Learn the soloing secrets of 5 of the great British blues guitarists

British Blues lesson: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton
(Image credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Larry Busacca/Getty Images; Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns; Michael Putland/Getty Images; Chris Walter/WireImage)

The aim of this feature is to focus on many of the concepts employed by five of Great Britain’s best-loved blues guitar players from a hugely important time in contemporary music. 

The so-called British Invasion of the American charts was a cultural phenomenon that kicked off in the early ’60s, spearheaded by bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and others. Prior to this British artists had not really crossed over into the US mainstream. 

The British Blues Boom followed a couple of years later, and this month we have selected five guitar masters from this exciting era to study, each with contrasting styles. 

One thing that these five guitarists have in common is they all served an apprenticeship in either The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, or both. They used this stint as a launchpad to blast off into the stratosphere with the iconic projects they’d later become best known for. 

The first guitarist we’re looking at is Jeff Beck, who rose to prominence in The Yardbirds before going on to front The Jeff Beck Group. JB has gone from strength to strength, capitalising on his abilities to innovate, compose and a coax new sounds from his Fender Stratocaster

His guitar vocabulary is anchored in electric blues, but Jeff has branched out into rock and fusion and has a truly unique approach. During the Invasion years Jeff was a ‘plectrum’ guitarist, but these days he mainly uses his picking-hand thumb to pluck the strings, his fingers manipulating the whammy bar and volume pot in an almost balletic fashion. It really is something to behold.

Second up is Eric Clapton who cultivated an aggressive lead style that was influenced by Freddie King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and others. Eric would later gain mainstream success by showcasing his vocal and songwriting skills. 

Eric served his time in The Yardbirds before recording the seminal ‘Beano’ Album with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. His work with supergroup Cream helped to cement his place as one of the world’s modern guitar legends. 

The third bluesman in our top five is Mick Taylor. Taylor, an exceptionally gifted musician who also played piano and lap steel, served his apprenticeship with Mayall before joining the global phenomenon that is The Rolling Stones. Many say his stint with the band produced some of their best output.

Our fourth choice is the great Jimmy Page. Page began his career as a studio session player in London, before doing his stint with The Yardbirds. When the Yardbirds broke up Jimmy took charge, morphing The ‘New’ Yardbirds into his own creation, Led Zeppelin. Jimmy is a versatile guitarist, master riff writer and producer, and virtually wrote the book on what one should expect from a heavy rock guitarist. 

We finish up with Peter Green, who has a devoted following of blues fans that includes the likes of Noel Gallagher. Peter served his tenure with The Bluesbreakers before founding Fleetwood Mac. His Gibson Les Paul is the stuff of legend. It has its own, unique out-of-phase lead tone and went on to be owned and played by Gary Moore, and more recently found its way to metal legend Kirk Hammett of Metallica.

For each of our artists we have recorded a track consisting of four signature licks so you can pick apart key aspects of each one’s style. The licks are knitted together with a two-bar drum fill so you can make pickup, or volume and tone adjustments on the fly.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 6, Bass 7, Middle 9, Treble 8, Reverb 3

The primary tone used here is just the guitar of choice plugged straight into a Marshall Plexi-style tube amp model, set to a raucous volume. The British blues tone from this era is a pretty straightforward affair. 

Just plug the guitar straight into the amp and turn it up loud. All of the pickup and effects selections are notated at the start of each piece for reference.

Track 1. Jeff Beck style examples 

For these examples, I used my whammy bar-equipped James Tyler Studio Elite with the mid boost circuit engaged to provide a little extra sustain. The picking-hand thumb is used to pluck the strings and this leaves the fingers free to manipulate the whammy bar and volume pot.

EXAMPLE 1 – Bottleneck Slide Jeff is a master of the blues slide and has several placed around the stage when playing live. Our example uses some classic, blues style phrasing. The picking-hand fingers provide good string crossing facility and great warm tone. 

EXAMPLE 2 – Faux Slide Jeff almost constantly manipulates the whammy bar to create vocal and slide style phrases. This example is a version of Example 1 but played without the slide. The natural harmonics work particularly well with the whammy bar as the notes tend to sustain better than fretted ones. 

EXAMPLE 3 – Whammy Bar Scoops Scooping into notes with the whammy bar is a classic Jeff Beck trick and adds a sophisticated quality to the delivery. Simply depress the bar prior to picking the note and then, as you strike the note, let the bar go back up to pitch. The fourth finger can also be used to ‘swell’ the volume pot. 

EXAMPLE 4 – Playing Whammy Bar Melodies  Playing melodies using the whammy bar will take practice in order to get all the notes in tune. Sustain is key so this tends to work best on open-string notes and harmonics. Use fretted target tones to check the tuning, and practise what pressure is needed to create each note. 

Track 2. Eric Clapton style examples

For these examples I used my Tokai Love Rock with the bridge pickup selected and the tone rolled off. 

EXAMPLE 1 – Using Repeating Patterns A classic Clapton trick is to use a three-note repeating phrase and place it in a four-note, semiquaver framework.
This provides a cool rhythmic effect as the three-note pattern shifts to different parts of the bar as it repeats. Playing live with Cream, Eric could really stretch this out!

