Playing the guitar: Electric blues guitar

Stuart Ryan on three different blues styles, with fretting and muting techniques to refine your sound

There are many different forms of blues: the Delta style of Robert Johnson, the hard Chicago blues of Buddy Guy, the Texas swagger of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the psychedelic blues rock of Jimi Hendrix. Add to that list the British blues invasion of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and the modern, stripped-down blues rock of the Raconteurs and White Stripes and you'll begin to appreciate how rich a form of music the blues is.

From the Mississippi porch picker of the 1920s to the stadium blues-rock god of the 1970s, any artist involved with the blues will have at their heart its structure - the famous "12-bar blues" - while the language of any self-respecting blues player is still spoken through the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale. And, of course, it helps if you can throw in a shoulder-crushing weight of pain ...

Classic blues style

For the classic blues rhythm and solo TABs click here

This first example is a homage to the three Kings - BB, Freddie and Albert. This "slow blues" has a lot of space and relies on phrasing: the techniques you use to shape a note and its delivery. We are not looking for speed here; the skill is in the ability to control each note and make it mean something.

To this end, you will find bends (pushing the string up or down to reach a higher pitch, often described as emulating a human cry), vibrato (subtly shaking a note as if it were "crying") and hammer-ons and pull-offs (both techniques involve sounding a note with the fretting hand without picking the string).

The guitar in these examples is recorded with a "clean" tone - there is no distortion. The first 12 bars reference the great BB King, an artist so distinctive in his playing and touch that aficionados can recognise him from just one note. Experiment with your vibrato on these notes and pick hard and soft to see how the different inflections affect the tone.

Rhythm backing track

Each blues piece has an accompanying extended backing track for you to practise soloing over (you can listen to these at, with guitars and bass performed by me and drums by James Hester of Malakai). This first backing track is quite straightforward to play, a simple combination of power chords and short bass runs.

The solo: bar 1

We go straight into vibrato, and there are two challenges here: to add the correct amount of vibrato, and to keep the note sustaining.

Bar 6

The first bend. Have a good listen to the audio to hear the pitch you are aiming for. A useful tip is to reinforce the bend - fret the note with your ring finger, and then place the index and middle fingers on the frets behind it to add more stability and strength.

Texas shuffle

For the Texas shuffle TABs click here

This example is influenced by Texan guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you're unfamiliar with his name, but have heard David Bowie's Let's Dance then you will have already encountered Vaughan's fluid, powerful licks. This is a shuffle, and as such there is a sense of laid-back swagger and swing to it. The music has a triplet feel and perhaps the easiest way to master this is to count "Da Ba Da" in a group of three even notes. The guitar tones are again heavy, although you can use a lighter overdrive (see amp instructions) for this style. The guitar solo contains "doublestops" (two notes played on two strings simultaneously) and triplet licks, which emphasise the rhythmic foundation and fill out the sound.

The hardest aspect of this style, apart from the fiery licks, is achieving the relaxed, almost lazy feel. Aim to play just behind the beat but not so much so that you are out of time. This is much harder than it sounds and it is well worth playing with a metronome and listening to the masters to hear how it is done.

Rhythm backing track

Again, the rhythm track is fairly simple, but remember the lazy, triplet feel that makes it seem like it is almost behind the beat.

Guitar solo 1: bar 1

These first three bars are designed to test your doublestops and rhythmic feel - triplets throughout (remember, count "Da Ba Da") and you can be quite aggressive with the picking. Follow the pick directions for best results.

Bars 5 and 6

This sequence is tricky. First, you have to contend with one note staying in place (fret 15, string 2) while the other notes move around it. Then in the next bar you have "unison bends" - you need to bend fret 14 of string 3 up a whole tone so it matches the note on fret 12, string 2, both played simultaneously.

Guitar solo 2: bar 1

We move from the minor pentatonic scale into the major pentatonic scale here. Listen to how the sound becomes brighter and happier.

For audio accompaniment, go to

Vintage British blues

For the vintage British blues TABs click here

This second example is a tribute to the British blues invasion of the 1960s as pioneered by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, and shows how blues is at the heart of rock guitar.

