Have you ever wanted to learn how to play blues guitar licks like your favorite guitarists? Blues guitar players do have a lot of their own feel and personality when playing those expressive leads; however, there is a science behind how they make them. With a little bit of music theory and some technique advice, you can also learn how to make deep blues licks easily, and that’s what my guide will show you today.
Table of Contents
- Basic Scales For Blues Guitar Playing
- The Natural Minor Scale
- The Minor Pentatonic Scale
- The Blues Scale
- The Major Pentatonic Scale
- Techniques: Bending, Vibrato, Hammer-Ons/Pull-Offs, and Sliding
- Supplemental Resources
- 100 Classic Blues Licks for Guitar by Joseph Alexander and Pete Sklaroff
- Blues Guitar Licks & Solos by Jody Worrell
- YouTube Videos
Basic Scales For Blues Guitar Playing
How is the blues so easily identifiable? The answer is quite simple; other than common chord progressions and rhythms, blues guitar has its signature sound because it is typically based on these scales:
- Minor Pentatonic Scale
- The “Blues” Scale (Pentatonic Minor with an added flat-5th)
- Major Pentatonic Scale
Learning scales like these ones will be the bread-and-butter for creating your own blues guitar licks, and thankfully they’re a couple of the easiest ones to learn. In fact, these two scales are some of the first that a beginner player will learn, other than the major and minor scales of course.
These scales aren’t just useful for blues guitarists though! Some of the most iconic rock and metal guitar licks have been based on these scales, and they are fundamental for jazz guitar playing as well.
Let’s start by going over the Natural Minor scale, as it will make understanding the Minor Pentatonic easier and it will tie into the Blues scale effortlessly. As mentioned before, there will be some music theory involved, but I will also include tabs and diagrams so you can learn the basic patterns and follow along easier.
The Natural Minor Scale
The Minor Pentatonic is fundamental to blues guitar playing, and as you may have guessed, it only contains 5 notes, because of the word “Penta.”
This contrasts with the ordinary minor scale which contains 7 different notes. The natural minor scale is essential to know because the pentatonic is derived from it. To create a minor scale, you would use this formula, regardless of what key you are in:
Root → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step (Octave)
To illustrate this formula, here is a tab of the most basic minor scale shape and how it appears on the fretboard. In this case, it is a D-minor scale, but this is irrelevant, just focus your attention on the patterns and intervals of these:
As you may have noticed, the pattern repeats itself all across the fretboard, so you don’t need to be locked into just one spot. Learning your fretboard and where your guitar notes are is a useful skill to have, and I definitely encourage you to study it; however, for total beginners, learning basic shapes and patterns is just fine for now.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
If you, hopefully, have a solid understanding of how the minor scale is built, we can proceed and take a look at the pentatonic scale. Since there will only be 5 notes this time, we will be subtracting a couple of notes from the minor scale.
The notes that will be removed are the major second and the minor 6th intervals, and this is what we are left with:
Root → Whole and 1/2 Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole and 1/2 Step → Whole Step → Whole Step (Octave)
Take another whole step, and you’ll return to the root note or octave, If we stay in the same spot on the guitar and apply this formula this what the minor pentatonic scale looks like:
Just like the minor scale (and every scale for that matter), the minor pentatonic repeats itself over and over across the fretboard. Learning the patterns and what notes you need to use will allow you to navigate the fretboard easier and make some exciting blues guitar licks.
One mistake newer players make when learning scales is that they tend to box themselves in just one spot on the fretboard. The blues is all about feel and expression and being able to utilize all positions will open up many doors in the long-run for your guitar playing.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t always need to start on the root note when playing a lick in a particular key. You can actually start and end anywhere, as long as the correct notes are present in the scale you are trying to play. Since we’re working with D-minor pentatonic, here’s a lick that uses that scale:
The minor pentatonic scale is important for blues guitarists, and luckily, the information you just learned will carry over to this next one. It’ll probably be a breeze to understand!
The Blues Scale
If by listening to it, you thought that the minor pentatonic scale could stand to sound a little bit bluesier, you’d be right. That’s where the blues scale comes in!
The blues guitar scale is literally just the minor pentatonic scale with only one note added in, chromatically, between the fourth and fifth interval. You may call it an augmented fourth, or a diminished 5th, but you can just call it the “Blue note.”
Here’s what the formula is for the blues scale:
Root → Whole and 1/2 Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Half Step → Whole and 1/2 Step → Whole Step (Octave)
When translated into tablature and to a visual fretboard this is what the blues scale looks like, and since there’s only one new note added, it’s going to look very similar to the minor pentatonic:
The blues scale is the most vital scale you’ll need to have an understanding of, but knowing the others is crucial too. However, we are not quite done yet – there is one final scale you will need to add to your collection if you aspire to learn how to make creative blues guitar licks!
The Major Pentatonic Scale
Now that you’ve received the gist of how scales are built by checking out the previous ones, the last one we will go over is no different, except it is based on the major scale.
In case you didn’t know, the major scale is built by this formula:
Root → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step (Octave)
As with tradition, by using this formula, here is the tab and fretboard visualization for the major scale:
Like the natural minor scale and creating the minor pentatonic scale, the same concept of subtracting notes applies to this scale and the major pentatonic as well. We need 5 different notes, and the ones that will be removed will be the perfect fourth and the major 7th intervals. Doing so leaves us with this new formula and pattern to play with:
Root → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole and ½ Step → Whole Step → Whole and ½ Step (Octave)
The major pentatonic is the last of the most essential blues guitar scales that you will need to know. There are a few more out there can be used situationally, but these are all a beginner will need, and they will last you forever. While these scales are fundamental for blues guitar playing, there are also some techniques you should be mindful of as well.
