“I want to pass on the blues vocabulary that stood the test of many tough audiences”: Modern blues master Josh Smith teaches you the secrets to better solos

Josh Smith
(Image credit: Future)

During my late teens and early 20s, I gigged relentlessly, playing around 300 shows per year in small clubs across the States. While that didn’t make me rich, it refined my playing and distilled my ideas down to what really works.

The process of playing live helps to dispense with throwaway, average ideas and focus on the good stuff – the licks that get a reaction from the audience. 

I want to pass onto you the blues vocabulary that stood the test of many tough audiences. As we go, I’ll explain both the techniques being used and the musical thinking behind it. But before we dive in, here’s an overview of the musical ‘tools’ you’ll be using.

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

Example 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 muchexpression 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. 

Example 2. Signalling the changes

In blues, the aim is to play through rather than over the changes. We need to be aware of what the harmony is doing and signal that to the listener by playing lines that flow from one chord into the next. In bar 3, the Bb in bar 3 is anticipated by a lick highlighting its major 3rd interval, signaling what’s coming next.

Example 3. Rhythmic variation

We start with the chromatic run down from the end of the previous example to make a complete lick. Bar 4 is a well-known blues phrase, but with eighth and 16th-note triplet articulation to change it up a little. Listen to the audio to get it right, as it’s all about the feel.

Example 4. Anticipating chords

I love to play phrases that cross bar lines. Here, a pick-up phrase introduces the bend up to the D note in bar 2 (3rd of Bb7). After that, I leave some space, then the last note of bar 2 begins a phrase that happens over the Eb7 chord. Anticipating chords makes it feel like each lick has a destination and purpose.

Example 5. Implying chords part 1

In bar 5 here, I use a jazz idea to imply a chord change, to suggest a chord that could fit with the harmony, even though it’s not written on the lead sheet. A jazz-blues will often move to G7 here, and since the bass is walking rather than resting on a root note, this lets me play a lick implying the chord could be G7.

Example 6. Implying chords part 2

In a jazz-blues, the G7 will often be followed by Cm7, which leads to F7 (II-V), before returning to the I chord (Bb). The ascending run in the pick-up bar of this example implies the Cm7 sound. The three-chord foundation of the blues makes it the ideal vehicle to work ideas like this into your playing.

Example 7. Creating themes

A useful way of inspiring creativity is to say to yourself, 'Whatever lick I play first, that is the theme for my solo.' Spontaneously play a lick right now. That’s your theme! So, in bar 2, I played a lick on the top three strings beginning with a blues curl. This and the couple of notes that follow is my theme.

Example 8. Developing the theme

Let’s see how we might develop my theme. In the next example I move away from it a little in bar 2, but hint at it again in bar 3. Overall, this lick has a question and answer format. Bars 2-3 are the question and bars 4-5 form the response. Call and response is at the core of blues singing and playing.

Example 9. Developing it further

For the final example of this set of three, I work my way back into the zone of the neck where the theme began. The line goes in a different direction and I play some new ideas, but I return to the theme in bar 5. Listen to the audio before playing this example to get the articulation and rhythmic phrasing down.

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