Solo Guitar – Blues Licks and Solos

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I have one bit tonight that I do – I’ll mull over what I’m going to do when it’s my turn. But Eric doesn’t even think. Jump on him at any time, say ‘Go!’ and he’ll take you to another level. Then if you say ‘Once more,’ he’ll take you even higher.
- Andy Fairweather-Low, 2001

Introduction

T-Bone

T-Bone Walker

When you start playing solos and thinking of the architecture of a solo, how to build up and release tension and all these things, you need a basic set of Blues licks to start with. A lick contains a few notes which belong together like words in a sentence and have special meaning or express a certain feeling. In a solo you can use all these licks as a base, combining them and using additional notes. “Steal” what you like, from different musicians or different styles, and put it together playing it in your own way – this is standard in Blues music. It’s good to have a big repertoire of licks for each situation, so that you can instantly start playing and tell the audience what you want to tell. Once again – compare it to learning a language like a kid, starting without thinking of grammar, just learning to combine words so that others understand what you’re meaning. This is quite different than most other guitar styles, where you start with learning a scale and then play ready-made songs from a sheet of paper. A good Blues guitar player doesn’t need to be fast – he needs to know when to play which note like a good storyteller without a book.

When I wrote this, I was a beginner myself, back in 1996. In the meanwhile there are lots of tutorial web sites and many videos on youtube about playing a solo. But this tutorial is still valid, complete and free. Use what you like.

So much for the introduction, now let us begin…

At first, listen to the intervals of the Blues scale:

perfect unison – minor third – perfect fourth – perfect fifth – minor seventh
and the diminished fifth as the “blue note”

Just play the root note followed by the interval note above – simply the Blues scale we discussed before in a way to compare root note and interval note. You’ll find “strong” and “weak” intervals you can use for the solo. Then proceed taking the other notes and compare them. This is your basic material. Now build up a “Blues lick starter kit”, using the following licks and taking more from the songs discussed on this site.

Remember that when you are playing a Blues solo, you still use the I-IV-V chord progression (or in general the chord progression of the song). Start with playing around the corresponding notes, for example in the key of E:

during the I: E(7)
during the IV: A7
during the V: B7

The notes using first minor pentatonic pattern in E, 12th fret, a mixture of tab and fretboard view:

I--12------15--I--12-----------I--------------------I-----------------I--E------G-------I
I--12------15--I---------------I--------------------I--12-------------I--B------D-------I
I--12--14------I---------------I------14------------I-----------------I--G--A-----------I
I--12--14------I------14-------I--------------------I-----------------I--D--E-----------I
I--12--14------I---------------I--12----------------I------14---------I--A--B-----------I
I--12------15--I--12-----------I--------------------I-----------------I--E------G-------I
   all notes     I (tonic, E)   IV (subdominant, A)   V (dominant, B)    the notes

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To understand it better let’s play something in the first minor pentatonic pattern, 12th fret. Use a 12 bar Blues song for the background or stamp the rhythm with your feet. It’s very very simple, just to explain how it works! We start with a classic 12 bar Blues, 4 measures of I (tonic, E):

  I                    I                      I                    I
I--------------------I----------------------I----------12--12~~--I-15p12----12-------I
I--------------------I----------------------I--15b(17)-----------I-------15----15/17-I
I--------12b---------I----------12b---------I--------------------I-------------------I
I-14-14--------------I-12h14-14-------------I--------------------I-------------------I
I--------------------I----------------------I--------------------I-------------------I
I--------------------I----------------------I--------------------I-------------------I
         1                       2                     3                    4

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followed by two measures IV (subdominant, A) and two measures I (tonic, E)

  IV                   IV                     I                  I
I--------------------I----------------------I------------------I---------------------I
I--------------------I----------------------I------------------I---------------------I
I----12--14-14~~-----I--14b15rb14-12-14-14--I------------------I---------------------I
I-14-----------------I----------------------I--12h14-14~~~-----I-----12----12-14-14--I
I--------------------I----------------------I------------------I--14----14-----------I
I--------------------I----------------------I------------------I---------------------I
           5                    6                       7                    8

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then 1 measure V (dominant, B), 1 measure IV (subdominant, A), and finally 1 measure I (tonic, E) and 1 measure V (dominant, B, the turnaround)

  V                    IV                     I                     V
I--------------------I----------------------I---------------------I------------------I
I---------12-12------I-12-12----------------I---------------------I------------------I
I-14b(16)------------I-------15-14-14\------I---------------------I------------------I
I--------------------I----------------------I----12----12-14-14---I--14--------------I
I--------------------I----------------------I-14----14------------I-----12-13-14-14--I
I--------------------I----------------------I---------------------I------------------I
          9                     10                   11                    12

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You can also use a simple backing track from the free backtrack generator (use default settings: key E, 12 bars, 90 bpm) to play along and stay in time.

