“If you want to get a visceral reaction from an audience, the bottom line is that you have to make your guitar sing”: Blues playing getting stale? Incorporating ideas from jazz guitarists will take your solos to the next level

Josh Smith
(Image credit: Future)

Early on in my playing career, I was drawn to the ideas of jazz guitarists as a way of spicing up my blues playing and finding my own voice. In my last lesson, we looked briefly at the idea of implying chord changes in a three-chord blues. In essence, this is the idea that we can play melodic phrases that spell out additional chords that could be used to enrich the harmony, even though they’re not written on the lead sheet. This time, we’ll expand on that idea.

It’s common to play every chord in a blues as a dominant chord (7th, 9th, etc), and something I like to do, to introduce more interesting sounds into my solos, is to view each of the three chords as a V chord. I’ll demonstrate this idea in the examples that follow, but here’s the theory behind this idea.

We’re in the key of Bb here, so our three chords are Bb7, Eb7 and F7. Eb7 is chord IV in the key of Bb, but what if we view it as a V chord? When you play example 5, you’ll see I use the Eb Mixolydian scale (Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-Db) over the Eb7 chord. Eb Mixolydian is mode five in the key of Ab, so the lick implies that for the Eb7 bars, we’ve temporarily changed key to Ab. It’s a really cool sound.

Taking a quick snapshot of another tonality helps us create more interesting lines and introducing some tension and release. Many jazz players apply this kind of modal thinking to their playing.

We can even treat the I chord (Bb7) as a V chord (belonging to the key of Eb), and add that Mixolydian flavour to our solos.

There are other aspects of my playing that borrow ideas from jazz. The first is to add chromatic passing notes into my lines. Chromatic notes are ones that don’t belong to the key signature. Why do we add them? When we want to play longer, more complex lines, we soon run up against the limitations of seven-note scales, especially if we’re playing eighth or 16th-note passages. Adding passing notes is a way of ‘filling out’ a lick, so we can play uninterrupted, flowing lines. 

If you’ve never got into this idea in a big way, a good place to start is to play a chord shape, then locate all the parent scale notes around it that are within easy reach. Now notice the notes that you didn’t play, which don’t belong to the parent scale, but are within easy reach of the chord shape - these are your passing note options. 

So, as an exercise, try playing a chord, then inventing a lick that uses mostly scale tones, but with a passing note or two. You’ll soon begin to see there is scope to create many interesting ideas.

Tools of the modern blues player

We could discuss many aspects of technique but getting satisfying results generally comes down to these simple elements.

1. Feel and phrasing. If you want to get a visceral reaction from an audience, the bottom line is that you have to make your guitar sing. This can be a matter of feel and dynamics, but it also comes down to phrasing.

You’ll see in the example licks that follow that sometimes I purposely limit myself to a small area of the neck, using maybe just three strings in a four-fret zone, for instance, or perhaps just the top two strings. The aim of this is to squeeze as much expression as I can from that limited space. It makes me work harder to come up with the good stuff. I also aim to use lines that mimic the human voice to inject soul.

2. Storytelling devices. Every solo should tell a story, not just be a collection of random licks. To achieve that, we can use the classic blues device of call and response phrasing, which helps give a solo a sense of continuity. We can also use repetition (the same lick with different dynamics and articulation, or played on different beats of the bar). And, most importantly, we can use the idea of developing themes that carry through a solo, gluing it together.

3. Rhythmic variation. Devices such as playing triplets over straight 4/4 grooves to break up the rhythm, playing lines organised into odd note groupings and using pedal tone ideas will immediately set your playing apart from the run of the mill. We’ll also discuss how to play lines that move through, rather than over the changes, crossing the bar line with rhythm and phrasing that make them more exciting and less predictable.

Okay then, let’s explore all these ideas in the examples that follow.  

Example 1. Creating continuity

Previously, we explored how to invent quick motifs that carry through a line. Here’s one based around just one note, the Bb root on the second string, 11th fret. Throughout the lick I keep returning to that Bb as it anchors everything that happens around it. It’s an effective way of creating a sense of continuity.

Example 2. Breaking out

For this idea I continue the idea from example 1, keeping the Bb note theme going for a while longer, before allowing myself to break out of it in the latter half of bar 3 and bar 4. Take care to cleanly articulate the triplets in this lick, as they really help the line to swing.

Example 3. Chromatics and enclosures

For the turnaround part of the blues, I’m using F Mixolydian (F-G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb) over the F7 chord and I’ve included the jazz idea of adding chromatic passing notes between some of the scale tones to create a line that weaves around the harmony. 

Often, I play these as enclosures. The idea is to have a chord tone in mind, then target it by playing chromatic notes either above or below it or even sometimes both. You’ll find this in the playing of many jazz guitarists.

Example 4. Anticipating chords

The next example begins with a quick call and response motif. Bars 4-5 have a faster 1/16th-note lick for you to learn. Watch out for the timing; sometimes I like to ‘interrupt’ a 1/16th-note run with an 1/8th note to break up the rhythm. 

The notes come from a hybrid Pentatonic scale that blends together both Bb major and Bb minor pentatonic scales. In blues it’s common to blur the lines between major and minor tonalities. 

Example 5. Implying harmony

Here’s the idea referred to earlier. Over the Eb7 the lick comes from Eb Mixolydian (Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-Db), as though we’re briefly playing in the key of Ab major. In bar 2  we encounter another implied harmony idea.

In a jazz-blues, the IV chord is often followed by a diminished 7 chord a half step (semitone) above, before returning to the I chord. The lick hints that the underlying chord could be Edim7. Do you like the way these ideas add spice to otherwise ordinary licks?

Example 6. Tension and resolution

For the turnaround, we return to F Mixolydian to spell out the sound of the F7 chord (V chord), then return to the home chord of Bb and pull out some Bb minor pentatonic ideas and end with a bluesy phrase. When travelling momentarily ‘outside’ it’s nice to return ‘home’ (resolve) to something more familiar.

Example 7. Creating themes

This lick uses a simple, repeating motif on the second and third strings. Notice that in bars 2-4 the idea is delayed by an 1/8th note each time, so that the idea is displaced and sounds less predictable. 

Example 8. Developing the theme

If the previous idea was the question, this lick is the answer. It takes the theme of the previous lick and embellishes it on the first string.

Example 9. Bringing the solo ‘home’

To end, here’s one of my favorite licks using a hybrid scale. Most of the notes come from Bb Mixolydian (Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab), so we’re viewing the I chord as a V chord from Eb major. Then I add a chromatic note to create some tension. Look out for it in the second group of triplets.

The last few notes of the phrase transition back into the Bb blues scale to bring things home. You can create your own hybrid scales by adding chromatic notes to pentatonics and other scales.

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