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5 Fundamental Tips for Playing Blues Guitar

basic blues guitar tips

As you are developing your skills as a blues guitarist, you will at some point hit a plateau and feel that your progress has slowed or even stopped. This is perfectly normal while learning any instrument, so it’s important to develop some ways to work through the rut. Take it as an opportunity to re-think some common assumptions about what and how to practice - here are a few tips that are covered in various lessons from the Blues Guitar School by Keith Wyatt:

1. Swing is the Thing

Guitar players tend to rush right to the bright, shiny object, i.e. the solo, but to paraphrase Duke Ellington, your licks don’t mean a thing without that swing. Developing a confident rhythm feel, especially for the shuffle, is the foundation of everything else you do in blues, and expanding your rhythmic vocabulary is one of the best ways to re-charge your playing style.

basic blues guitar tips 2

2. Songs, Not Scales

If your solos are all starting to sound alike, look at soloing from a different perspective - not as a collection of generic licks or patterns, but as something that is tailored to a specific song. Instead of jamming on a one-size-fits-all shuffle, pick a blues classic from Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, or whoever and listen to the words, think about the message, learn the vocal melody on your guitar, and then create a solo that reflects those elements.

3. Vocalize

Vocalization is the practice of simultaneously singing your phrases and playing them on the guitar, and it’s the secret weapon employed by many of the greatest blues guitarists (check out videos of Albert Collins). Vocalizing breaks you out of the “finger wiggling” rut by putting your ear in charge. Don’t worry about pitch - whether you hum or moan, it’s essentially about using your breathing to connect your phrasing to the rhythm and your ears to your fingers. Less notes, more music.

4. Ears, not Eyes

Muddy Waters learned to play Robert Johnson songs by cranking up his Victrola and dropping the needle until the record wore out. If your first impulse in learning a solo is to search for tabs, you’re shortchanging your most valuable asset as a musician - your ears. Sure it’s frustrating at first to grind through a solo by ear, but it gets easier with experience. If you use tabs at all, treat them only as a second opinion and even then take them with a grain of salt - the author is only guessing too.

5. Beg, Borrow, and Steal

Every great blues stylist is a master thief who learned by listening to and copying (i.e. stealing) from their inspirations. The best way to climb out of a rut is not to practice more scales, but to learn a great solo. “Honky Tonk,” “Hide Away,” “Okie Dokie Stomp” - those and many more like them contain phrases that can be broken down and used everywhere.

Go Deeper: Check out Keith Wyatt's list of essential blues guitarists here!

blues guitar lessons with keith wyatt
Keith Wyatt can teach you everything you need to know about blues guitar. Click here for free sample lessons!

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