EXAMPLE 2 – String Bending In Box 1 Eric loves to link mini phrases to create longer, improvised lines. Shape 1 of the Minor Pentatonic is easy to finger and places the notes so that the string bends happen in musical places. The idea is to bend from one scale tone to the next, so practise with the target tone first.

EXAMPLE 3 – Woman Tone Eric discovered ‘woman tone’ by selecting either pickup and rolling the tone control right down. With a bit of experimentation you should be able to find a spot where the tone has boosted middle frequencies and more sustain. Eric used this in Cream songs such as We’re Going Wrong.

EXAMPLE 4 – Mixing Minor and Major Pentatonics Clapton is fantastic at seamlessly moving between the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales. In this example we start out in A Minor Pentatonic territory and then switch to A Major Pentatonic scale for the final bar.

Track 3. Mick Taylor style examples 

For these examples I used my Tokai Love Rock’s bridge pickup. I switched my wah-wah pedal on and left it in one position to provide that signature ‘honky’ tone (also loved by Santana). Slowly rock the wah-wah pedal treadle back and fourth as you play until you find the sweet spot, then leave it be.  

EXAMPLE 1 – Using High String Bends Playing phrases in the higher register can provide ear-catching results. Here a high string bend is re-picked in a catchy rhythm. This idea can be recycled in various positions, styles and keys, using any rhythm you like. 

EXAMPLE 2 – Phrasing In Box 1 This lick features a tried and tested Mick Taylor Pentatonic pattern. Mick plays the Minor Pentatonic scale descending in a triplet rhythm. Each time the next note is missed out, and this provides a cascading effect.

EXAMPLE 3 – Mixing Minor and Major Pentatonics Here we revisit the concept of mixing the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales, this time starting with the Major Pentatonic. Any Minor 3rd notes (C in this example) will sound best if they are bent slightly sharp in a blues ‘curl’.

EXAMPLE 4 – Octave Riff Work To finish off our Mick Taylor licks we are adding some weight to the backing riff by shifting it up an octave. Double-stops are a great way to fill out or beef up the sound. To add that bluesy touch these can be bent slightly sharp too.

Track 4. Jimmy Page style examples

In The Yardbirds Jimmy Page mostly played a Fender Telecaster (as did both Clapton and Beck), and Teles created many if not most of the sounds on Led Zeppelin 1. However, as Page is most strongly associated with a Gibson Les Paul, again I chose my Tokai Love Rock to create our Jimmy tones.

EXAMPLE 1 – Slow Blues Jimmy has recorded some classic slow blues tracks and this example is inspired by songs like I Can’t Quit You Baby and Since I’ve
Been Loving You
. The unison bends in bar 6 are a great way to add some extra texture and a bit of voodoo to the presentation. 

EXAMPLE 2 – Using Pentatonic Patterns A favourite Page move is to play Minor Pentatonic ‘cells’ in a ‘groups of three’ pattern. Once this pattern is
mastered it can be repeated ascending or descending for as long as you like. This example is inspired by Jimmy’s lead work on the first Led Zeppelin album. 

EXAMPLE 3 – Big String Bends Big interval leaps have an ear-grabbing quality, and Jimmy’s huge string bends regularly cash in on this. We start this lick with a four-fret (two-tone) bend from 13th to the17th fret on the second string. It’s worth warming up before trying this one.

EXAMPLE 4 – Following The Chords Following the chord progression with the lead line adds a more sophisticated quality. Here the F note in bar 22 is outside the A Minor Pentatonic scale, but landing on it fits in with the F Major chord perfectly. 

Track 5. Peter Green style examples

Yet again for these examples I used my Tokai Love Rock. The guitar is equipped with the same pickup modification as Peter Green’s famous Les Paul so that classic out-of-phase tone can be dialed in by selecting both pickups and turning the bridge pickup volume pot to 10, and the neck volume pot down to 8. 

EXAMPLE 1 – Use Of Chromatic Notes For this first lick we’re referencing some classic BB King style lines, as Peter was a huge BB fan and gleaned many
ideas from the master. The chromatic notes (notes outside the A Minor Pentatonic scale) help to link the notes together while adding a colourful edge. 

EXAMPLE 2 – Navigating The IV Chord A key element of playing blues is navigating the chords. To do this most blues guitarists will have an arsenal of licks that fit the I, IV and V chords. Here’s a classic PG lick to negotiate the IV chord (D7) Targeting the C# in bar 11 really brings us home to chord I (A7). 

EXAMPLE 3 – Turnaround 1 It’s worth having a few turnaround licks up your sleeve so we have recorded two. This first one takes each chord in turn to make sure each tonality is outlined. If you play a great turnaround lick without the backing you should still be able to hear the changes go by. 

EXAMPLE 4 – Turnaround 2 This second turnaround lick can also be used as an ending, or even an intro. Again it’s worth noting that any Minor 3rd notes (C in this case) will sound best if they are bent up a quarter tone sharp for that typical blues ‘curl’. 

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Jon Bishop is a UK-based guitarist and freelance musician, and a longtime contributor to Guitar Techniques and Total Guitar. He's a graduate of the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and is touring and recording guitarist for British rock 'n' roll royalty Shakin’ Stevens.