Techniques: Bending, Vibrato, Hammer-Ons/Pull-Offs, and Sliding
It’s just not blues guitar if there aren’t any bends, slides, and vibrato applied to the notes. These guitar techniques are an important part of the expressive nature of blues guitar. Without them, the genre would sound plain and boring, to be honest.
There are plenty of ways to implement these in blues guitar licks. You can have very slow bends or rapid ones, and you can have a very wide vibrato, or you can make it very subtle. What’s more critical is the accuracy of your bends.
When you bend your strings, you will want to alter the pitch so that it stays in the scale that you are playing. Let’s take a look at a plain lick using the D blues scale first:
Pretty bland right? Let’s add a few bends and vibratos now:
With the half bends, it shifts the pitch up a half step, and a whole one will be one full step. Each of these bends stays true to the blues scale concerning pitches, and it sounds way more interesting than the previous lick!
Another type of bend that is commonly used in rock and blues guitar licks is the unison bend. This occurs when you hit two notes simultaneously, but the note you bend will ascend to the same pitch as the note that isn’t bent. Here’s a tab to help illustrate my point:
Even though you may find yourself full-bending with these a lot of the time, the rules of bending in pitch and staying in key still apply to unison bends. Besides, if you don’t bend to the correct pitch, you’ll know right away because it won’t match the pitch of the unbent notes.
With vibrato, you will always want to sound in control; otherwise, you might sound like an annoying mosquito. A fast vibrato isn’t bad per se, but if it lacks command, it will sound bad. Vibrato can be a personal thing, but to be great, you should pay attention to the feel of the song, especially the tempo.
Using hammer-ons and pull-offs,(also known as legato), are very handy techniques because they can make your blues licks sound smooth and fluid. Instead of picking every note, you can use your fretting hand alone to sound the note, and that’s how it sounds smoothed out at times. Here’s a blues lick that uses this technique:
Hammer-ons and pull-offs can also facilitate faster guitar playing in beginners if the picking hand isn’t quite up to speed yet. I remember that I used to use them a lot when I first started playing guitar. Nowadays, I am able to pick quickly, but my experience with using a lot of legato runs allows me to include them effortlessly.
Finally, sliding to notes is pretty straightforward, self-explanatory, and are pretty hard to mess up, in my opinion. However, using slides can add a lot of flavor to a plain blues guitar lick. Like anything else though, you should still practice them, especially when trying to incorporate them with multiple techniques.
I know that making your own blues guitars lick is the whole point of this guide, but finding inspiration or learning other people’s licks can help spark the drive and creativity in you to come up with great guitar leads on your own.
Every great musician who has ever existed has been influenced by someone else, and sometimes that means learning from others. In this section, I will recommend some books and other resources that will spice up your blues guitar playing if you are a beginner.
I’ve previously done a brief review about one of Joseph Alexander’s works in my article about the best music theory books for guitarists, and with this blues licks book, I can say that I’ve been happy with his work thus far. He’s a great author, who is able to explain things concisely.
What I really appreciated about this music book was that there were so many artists mentioned that I’ve never even heard of. I primarily play metal guitar, but the genre has its roots in the blues, so learning licks from the greats have added something positive to my playing and made my leads tastier.
With each artist, he gives you a history lesson, explains the music theory behind the parts and also provides the corresponding chords that they should be played over. Some of the approaches have been demonstrated in this guide already, but there are some more advanced things there too. If you don’t understand everything he is talking about, it’s fine, as you can still learn the licks from the tabs.
Knowing the other information about the blues licks is useful as it does give you context as to which they are played, but as mentioned before, you can definitely learn a lot without it and take your leads to the next level. Also, audio tracks to go along with the book can be found on the author’s website, http://www.fundamental-changes.com/download-audio. You’ll find these useful.
This book doesn’t have as many examples like the previous one, but it still has a lot of good information that can improve your own blues guitar playing.
While there are only 12 different licks shown in this book, it emphasizes how they should be applied to chord progressions. Blues licks and solos are just one part of the equation – there’s always chords and rhythm that are equally as important.
Besides key signatures, chords are crucial since they tell the musician what notes should be played. They provide the setting, so to speak, and many guitarists construct their solos strictly based on the chord progression that they are using, and in blues, it’s often a 12-bar progression. It’s usually not the other way around, and the chords aren’t laid down retroactively.
Having jam tracks to play over is an awesome training tool, and with this instructional, you receive enough to accompany the licks. There is also a lot of video instruction which gives you another avenue to learn from aside from just reading and listening.
Although YouTube was around a few years after I started playing the guitar, I wish that I had this amazing resource when I was a total beginner!
You can find plenty of information about just about anything related to guitar on it, and there’s a ton of stuff about blues guitar licks.
The best part about YouTube lessons is that they are absolutely free and these days, are often made with great quality. The only drawback with them is that unless a series is made, sometimes, a short video can feel incomplete compared to a book or article.
Nonetheless, it’s still valuable information that doesn’t cost you anything; might as well use it to your advantage, right?
Due to its simplistic origins, I have my doubts that there was this much thought put into the conception of blues music. However, even though there are some specific theory and techniques involved the genre, it’s still one of the most accessible ways to start playing the guitar though.
In my opinion, it’s nice that the blues can be narrowed down to a science because it allows more and more people to pick it up. Although it does have a lot of heart and soul, a guitarist can learn specific scales and start making decent blues guitar licks.
In this guide, I showed you some of these essential scales and talked about technique so you can learn what goes into the creation of these licks and start making them too.
If you are a beginner, study these scales, learn how they can be played across the fretboard, and apply them to some backing tracks. You now have the tools available to you to start becoming a great blues guitarist, but like everything else, it will take some dedication and practice to get there.