How to Take Your Blues Rhythm Skills to the Next Level

In this lesson, I'll show you how to make all of your riffs sound funky, sweet, forceful or any other emotion that you feel.

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John Frusciante, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan all share a few things. What is it? They are all respected players but what I wish to underline in this article is their skill to transmute their spirit into powerful rhythm playing.

Already attempted to play some funk-rock? Have you tried to make it sound good only to realize you're not able to do it correctly? The ingredients to make all of your riffs sound funky, sweet, forceful or any other emotion that you feel are essential to all guitar players out there.

In a previous article entitled "Variations in the Blues," we spiced up a regular blues progression and as a result we managed to create several great blues riffs by extending our alternatives a little further. The following tab perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about.

Let's take it one step at a time and focus on the first two measures you see laid out underneath.

Incorporating this style into your rhythm skills might be challenging when you start, but as soon as you ace this, it will massively improve your guitar playing as a whole. In "Variations in the Blues" I have already advised you to practice the examples at a slower pace in case you find yourself having trouble regarding your picking hand to perform the proper downstrokes and upstrokes. Never forget that practicing each motion separately will get you faster and better results. Do the same for the following, which is essentially the same riff but played at a slower speed:

If you are not acquainted with this type of rhythm playing you might run into some trouble with the rest of the strings you do not want to be ringing out. Approaching these riffs aggressively is essential to make them sound really great. Now, if you want to come across as someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you should really concentrate on muting the strings with the thumb and fingers of your left hand. It will take some time to get this technique down, but the time you put into it will reward you if your goal is to be able to rock out or become a great blues guitarist.

Although it might be challenging to learn this style, you do not have to worry. You will be guided step by step. Let's begin, shall we? Okay, why don't we first check out what you can practice if all of this is quite new to you.  Below are some exercises to get you started.

Exercises to Get You on Your Way to Play Great Rhythm Sections

Step 1

We are in the A minor pentatonic scale. All of the following notes on fret 5 will be played with the index finger. After you have done that, you can move on to using your other fingers as well. It will become more challenging when you proceed to playing the higher notes.

Step 2

Underneath you see the scale in order, so the following exercise is to practise playing it this way.

Step 3

We will now use this idea while playing it along with a blues shuffle. Concentrate on mastering the muting of the strings that are not being played by using one note at a time as you see below:

In order to get that famous shuffle rhythm down, perform the muted upstrokes on each upbeat. Don't forget to mute all of the strings while playing the upstroke. The following tab visualizes how to play the shuffle:

It is quite common that many players at an intermediate level tend to play this riff the boring way without muting the rest of the strings, thus failing to do it correctly. This is mainly due to the fact that the tab is not laid out as I have done here for you. Usually, the X's (i.e. the muted notes) are not shown in tabs.

Work Out Practice Routines to Make Your Rhythm Playing Sound Like a Professional

Where do we head to next? It's crucial to have a well-developed practice routine in order to reach your goal. Let's state that you are acquainted with the exercises, however, you still hear strings ringing out here and there that you would rather not hear. You might be getting a lot of this so let's practice on getting rid of it. In order to be a proficient guitar player, you must know that it could take a few months to get this technique down. Stay with me though, this is what you have to do for mastery.

Start playing 8th notes to a click track or a metronome. You may want to go back to the first exercise and play without the click if you're hearing a lot of unintentional string noise. Do it at your own pace or slow it down a bit! Yes, you can do this, all you have to do is focus! Start off with downstrokes then go back and just do upstrokes. After you have done this, move on to using both downstrokes and upstrokes. It's quite a workout but well worth your time.

An alternative possibility is practicing your standard blues shuffles and riffs with the muting technique. You will need to practice envisioning the X's in your head because they are not in the tabs listed underneath. Not adding the muting technique causes frustration among most of the guitar players, because they do not achieve an SRV sound and feel in their blues rhythm playing. The tabs don't show you how to get that energy into the shuffle. The magic is all in the muting.

Now revisit the "Variations in the Blues" article and go through all the examples with this muting technique.

Extend Your Creativity to Make Your Own Hot Blues Riffs 

Of course the main objective is to get as much as you can out of your technique and you want to do it in a way that sounds musical. A term I like to use is "creative application" and I assure you it is an efficient time investment.

You eventually desire to come up with your own blues riffs and incorporate the muting in them. The minor pentatonic scale is a great shape for practicing and getting some ideas from. The box shape is a very convenient shape for this kind of rhythmic style. You can always use other scales but focus on the minor pentatonic for now. You can add some notes from other scales too, but focus on staying within this scale.  

Hammer-ons, pull-offs, double stops, slides and vibrato are all ornaments you can be creative with. A lot of players improve their phrasing when they first start out by using these ornaments in their lead playing but fail to integrate these useful ideas into their rhythm playing.

Your rhythm playing will transform by incorporating these lead guitar techniques. Moreover, being able to play rhythm and lead with the muting technique we have discussed will give you the opportunity to impress anyone who will listen to your rhythm as well as your lead playing.

Utilize Dynamics in Your Blues Guitar to Play What You Feel

There are numerous dynamics and various sorts of feeling you can incorporate into your rhythm, ranging from soft playing to loud playing, aggressive playing to sweet playing or from a chunky sound to a funky sound. Muting the unwanted strings and not playing single string riffs will help you utilize the full range of dynamics so you're able to communicate better what you want to say through your guitar.

Hopefully this information has offered you some fresh ideas to use so that you can sound more and more like a professional. Don't restrict yourself to practicing this technique as it is important to be able to apply it to both your rhythm and lead guitar playing.

About the Author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitar teacher teaching locally from Belgium as well as online on his online blues guitar lessons website.

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