When going to an open jam, it’s important to be prepared to improvise over any one of the dozens of standard blues-type songs that are routinely played at jams all over the world.
Along with the typical 12-bar and eight-bar blues forms, there are a few specific songs that feature their own distinct patterns and forms.
One of these tunes is the Albert King classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” a track covered brilliantly by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker on the essential Cream album, Wheels of Fire.
Cream played the song in the key of G, but it was originally recorded by King in the key of C#. The following examples are played in the song’s original key of C#.
FIGURE 1 illustrates a rhythm guitar part played along the lines of the “Born Under a Bad Sign” main riff, which is built from a repeating C#7(no3) chord that alternates with a single-note bass-line figure. After striking the low C# root note on beat one, one beat two I sound 16th-note accents on C#7s9, with notes fretted on the A, G and high E strings while the D and B strings are muted. This is known as a “spread” voicing because each note of the chord is far away from the others, which creates wide intervals. Across beats three and four, I play a single-note riff based on the C# minor pentatonic scale (C# E F# G# B). Bar 4 ends with a slight variation on the figure, and bar 5 ends with a double hammer-on phrase played on the sixth string. In bar 6, I cap off the eight-bar phrase by playing an ascending single-note “lead”-type lick, as a means to create a deviation from the pattern and to delineate the end of what is essentially an eight-bar section.
FIGURE 2 is a 16-bar solo played over the vamp from FIGURE 1, which is played twice. The solo is based primarily on C# minor pentatonic, but I do include the flatted fifth, G, in a few spots, making reference to the C# blues scale (C# E F# G G# B). In bars 1-6, the phrases are all centered around a variety of bends on the high E string, emulating the sound and style of Albert King. Bar 1 begins with an aggressive bend up to the fifth, G#; this note is fingerpicked by snapping the string against the fretboard to achieve an aggressive attack. I begin bar 3 the same way but develop the melodic content by including half-step bends from the major third, E#, to the fourth, F#. While holding this half-step bend, I add a finger one fret higher on the same string, sounding the fourth, which is pre-bent up one half step, and then proceed to bend the string further, up to a whole step. This is a very effective way to emulate the “over-bends” that are a hallmark of King’s soloing style.
Check out the very cool version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” recorded by Jimi Hendrix, which was included on his Blues album. He plays the song as one long vamp over the main riff, and it’s fascinating how many twists and turns he invents over the steadily rocking groove.