Bernie Marsden was British blues-rock's secret weapon – and his melodic, emotive approach to guitar solos is a must-learn

Bernie Marsden holding a Gibson Les Paul
(Image credit: Olly Curtis/Future)

Once described as “British blues-rock’s secret weapon,” Bernie Marsden was a guitarist, singer, and songwriter known for his solo career as well as his time with Whitesnake. 

His melodic style has been a huge influence on many modern blues guitar players, with Joe Bonamassa calling him ‘the best of the best’. His influence on blues-rock is indisputable, and his legacy continues to inspire.

Born in 1951 in Buckingham, England, Marsden was influenced by legendary blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters when he first took up the guitar in his early teens. 

His formative years coincided with the rise of British blues, and Marsden credits players such as Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix as having had a huge effect on him, ultimately instilling within him the desire to become a professional musician. 

He achieved this in the early 1970s, playing in a number of bands throughout the decade, but it was his time with rock superstars Whitesnake that showed Marsden’s guitar playing as well as his keen abilities as a songwriter to a wider audience. 

During his time with the band, he was responsible for co-writing many of their hits, such as the rock anthems Here I Go Again and Fool For Your Loving. After his departure from the group, Marsden was involved with a number of projects and also had a prolific solo career, releasing 23 albums under his own name.

Marsden’s style was melodic and emotive while also maintaining a fierce and exciting edge. The influence of the blues is clear, and although he developed rockier elements – incorporating harmonized lines and pinch harmonics, for example – his love of the blues was still very much present in his solos. 

He also had an incredibly musical touch. He plays not just from the point of view of a guitarist but as a songwriter, not choosing flashy displays of technical wizardry but creating memorable melodies and playing for the song.

His sense of phrasing always set him apart, and his ability to tell a story with a solo is what helped to secure a loyal fanbase that continued to celebrate his work through his long career.

Another notable part of Bernie’s playing is his mastery of string bends and different string bending techniques. You’ll hear slow bends, prebends and large three or even four semitone bends in his solos, as well as a masterful vibrato that radiates raw energy.

The solos presented here will give you a starting point, but it’s worth spending time getting a command of these bending techniques so that they can be used when improvising. String bends and a strong vibrato are some of the most expressive tools in any guitarist’s arsenal, so they are well worth perfecting. Thank you, Bernie! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 7, Bass 5, Middle 7, Treble 6, Reverb 4

Bernie’s most famous guitar was a 1959 Gibson Les Paul nicknamed ‘The Beast’. However, he used a number of different models throughout his career, often pairing them with a Marshall amp

Aim for a fairly aggressive, distorted tone that has plenty of bite but also clarity. A little reverb will help to smooth things out, and a touch of chorus will add to the '80s vibe.  

Example 1. Blues-rock study

Our first piece demonstrates Marsden’s rockier side while still drawing from his bluesier influences. 

The solo primarily utilizes the Minor Pentatonic scale, but it’s worth noting how it uses small sections from the various positions to build melodic phrases rather than mere noodling. 

Pay close attention to the string bends and vibrato here, as Bernie had a great attention to detail and knew how to pull every drop of emotion out of a bend.

Example 2. Blues study

Our second piece demonstrates a Marsden-style solo over a more traditional blues track. It again features some of Bernie’s trademark string bending. The vibrato should also be a focus, as this is an important if not central aspect of his style. 

Some repetitive phrasing helps to give the solo melodic shape, so make sure your timing is on the money here (especially no rushing!), as the triplet feel of some of these licks can be tricky.

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