The first thing you will notice about the backing track are the more raucous guitar tones compared with example 1. We are in heavy amplifier overdrive here, a sound typically obtained by turning a valve (or tube as they are known in the US) amplifier to its maximum volume and letting it sing. For practising at home, a good overdrive pedal will help you achieve this sound at far less than tinnitus-inducing volumes.

Although this example uses the same techniques as the classic blues-style piece, the sound here is more fiery, as if the music is on the verge of exploding from your speakers.

The vibrato is very "wide" or fast, so shake the notes furiously. The hammer-ons and pull-offs are used in faster flurries of notes so build up to these slowly and ensure that all the notes are played cleanly and in time.

Playing quietly at home is quite different to playing loud in a rehearsal room or gig venue. One of the most noticeable differences is that the guitar sound can seem difficult to control, with all manner of noise fighting with what you actually want to hear.

Generally, unwanted noise from the strings below those you're playing are the picking hand's role to sort out, whereas stray noise from the strings above those you're playing are primarily the fretting hand's role to fix.

Muting with the picking hand

Much unwanted string noise can be eradicated by resting the palm on strings lower than those you're playing. For example, if you're playing the first string (the thinnest string), rest the picking hand's palm on the lower strings (ideally up to the second string; if this is not possible, the third string) so these won't sound accidentally.

Remember, thick strings can be louder than thin strings so are more likely to induce feedback. Mute these and noise can be substantially reduced.

A less commonly used technique that can make your playing even cleaner is to rest one or two picking hand fingers on strings higher than those being picked to mute them. This is ideal in combination with palm muting when sustaining fretted notes with wide vibrato applied or lengthy single-string legato licks.

Muting with the fretting hand

Rest the underside of a fretting hand finger to mute strings higher than those you're fretting. For example, if you're fretting the fifth fret of the third string with your first finger, you can use the underside of this finger to mute the second and first strings. You can mute strings with any spare fingers not being used for notes or chords.

Some rock guitarists don't fret with their fingertips when playing single notes. Instead, they prefer to use more of the fingerpad, thus freeing up the finger up to "stub" against the next lowest string.

It's a balancing act, though - the best tone for a note is often reached with fingertip fretting.

Rhythm track

The backing track is heavily influenced by Cream, and it is worth bearing in mind that while we are focusing on guitars, the blues benefits from a good rhythm section. Notice how, while the guitar is playing a simple 12-bar blues, the bass and drums are propelling the music forward, adding extra swagger. It's not all about the lead guitarist.

This is one of the variations of the classic "12-bar blues". Every guitarist should have a number of these in their collection, so when you have this one down, learn a few more - or even better, come up with some of your own. Remember to palm mute the strings throughout, though - this helps to get that authentic, heavy sound.

Guitar solo 1: bar 1

Doublestops with a fast, wide vibrato - don't be afraid to shake these notes to oblivion.

Bar 2

A strong phrasing device in blues guitar is the quarter note bend, also referred to as a "blues curl". This involves slightly pushing the string (or strings) up or down, and is signified on the notation by an arrow curving upwards towards a symbol.

Bars 5 and 6

The speed is the challenge here with the added complication of the hammer-ons on string 3, frets 12-14. Start with the index finger on fret 12 of string 3, hammer-on to fret 14 of this string with the third finger, and then quickly place the index finger on strings 1 and 2 and fret 12. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

Guitar solo 2: bar 1

A good opportunity to practise your "doublestops" here - two notes on adjacent strings played simultaneously. I would suggest laying the index finger on your fretting hand on to the strings for both these notes.

Bar 5

Things get a bit wild here - there is a fast vibrato (literally "shaking the notes") which serves to make the notes "scream" a bit more. Also these two notes are particularly "dissonant" - we are playing what is known as the interval of a flat fifth whose demonic sound saw it once referred to as the "Diabolicus in musica" (Devil in music). In fact, in mediaeval times its use was once outlawed. However, for the intro of Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix went for bust with a riff based around a flat fifth and a Marshall set to explode! Used carefully, such dissonance can give music a very cool edge (or lose you friends, depending on where you play it).

Bar 9 - end

This final section shows the use of a "sequence". This is the same musical device transposed to fit each chord, a great tool for when you want to expand an idea (or run out of ideas) or give some cohesion and unity to a solo.

For audio accompaniments go to

Stuart Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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