How to play old-school blues

Howlin' Wolf
(Image credit: Sandy Guy Schoenfeld/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In this lesson, we're taking a look at the technique and style of 60s blues legends including Howlin’ Wolf, with sideman Hubert Sumlin. 

The example ‘solo’ is really a study on how such players would embellish a static chord – sometimes throughout a song. A tune such as Smokestack Lightning doesn’t have a chord progression as such, it just uses the repeated guitar figure as a ‘hook’.

In my example piece, there’s repetition in the form of the rhythmic E5 chord, but the fills in between are changed around to show a few options. I’m treading a line here between simplicity and authenticity, and demonstrating how themes can be developed and/or expanded upon in this context. 

I’ve used plenty of ringing open strings and double stops (pretty much exclusively from the E blues scale) to cover position shifts and keep the intensity over the ‘bare bones’ backing track [below]. 

If handled right, this kind of blues can be played on a lone guitar without any backing track at all – and this certainly played a role in the development of this style.

Another main consideration when playing this style is rhythm. While this isn’t complex in the technical sense, it needs a certain touch. It might be helpful to talk in terms of a drum beat to analyse the rhythm. 

If the initial hit of the E5 chord is like a bass drum on beat 1, then the open second and first strings (B and E) on beat 2 form the short, snappy ‘snare’ beat.

This pattern forms the basis of the whole piece with some swung upstrokes providing a shuffle feel – primarily between beats 2 and 3 of each bar. It might be helpful to establish the basic rhythm first, then add in fills once you’ve gathered momentum. Hope you enjoy this and see you next time!

Example 1

(Image credit: Future)

This first section establishes the rhythm and basic harmony, with little embellishment. Having said that, note the swung up-beat before we start – this establishes the swung feel right from the word go. 

The brief fill in bar 2 takes from shapes 1 and 2 of the E minor pentatonic/blues scale, but there’s no further ‘lead’ guitar playing here. Try to play this so that it could also function without the backing track

Example 2

(Image credit: Future)

The second four-bar section becomes slightly more expansive, adding a fill in bars 2 and 4. It’s essential to get cleanly in and out of these, just as a drummer must not lose the beat when adding a fill. 

The doublestop in bar 2 is given a slight push sharp in the ‘blues bend’ tradition, before sneaking in a triplet, complementing the swung feel.

Example 3

(Image credit: Future)

Getting slightly more risker here, with a few quick position shifts between the rhythm part and shape 4/shape 1 of the E minor pentatonic. A sense of continuity is given by allowing open strings to ring, covering these position changes. 

The fills in bars 2 and 4 both start with a quarter-tone bend on a doublestop from shape 4. However, the first fill takes a simpler melodic approach, while the second builds things with a flashier triplet pattern.

Example 4

(Image credit: Future)

The final section continues the jump between the rhythm part and shape 4 of the E minor pentatonic, sliding out then back into position at bar 2. 

Conscious that we are coming to a close, the final lick plays a descending pattern based around the E minor pentatonic. 

In a perfect world, I might have played a C# rather than the C natural in bar 4, but I resisted the urge to strive for ‘perfection’ and do another take, as I didn’t want to lose the feel!

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Richard Barrett

As well as a longtime contributor to Guitarist and Guitar Techniques, Richard is Tony Hadley’s longstanding guitarist, and has worked with everyone from Roger Daltrey to Ronan Keating.