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4 guitar tricks you can learn from Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr.
(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

Here, we focus on how the blues lives on in today’s music, with the torch being carried by players such as Gary Clark Jr, whose track When My Train Pulls In was one of the main inspirations behind my solo. 

It’s not too hard to trace the blues lineage, with the riff-based beginning including some open strings for a particularly old-school/John Lee Hooker feel, leading to some melodic pentatonic phrasing. A notable feature here is the inclusion of notes from outside the usual pentatonic remit, something Gary is very fond of doing. 

Adding in the 9th (from the major or minor scale; it’s the same note) is a really effective way of adding some melody and drama, with a comparatively low risk of ‘playing yourself into a corner’, or sounding just plain wrong! In any case, the old jazz maxim of only ever being a semitone away from the right note is worth remembering here if you find yourself in difficulties.

I’ve used some of the pentatonic shapes, albeit in a less obvious way – the opening bars being pretty clearly shape 1 in the key of E minor, but around four bars in, shape 2 also starts to feature. I’ve also used a few ringing open strings and slides to hint at the A minor pentatonic but you’ll notice this isn’t a ‘pure’ A minor pentatonic; check out the transcription for more info. 

Next, we morph into a shape 4 E minor pentatonic then take advantage of the B minor pentatonic (shape 1) in the same position. We finish with a series of pentatonic shapes/phrases connected by sides.

The objective is not necessarily to be hyper-aware of what scale/position you are using while playing but to absorb the patterns into the subconscious on a longterm basis. Hope you enjoy and see you next time!

Example 1

(Image credit: Future)

This introductory phrase looks to grab attention with the flamboyant slide down the low E followed by the open string itself. Many of the notes are deliberately allowed to ring together, giving a much more aggressive effect than if everything was carefully separated/muted. 

You’ll see this is mostly shape 1 E minor pentatonic but towards the end of the phrase we connect with some slides to shape 2. This isn’t particularly conscious – and that is our aim!

Example 2

(Image credit: Future)

Heading for the first chord change to A minor, I’ve exploited the common notes from the E minor pentatonic/open strings that fit, plus the pointed use of an F#, which is the 6th in A minor and the 9th over the rapidly approaching change back to E minor. 

This was as much a conscious move as it was a comfortable pattern of notes to play when experimenting with open strings and slides. Sometimes risks like this can pay off.

Example 3

(Image credit: Future)

You may have noticed the hint at shape 4 of the E minor pentatonic at the end of the last phrase. Well, here it becomes a bit more obvious, though the bend to F# (the 9th) works over the E minor to imply an Emin9, and quickly bends up a further semitone to G to give us the minor 3rd. 

Jeff Beck, David Gilmour and Slash are just three of the players who regularly employ this device. Watch for the sneaky change of scale at the end.

Example 4

(Image credit: Future)

Moving on to the B Minor pentatonic (shape 1), I changed to the neck pickup on a whim. This isn’t a super-high-gain sound and I didn’t want the higher notes I was working towards to sound shrill, as can sometimes happen. 

The position changes pick up speed here, using slides to work their way up to a shape 4 B minor pentatonic. To reiterate, these positions were not something I was consciously looking to demonstrate; they become second nature when you play them enough!

Hear it here

Gary Clark Jr. – Blak And Blu

While Gary is also a very capable vocalist, his playing speaks loud and clear on When My Train Pulls In, Bright Lights and Numb. All three songs display his love of rough-edged, ‘fuzz’-flavoured distortion and a keen ear for unusual twists on ‘roots’ pentatonic riffs, melodies and solos. Elsewhere, Gary gives us a modern take on Motown in Ain’t Messin’ ’Round and country‑tinged rock ’n’ roll in Travis County.


Jeff Beck – You Had It Coming

As a guitarist who came up through the classic era of the British Invasion, Jeff has continued to blaze a trail like no other into previously unheard territories, most of them acknowledging and building on his blues/rock ’n’ roll roots. Check out Roy’s Toy, Rollin’ And Tumblin’ (featuring Imogen Heap on vocals), and his ridiculously inventive take on Swati Natekar’s vocal gymnastics on Nitin Sawhney’s Nadia.


Rory Gallagher – Against the Grain

Though it was recorded back in 1975, Rory is clearly redefining the blues here, with a rock, pop, sometimes even punky energy.

Check out Let Me In, Bought And Sold and At The Bottom to hear a broad stylistic mix, tied together by Rory’s fiery playing and vocals. Gallagher is one of the hardest players to pin down when analysing his style and was highly respected by none other than Jimi Hendrix among countless others.

Richard Barrett