Do your Blues solos satisfy you or there is something you are still missing? Are you comparing your solos to other players' solos and you find yourself wanting? Do your solo lack 'soul' despite being technically fine?
What most "old cats" will tell you is that you should learn "how to break the rules" (but what rules anyway? ) or that you simply have to "let it go". Forgive me for being blunt, but these are only good-sounding platitudes that are unlikely to be of any help to you. I have heard a lot of these from musicians who can't or won't explain you in detail what your musicianship is lacking. And hey, if your Blues solo do not sound great, this means that you are definitively missing something and you better discover it soon if you want to become a better player and leave your buddies with their jaw on the floor. Taking years to learn from trial-and-error and is not really an option you want to take.
Well, in my experience most Blues players that are not yet accomplished tend to do all the same 5 mistakes until someone warns them. Every single one of these mistakes can prevent your solo from sounding great, and you may not even have noticed them yet! Or worse, you know that you are doing one of the things I list below, but you think it's ok because it sounds good to you, or it makes your life easier. Well, forgive me for saying that, but being a Blues player does not excuse you from studying your instrument. And now that I have captured your sympathy with this last statement, let's have a look at some of the problems that may prevent you and many other Blues players from realizing their musical potential.
One difficult motion that beginner players consistently avoid is the so-called "rolling motion": using the same finger to play two consecutive notes on the same fret but different strings. This is one of the techniques used to play and interval of a 4th on the guitar (and the only way if you play on a pentatonic pattern), so unless you are familiar with it, you are avoiding it too. As the other ones, this problem is not immediately evident to the player, but believe me, if you never play the interval of a 4th, the people who listen to you are definitely noticing that something is missing, even if they cannot put a name on it.
So what can we do about it? Two things:
1. The first one is to learn properly the rolling motion. As it is difficult to explain it in a written article, I have prepared a
free Blues guitar video for you that explains how to perform this movement.
2. The second one is to actually invent some licks for you to use that actually use the rolling motion. If you fail to do that, then you will never use the rolling motion in a real solo. Use it or lose it!
One curious fact about music is that the vast majority of listeners care more about rhythm than pitch. Everybody notices if you go out of time, but most people won't notice if you are playing a wrong note (as long as you don't change your facial expression). This means that as a rule of thumb you should put more care in the timing of your phrases than in your note choice. Despite that most inexperienced players seem to start all their phrases only on downbeats, and never on upbeats. It is just the more natural thing to do when playing, which means that unless you put some conscious though on this you are probably doing it too. And believe me, it is a very noticeable mistake if you are listening.
What to do in this case? I suggest to go through these three steps:
1. To start, improvise a solo where all your phrases start on an upbeat. I suggest that you keep your phrases simple and do not care too much if you start repeating yourself. Since it is quite difficult to communicate how to do it effectively in an article, I have also created a
video on this Blues guitar mistake so that you can see and hear how this exercise is supposed to sound.
2. The second step is to rigidly alternate phrases starting on upbeat and downbeat. As before, do not worry if it sounds repetitive and keep your phrases simple.
3. As the last step improvise mixing freely phrases that start on the upbeat and phrases that star on the downbeat. Your goal here is to try and play on the upbeat when your listeners would expect a downbeat an vice versa. It is really a simple trick, but if you master it then you will notice a great difference in your solos.
Probably the most common of all these issues is not bending to the correct pitch. The first thing to realize is that every time you bend a note, you should have a specific pitch in mind to which you want to bend. You should not simply bend "up" and hope for a good result. Yes, I know that what I just wrote here is obvious to many players, but it seems to be not so evident to the majority of them. An exception to this rule are the "smear bends": bends less than a semitone wide from the original pitch that are common in Blues - but then again these are the exception, not the rule.
Once you know that you have to have a target pitch when you bend, you then have to acquire the skills necessary in order to hit it every single time. The best thing to do is to work with a tuner and checking that your bends are precise. It is not an easy exercise, but if you keep trying you will soon develop a good sense of intonation.
While there is nothing wrong in using the old familiar "box" pentatonic pattern (but see below), I notice that most players always start their solo there and never move from that position. As there is only so much you can do with a single pattern, t's no surprise that after a while all the solos start to sound the same, and in fact even a single solo will sound boring if you never move. This is because if you stay in the same pattern you are never changing register (i.e. you are always playing notes close to each other).
While before we stated that our ears are more sensitive to rhythm than pitch, but it is also true that our ears are more sensitive to register than pitch. This means that no matter how original are your phrases, if you play always in the same octave your solo will "not go anywhere".
The solution is simply to learn your scale patterns in a way that allows you to move freely on your fretboard. A simple way to get started is to play your favourite pattern in two positions 12 frets apart (if you are in A, the minor pentatonic will be at fret 5 and at fret 17), and alternate between them. Sure, it is quite a crude method, but this is just a quick fix. The complete solution is simple to learn all your scales properly.
As a last item let's cover your scale choice. As stated above, most players rely on the minor pentatonic scale, or on the "Blues scale" (they are essentially the same thing). Sure, these scales are popular but if you rely only on them you are going to encounter some major problem. Let me just cite two of them:
1. On a standard Dominant Blues the pentatonic minor scale will have always at least one "wrong note" for each chord in the progression. In other words, the minor pentatonic it's an useful approximation to use at the beginning, but you should learn to use it properly and avoid the "wrong" notes contained in it. Not knowing (or worse, hearing) these "wrong" notes is one of the main reasons why your solo does not "fit" the chord progression.
2. The pentatonic/Blues scale is definitely overplayed. There are a number of other scales used by pro Blues players that allow them to sound different and still "Bluesy". Being limited to the pentatonic/Blues scale will just limit your ability of expressing yourself on the guitar.
Since some of the things I have talked about above are quite difficult to understand unless someone shows them to you in person, I though that I could give you the next best thing: here is the link to a video on Blues guitar mistakes that covers the five things above with examples. Enjoy!
Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.
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