A typical Blues opening – step by step


Scale: A minor pentatonic at the 5th fret.

Played for example on
Have You Ever Loved A Woman, Groaning The Blues or Double Trouble (in C)
Like many intros an ascending lick into the root note (here: A). Let’s start quite simple with the basic notes (taken from the A minor chord):

 I------5-5---------------I
 I----5-------------------I
 I--7---------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

OK, sounds like nothing.
No Mississippi Delta, no Chicago Blues club, nothing.
We add a full-tone bending:

 I-----------5-5----------I
 I---------5--------------I
 I---7b(9)----------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

Much better, isn’t it? The beginning of the lick is OK now, but the end is still boring.
We add a vibrato at the end:

 I----------5-5~~---------I
 I--------5---------------I
 I--7b(9)-----------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

Better, but still not breathtaking. Now we add a slide:

 I---------5--------------I
 I-------5---8/10~~-------I
 I-7b(9)------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

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and the lick is almost complete!
Take a closer look: the licks starts ascending with a bend from the note on the G-string into the note with the same pitch of the B-string, and the lick ends with a slide on the B-string into the root note, picked before on the E-string.

The other way is to replace the slide with a second bending, more difficult to play than the previous lick, bending with vibrato at the same time:

 I---------5--------------I
 I-------5---8b(10)~~-----I
 I-7b(9)------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

Yeah, that’s it. The notes between. Now keep on Groaning The Blues – From The Cradle:

I----------5---------8-10-(12)rb10-8-----------------------5~~~---I
I--------5---7/10~~------------------10-10~~----------------------I
I--7b(9)---------------------------------------7br--p5------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------7---------I
I--root--------root------------------root------------------root---I
I-----------------------------------------------------------------I

Another Example: Variations Of A well Known Lick

One of most popular Blues rock licks in history is the intro of Eric Clapton’s Layla. It is a copy, that’s no secret: Duane Allman borrowed it from Albert King’s “As The Years Go Passing By” from his 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign. It is the verse “There is nothin’ I can do”.

I--------10h13p10----10~~--I
I--10h13----------13-------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I

Now play it slowly without hammer-ons and pull-offs and listen. Than compare it to the original lyrics and you’ll hear that it just that: it sounds desperate, helpless, hopeless. The complete verse is:

There is nothing I can do, if you leave me, with a cry
Baby my love will follow you, as the years go passing by

If you analyze it you’ll see that it’s a very simple minor pentatonic lick starting with the dominant and ending with the root note. Including a note from the major scale makes is sound less dramatic:

I--------10-12-10----10~~--I
I--10-13----------13-------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I

Below you’ll see a section of the D minor pentatonic (10th fret), with root notes (red), blue notes (blue) and additional gray notes form the major pentatonic:

D minor Blues scale

D minor Blues scale

Now it’s time to try some variations and find out how they sound. For example:

I--------10-13-15-13-10~~--I
I--10-13-------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------10----10----10----I
I--10-13----13----13-------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------13-10-------10----I
I--10-13-------13-10-------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I
I--------------------------I

Or something like:

I--------10-13-10-------I-------I
I--10-13----------13-10-I-------I
I-----------------------I-10----I
I-----------------------I----12-I
I-----------------------I-------I
I-----------------------I-------I
I--------10-13-10----15-I-13-10-I
I--10-13----------13----I-------I
I-----------------------I-------I
I-----------------------I-------I
I-----------------------I-------I
I-----------------------I-------I

As you see there are some differences, but as long as the first and last note are the same, the main theme is similar. The last examples end on a different note and need to be continued, like in the second bar.

