vice versa," Haynes continues. "But when the tape's rolling, whatever happens, happens. None of us really want to get locked into a certain part unless it's something we've rehearsed and said, 'Hey that's great, that's working let's hold on to that. Otherwise each take it going to be a little different and the one that feels the best is going to win out."

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Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.