The blues jam session is a rite of passage for every novice guitarist. Whereas preparing a set of songs to play with fellow musicians can be difficult, and a bit of a time-sink, it’s relatively easy to get to grips with the good ol’ 12-bar blues guitar in loads of key signatures. This can make those early blues jams a breeze as far as chords are concerned, but what do you do when it comes to taking a solo? How do you know what to play?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re tackling here as we look at five different ways to approach blues soloing. We’ll cover some key scale shapes (don’t leave home without ’em; they’re absolute, 100 per cent, nailed-on essentials), plus some more musical and textural approaches.
For our purposes, these all sound great in a pure blues context, but they’ll also work in other related genres, from blues-rock to country or even jazz – with a bit of creative input from you, of course.
If there’s one overarching tip here it’s to take your time. Almost no other genre is as open and improvisational as blues, and if you’re jamming, you’ll have time to develop your initial ideas. And of course blues is best when subtlety is employed – by which we mean the gaps and the notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do!
So read on and try out our tab examples inspired by the Chicago blues icons of the ’50s and ’60s to today’s latest and greatest.
Example 1. Use the minor pentatonic scale
Probably the best-known scale of all, the minor pentatonic is a great starting point for soloing. We’re using a simple approach here, playing over a ‘parallel’ minor 7th chord (which means they have the same root note – so B minor pentatonic over Bm7) in our B.B. King-inspired lick.
Example 2. Use two-note ‘diads’
The diad at the end of bar 1 sounds great over the E7 chord thanks to some bluesy dissonance. Our diad includes a G note, but you can prevent an ear-busting semitone clash with E7’s G# by gradually applying a quarter-tone bend on your G. The 3rd-fret D also appears in E7, but, again, has a little bluesy edge when played against the open E string.
Example 3. Sparse phrasing can work
We’re taking inspiration from the great Robert Cray here, a master of understated blues phrasing. The lesson to learn is that the gaps between notes can be important – so resist the urge to widdle endlessly, and think about breaking up your own licks into short, singable phrases. We’re using shape 2 of the E minor pentatonic scale.
Example 4. Bend further
We’re all used to finger-friendly semitone and tone bends – but you can go further! Albert King and Buddy Guy were early masters of what we’ll call ‘over-bending’, employing bends of three or four semitones. Everyone from Eric Clapton to John Mayer has followed in their footsteps. Light-gauge strings or detuning your guitar can make it easier.
Example 5. Scream when you go high!
Get familiar with the top end of the fretboard, dial in plenty of drive and be prepared to make your guitar scream. We’re taking our inspiration from Grammy-winning modern day blues and R&B hero Gary Clark Jr here.