Timing

When you start playing you should try to be in time with the rhythm. This is essential, playing off-beat (faster and slower) all the time is nerving. Don’t try to play fast if you can’t play it clean. However, if you’re getting better and miss the magic of the great Blues artists although your playing is solid you have to work on your timing again. Usually a drummer cares for the rhythm. Good drummers are able to add “off beat beats” that sound great. Guitar players can do this, too – by adding a small pause just before the note actually starts. Everyone expects the note – virtually hearing it – but there is none. Just when the brain notices that it’s missing you have to play it, this releases the tension and sounds so good. Most Blues players are a master of this technique: playing behind the beat. In the example above the root note we go up to in the very beginning is a good choice – just play it a bit “too late”…

Short example

Let’s play a short “virtual EC-style” solo. We play at the 1st fingering pattern of the E scale at the 12th fret, starting from E (root note) with a variation of the ascending lick above. Then we add a note from the major scale with a bending into the next minor. We close the solo with a descending lick including a release bend and end again on the root note E:
I------------12------------12~~~-12-14b(15)rb14~~~-12-14-(15)rb14-12----------------I
I---------12----12-15b(17)----------------------------------------------------------I
I-14b(16)------------------------------------------------------------14b(16)rb14----I
I-root-------------bend into root---major-scale-------------------root------release-I
I-----------------------------------note------------------------------------bend----I
I-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------I

I-------------------I
I-------------------I
I--p12--------------I
I------14-12-14~~~--I
I------------root---I
I-------------------I

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The “mixed E minor and major pentatonic Blues scale” for this solo:

E-Scale

A good way to learn how to put more feeling into your sound is trying to sound like a voice. Let’s have a look at two examples, nearly identical except the last note. The first lick uses only the minor pentatonic ending with the root note. The vocal for this part could be something like “My baby left me, I cried all night”. We play in the key of E, 12th fret.

I-----15b(17)-12------------12---------------------------I
I--12------------12-15b(17)------------------------------I
I---------------------------root---14br-p12----12--------I
I-------------------------------------------14-----14~~~-I
I--------------------------------------------------------I
I--------------------------------------------------root--I

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The next example ends with a note from the major scale. This gives a different color to this lick. The same vocal as above now sounds really like a question: “My baby left me, what going on?”. This lick has an open end, it needs to be continued. If we use the A-A-B Blues structure, now part B must follow like “If she can’t make it, yeah, her sister Betty will do…”

I-----15b(17)-12------------12---------------------------I
I--12------------12-15b(17)------------------------------I
I---------------------------root---14br-p12----12--13~~--I
I-------------------------------------------14-----major-I
I--------------------------------------------------scale-I
I--------------------------------------------------note--I

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You can generate MIDI backing tracks online to jam to using the Jamtrack generator.

Decades of EC-licks – a lick library

Below you’ll find some often used Blues licks in various keys. Most of them are discussed on the page for that certain song. Although all pentatonic licks can be played in the I, IV and V position you should find out where to use them by simply analysing which notes are important – see above.

Intro of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom / EC and the Yardbirds:

                        E        G A  E
I-----------------------0--0--0--3-5--0------I
I------3----------------0--0--0--3-5--0------I
I-/2h4---4p2p0----------1--1--1--4-6--1------I
I---------------2-0-2---2--2--2--5-7--2------I
I-----------------------2--2--2--5-7--2------I
I-----------------------0--0--0--3-5--0------I

All Your Love from Otis Rush – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers featuring EC (Beano)

I-5/----------------------5/--------------------5/--------------------------I
I-5/----------------------5/--------------------5/--------------------------I
I-5/--7b(9)rb7p5---5------5/-7b(9)rb7p5---5-----5/-7b(9)rb7p5---5h7~~-etc---I
I----------------7---7~~~---------------7---7~~---------------7-------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I

and the solo of this song, with much distortion, do not mute the strings:

I----------12----------12------------------------12---------5------------I
I----13----------13------------------------13----------13---6------------I
I-14----14----14----14----14~~~--repeat-14----14----14------7-repeat 1st-I
I------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------------------------------------I

I-----------12--------7-7\5-8--------------I
I-----13----------13--8-8\6-6--------------I
I--14----14----14-----9-9\7-7-8br5---------I
I-----------------------------------7p5h~--I
I------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------I

Crossroads – Cream

 I--------5---------------I
 I------5---8-5-----------I
 I--5h6---------7-5-7-----I
 I--------------------5~~-I
 I------------------------I
 I------------------------I

Sunshine of your love – Cream

I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-12-12-10-12--------------------12-12-10-12--------------------------------I
I-------------12-11-10----8b~----------------12-11-10----8h10p8-------------I
I----------------------10----10-----------------------10--------10----------I

Willie Dixons Spoonful – Cream (very intense wrist vibrato!)

