Are you frustrated about your Blues solos? You see other players at the jam sessions and they seem to sound much better than you? Your solo sounds like it’s not "going anywhere"? You may have one or more of the problem above, and if you are like me you have tried and asked what to do to some of the more experienced player you know.
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.
1. Bending out of pitch
It may have happened to you that you hear someone improvising on stage and every now and then one or two notes sound out of tune. It’s clearly not the guitar being out of tune, otherwise the whole solo will sound bad. What I just described is the most common symptom of a player that bends out of tune. Every time you bend a string you should bend up to a very specific pitch, and not simply bend "up".
Sure, in the Blues style we also have the "smear" bends I.e. bends of less than a semitone from the original pitch, but these bends are the exception not the rule, and should definitely not used as an excuse for not working on the intonation of your bends.
The easiest way to learn how to bend in tune is to use a tuner to check if you are hitting the target pitch precisely. Since the tuner is unforgiving you may not be able to do it the first time you try, but if you stick to it it will become second nature in little time.
2. Consistently avoiding the interval of a 4th
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!
3. Starting your phrases only on downbeats
The curious thing about this issue is that it is absolutely obvious to any listener, while it’s very difficult to notice if you are the player. The problem here is that it’s more natural for most players to start their phrases only on downbeats, so unless you are paying conscious attention to it you are most likely doing it. Of course, after a bit of training there is no need to pay it constant attention. Since in general listeners care more about rhythm than pitch (if you go out of time everybody notices, if you play a wrong note many don’t notice) if all your phrases have the same rhythmic structure it sounds like you are just repeating yourself.
My solution to this works in 3 steps:
1. Improvise a solo starting all your phrases on upbeats. This is not easy to explain in written form so I recommend you watch the video on Blues guitar mistakes I made to explain this exercise in an easy way. Few suggestions: keep your phrases simples, and don’t worry too much if you are sounding too repetitive: this is just the first step.
2. Again, improvise a solo, but this time start one phrase on a downbeat, the next on an upbeat and so on. The idea here is to get accustomed in switching between the two with ease, so again keep your phrases simples and don’t worry if it sounds all the same.
3. Finally, start your phrases freely on either the downbeat or the upbeat without following a rigid scheme. The idea now is to try to keep the listeners surprised and engaged: when they expect a downbeat give them an upbeat and vice versa. If you can master this simple exercise then you are on your way to become a great improviser!
4. Playing always on the same position on the fretboard
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.
5. Always playing the same pentatonic/blues scale
The most popular scale to use on a Blues is the minor pentatonic/Blues scale (they are essentially the same scale). Now, I like my pentatonic scale as much as any other guy, but this does not stops me from noticing a number of problems with using this scale all the time. Two of them are:
1. The minor pentatonic/Blues scale is definitely overplayed, so much that many players think that this is the only possible option. Well, this is of course not true, there are a number of other scales that sound great on a Blues while still keeping the "Bluesy" flavour. You want to know what these other scales are, so that you can choose among them and be free to express yourself in original ways.
2. The minor pentatonic/Blues scale is actually not the correct scale for a Blues chord progression, and I don’t mean it in an "academic" way. Let me explain. No matter on what chord we are on the standard Blues progression, the minor pentatonic will always have at least one "wrong" note. Pro Blues players know that (either because they studied it or by ear) and avoid them. You may have heard that saying "it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play"? Well, the meaning of it it’s that you need to avoid these "wrong notes" otherwise your solo won’t "glue" to the chord progression.
Some things cannot be explained in writing...
... So I prepared a video for you where I present the mistakes we just talked about and show you how to work to overcome them. Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, it might be a good idea for you to have a look at this video on Blues guitar mistakes and make 100% sure that you are not making them too. Enjoy!
About The Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.