Kenny Wayne Shepherd's 5 rules for playing the blues

Modern blues star and Fender Stratocaster-player Kenny Wayne Shepherd reported to MusicRadar that he's just started recording his new album in Saulsalito, California, with Jerry Harrison co-producing along with Shepherd.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd at The Wilshire Ebell Theater, 2009. Image: © Katy Winn/Corbis

He'll need to work fast, however, as he takes off in March to be a part of the Experience Hendrix Tour, where he'll share the stage with other guitar greats such as Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Brad Whitford, Ernie Isley and Vernon Reid, among others.

During a session break, Shepherd was happy to share with MusicRadar his 5 rules for playing the blues. "They're not iron-clad," Shepherd says, "but I do believe if you heed some of these tips, you'll find your playing improves. And more importantly, your overall love of music will expand."

1. Listen to your heart

"This might sound kind of trite and obvious, but it's the honest to God's truth. To play the blues with feeling, you've got to tap into your soul and ask yourself, 'What do I really want say? What message do I have to convey here?'

"It's like having a heart-to-heart conversation with someone: If you don't mean every word you say, you're not going to be genuine or convincing.

"The blues is the same thing; it's like having a dialogue but instead of words you're using notes. Make every note count for something. Face it: If you're just playing licks and scales you've copied off records or whatever, no matter how good you are, you're going to sound mechanical."

2. Do your homework

"If you have a favorite player, whether it's Stevie Ray or Clapton, that's great. But don't just stop there - go back and seek out the people who paved the road before them. Chances are, you're going to have your mind blown and your musical vocabulary is going to expand dramatically.

Muddy Waters. Image: © Terry Cryer/CORBIS

"When I started out, I was very fortunate in not limiting myself. I studied Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly. Then, of course, I got into Hendrix - you gotta listen to Hendrix. And all the British Invasion players, people like Beck and Clapton - very important players in my development. Stevie Ray, obviously…All of the people who came before me, I made sure to study them.

"That's the great thing about the blues: one generation influences the next. Discover Buddy Guy, but then go back and find out who influenced him."

3. Vibrato is king

"I can't believe how many players, some of whom are quite good, don't give a thought to their vibrato - and if you're going to play the blues with any kind of authority, vibrato is crucial.

"I tell beginning players all the time, 'Don't get all hung up on how many notes you can play. Don't think about speed or any of that stuff. All of that means nothing if you don't have a grasp on vibrato.' It's like singers: The best singers in the world know how to work the vibrato of their vocals, so why shouldn't guitarists?

"Check out Albert King, BB King, Clapton - these guys know vibrato. Their individual playing styles couldn't be more different, but man, they knew how to work vibrato. If you can make that one note sing, you're golden, man."

4. Get the right gear

"I'm all for originality, and I would never want to tell somebody, 'Hey, you can't play the blues with that guitar or that amp.' On the other hand, there's certain pieces of gear that just do the job, that convey the feeling better than others, in my opinion.

"I like to get a clean sound that's just on the verse of being overdriven, and for many years my workhorse amp was a Fender '65 Twin Reissue. But I've been checking out a lot of the old Fender tweed amps, and they're fantastic. I just bought an all-original 1958 Tweed Bassman, and it's incredible.

"If you want to go for that early, overdriven blues sound, I'd say you should check out a Fender Tweed Deluxe or a Blackface Deluxe. Crank those up and you'll be fine. But if you're more into the British blues sound, a Marshall Plexi will do the job. Jeff Beck and Hendrix were definitely rippin' those things up.

"Oh, and an Ibanez Tube Screamer is crucial. Every blues player I know uses those things. They're awesome."

Ibanez Tube Screamer

5. Think 'outside the box'

"A lot of players who want to play the blues learn certain patterns and they get stuck in a rut. They play the same 'box' licks and they're afraid to go beyond them. Listen to Hendrix - man, that guy broke every rule and took the blues as far and wide as you could go.

"See, I'm not just a one-trick pony: I grew up listening to rock, R&B, gospel, James Brown - you name it. I have a lot of musical influences, and I've always tried to incorporate them into what I do. If you want to be a blues player, be a blues player. But don't limit your listening to just the blues, and don't restrict your playing, either. Don't say to yourself, 'I can't play these notes because they're not blues notes.'

"I always tell myself, 'The blues is limitless. As long as you can imagine it, you can do it.'"

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.