pedal point is a single note sustained (or repeatedly articulated) against a moving melody. It adds dimension to a melody by highlighting its “push and pull” against a central note, which is usually, but not exclusively, the tonic of the key or root note of a chord. In blues, perhaps the best-known example of a pedal point is the main theme of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo on “Cold Shot,” which is itself reminiscent of Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone,” Lonnie Mack’s “Why” and, before them, bluesy Hammond organists who would sustain a note with one finger while riffing with the other hand.
FIGURE 1 shows a standard fingering for “Cold Shot”–style phrasing in the key of Bf. Barre the top three strings at the sixth fret with your index finger and pluck the Bf pedal tone on the high E string with a bare finger while simultaneously flat-picking the scale pattern below it. After you learn the pattern, phrase the melody as you would any blues lick while holding down the pedal (FIGURE 2 is an example).
Beyond this application, there are a number of other pedal-point options (all are adaptable to shuffle, swing and straight rhythm feels at any tempo and over any chord quality). For example, place the pedal below the melody (FIGURE 3) and pedal with the pick while plucking the melody with the fingers, or drop the pedal down an extra octave (FIGURE 4) to enhance the anchoring effect. (Fretting the low note with your thumb is an option.)
Alternate rhythmically between the pedal and the melody (FIGURE 5), switch the pedal between roots and fifths (FIGURE 6), or pedal the root of each chord in a progression (FIGURE 7). For extra drama, tremolo-pick the pedal and add a melody (FIGURE 8) either by string-hopping with the pick or plucking with a finger.
The final example (FIGURE 9) puts the melody and pedal on adjacent strings so you can tremolo-pick them simultaneously. Once you get the sound in your head and the technique under your fingers, you can put the pedal down just about anywhere you like.
Keith Wyatt tours with L.A.-based American music legends the Blasters and teaches blues guitar at Musicians Institute.