I------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----8~~---8~~---8~~---------8b---10b(12)rb10p8---8~~-------I
I-7-9-----9-----9-----9~--7h9----9---------------9-----9-----I
I------------------------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------------------------I
later:
I---------------------------------I
I---------------------------------I
I---------------------------------I
I-0h2-2-2-2-2-2-2-0---------------I
I-------------------2-1-0---------I
I-------------------------3b-0----I

Cream live II – improvisations

I------------10------13h15----13b----15b-15b-13-15----13b-------------------I
I---------10----/15--------15-----15---------------15-----15--13----13-15~~-I
I--12b(14)-------------------------------------------------------14---------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I

Goin’ into the 70′s – Derek and the Dominos with “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out”

I----------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----13-13-15b(17)-15b(17)-15b(17)-15b(17)-15b(17)rb15p13--------11b-11b-11-I
I-/14------------------------------------------------------14-14~------------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------------------I

I----------8-----------------------------------I
I--------8---11-8------------------------------I
I-10b(12)---------10b(12)rb10-8----------------I
I-------------------------------10~~-----------I
I-------------------------------------8-9-10~--I
I----------------------------------------------I

From the intro of Why does love got to be so sad – Derek and the Dominos, ultimate guitar work together with Duane Allman

I------------------------------10b-------------------10b--------------------I
I------------------10~~--12~~------12-12-10-12----10-----12-12-10-12-...----I
I-------7-9--9/11------------------------------11---------------------------I
I-7h9~~---------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------I

All time standard EC Blues licks:

For the A Blues scale:

 I----------I    I--5-8-5h8p5---5-I   I---------I
 I----------I    I--5---------8---I   I--5/7\5--I
 I--7br-5---I    I----------------I   I---------I
 I--------7-I    I----------------I   I--5/7\5--I
 I----------I    I----------------I   I---------I
 I----------I    I----------------I   I---------I

For the E Blues scale:

 I----------12-15b(17)-12----15b(17)-12---------12--I
 I-------12---------------12------------12-15~~-----I
 I---14b--------------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------------------------------I

 I----------------------------------------I
 I----------------------------------------I
 I--14b(16)rb14-p12----14-----12h13-------I
 I------------------14----14--------14----I
 I-------------------------------------14-I
 I----------------------------------------I

Some repeating patterns EC often uses

Repeating patterns are short runs, which are repeated several times. You can vary speed, sound and volume and use them as a part of your solos.

 I------5-----5-----5-----5-I   I--8p5---8p5---8p5---8p5---8p5---8p5----I
 I--5h7---5h7---5h7---5h7---I   I------5-----5-----5-----5-----5-----5--I
 I--------------------------I   I---------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------I   I---------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------I   I---------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------I   I---------------------------------------I

 I-----------------------------------------------------I
 I-----12-15-12-----12-15-12-----12-15-12-----12-15-12-I
 I-14b----------14b----------14b----------14b----------I
 I-----------------------------------------------------I
 I-----------------------------------------------------I
 I-----------------------------------------------------I

 I--------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------------------I
 I----12-14-14br-p12----12-14-14br-p12--I
 I-14----------------14-----------------I
 I--------------------------------------I
 I--------------------------------------I

 I--12h15----12h15----------I
 I--------15-------15---...-I
 I--------------------------I
 I--------------------------I
 I--------------------------I
 I--------------------------I

Intros

Malted Milk (E)

 I-----12-12-12-12----12-----I---5-5--5-5-I
 I---------------------------I---4-4--4-4-I
 I---------------------------I---4-4--4-4-I
 I--12----12-11----11-10--9~-I-4-----4--4-I
 I---------------------------I------------I
 I---------------------------I------------I

Key to the Highway (A)

 I--12--12--12--12---------------I
 I--12b-12b-12b-12b--------------I
 I--------------------0tr1......-I
 I-------------------------------I
 I-------------------------------I
 I------------------0------------I

Layla (electric)

 I-----------------I------------I
 I-----------------I------------I
 I-------7h10r7----I-7~~--------I
 I--7-10--------10-I------------I
 I-----------------I------------I
 I-----------------I------------I

Layla unplugged (slow acoustic shuffle)

 D5         Bb        C       D5
 I--------I------------I------------I
 I--------I-3----3-3---I-5-5-5---3--I
 I------2-I-2--3-3-3---I-5-5-5---2--I
 I------0-I----3-3-3---I-5-5-5-0----I
 I--0h3---I--3-1-----3-I-----3------I
 I--------I------------I------------I

(Tip: play the bass notes first, then try the chords D5-Bb-C-D5 and then try picking!)