Solo Guitar – Blues Techniques

“I thought it would be in a key, and it would have a tempo – I didn’t realize that the detail was important. […] And that’s what I learnt very quickly with him.”
– EC about playing with Sonny Boy williamson, interview by P. Guralnick [1]

“I am very limited in my technique, really, so what matters in my playing is the simplicity of it and that it gets to the point. Rather than playing around everything. (…) It’s not what is said but how it’s said. Not how much is said, but the way it’s said.”
– A conversation with Eric Clapton (1990) by P. Guralnick [1]

To play Blues guitar solos, you need some important guitar techniques. These are sometimes quite different from those in classical (nylon string) guitar playing.
Typical techniques for Blues playing are:

  • string bending
  • vibrato
  • slide


Useful are also:

  • hammer-ons
  • pull-offs
  • other techniques like raking

When you play Blues guitar, especially electric guitar, you have to leave the “classical” way of playing your guitar. Classical and flamenco guitar players play a lot of barre chords even while soloing. They play acoustic nylon string guitars with wide fretboard, there is much space between the strings. They usually don’t bend a string very much, and they use mostly only one kind of vibrato, moving the finger parallel to the fretboard. So the classical way, where the thumb stays in the middle of the neck backside, is the best solution for them.

If you play Blues on steel string guitars, things are different. The fretboard is narrower, there is not much space between the strings. Intense vibrato and full-tone bends can’t be played with a fixed thumb on the backside of the neck. You need your thumb as a kind of counterbalance if you bend the string. So don’t worry if a “guitar expert” is telling you that you play a wrong technique. That doesn’t mean there’s no “wrong” at all, it’s just different to fit the needs. Holding your guitar so that you have full control over it without being cramped is still important. Being able to play a barre chord over all strings, too.

Vibrato

This is an essential Blues technique, it can make a short solo (“fill”) with only one note (just listen to BB King, “the kind of vibrato you would die for” in the words of EC ). Vibrato means that the pitch (not the volume!) of a note is slightly changed to a higher pitch and then back to its original pitch (with a classical vibrato even slightly below the original pitch) by changing the tension of the string. There are different methods to get a vibrato. Pick a note, pressed with your index finger (at first, later try your other fingers) and then:

  • Move your hand parallel to the fretboard: classical vibrato. This one works good on nylon strings.
  • Combine bend and release bend. It will generate a very intense, slow finger vibrato.
  • Turn the hand at the wrist back and forth, your arm is the axis. It will generate a fast and intense vibrato as played by BB King (also called “hummingbird” or “pivot”-vibrato). This wrist vibrato is the most difficult vibrato! B.B. plays it without the thumb on the backside of the neck.
  • EC vibrato: like the second, but release the thumb/hand totally from the neck. The only contact with the neck is the finger which does the vibrato with the elbow as the turning point. Very strong vibrato. You have to stabilize your guitar with your right arm or otherwise.
  • Guitars with high string action can be used to generate a vibrato by varying the pressure to the strings.
  • Some rock guitar players shake the whole guitar to get a vibrato, bend the neck (ouch) or use the wammy bar. Hmmm, if you like it…

Audio example (MP3): Vibrato

Note that the vibrato must be in time with the music, more exact: the beat. You can often hear rock guitar players doing a vibrato that is quite intense, but complete off-beat – it sounds awful. If you have some routine with bending and vibrato, than go to the master class: bend the string and than put a wrist vibrato on it. To be able to control this you ned to build up some finger strengths, this take some time. Don’t use too thick strings in the beginning, 009’s or 008ths are OK.

If you like to put some vibrato on open strings: press and release the string at the headstock of your guitar, just before the tuning pegs.

String bending

This is “the” technique for Blues guitar, especially for electric Blues guitar. String bending means that you bend the string up (G-B-E) or down (bass strings) to get another tone pitch (for those who play the guitar upside down it’s the opposite direction…). This way you can produce any pitch – it’s something a piano or most other instruments can’t do. There are different stories (more or less true) how it became a guitar technique.

For example, B.B. King tried to get the sound of the slide guitar players from the Mississippi Delta.

There are quarter tone, half tone, full tone, etc. bends and bends “between”. The problem is to get the right tone pitch, otherwise it sounds like you hit the tail of a cat. Let’s start with the A-scale (5th fret). Press down the B-string at the 5th fret with your index finger and pick it. Use the thumb on top of the neck as an anchor, forget the classic guitar school (no flames please). Then strike the G-string pressed down at the 7th fret with your ring finger and bend it slowly up until you reach the tone of the B-string. This a full-tone bend (a full-tone = 2 frets). Bend the string with a small turn of your hand and support the bending finger with the other fingers – it’s easier. If you start with this, two things may help you make it easier: use extra light gauge (0,08″, e.g. super slinky) strings and play around the 12th fret. Use your fingers or the palm of your picking hand to mute unwanted strings.

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


bending

With this method you can control your bending, you can also do a half-tone bend (strike the B-string pressed down at the 4th fret and bend the G-string at the 7th fret). Practice this on different strings and fret positions. Soon you’ll get your ear and fingers trained to this and don’t need to think about, you can just use it to get the feeling you want. Listen to Albert King!

A typical Blues bend is a quarter tone (small) bend. You bend the string and reach the tone “between the frets”. A bend into a blue note as done in the following example sounds also great and is played very often in Blues music.
The “standard Blues lick” in tab (key A):

I-----------------I
I-----------------I
I--7b(8)rb7p5-----I
I-------------7~~-I
I-----------------I
I-----------------I

You play a half note bend into a blue note, then release the bend, pull off and close it with a vibrato on the root note. You need to pick only the first and the last note.

If you combine bend and release bend and repeat it, it will generate a vibrato, usually a slow, intense vibrato.

Slide

The second way to get another tone without picking the string is a slide. You press down the string, pick a tone an then move your finger up or down while still pressing the string down. Don’t use too large steps, one or two frets are enough. Sliding into a tone picked before on another string sounds very good.

Example:

 I-5--------I
 I---/10----I
 I----------I
 I----------I
 I----------I
 I----------I

Hammer-on

pick for example the open G-string and then press down the string at the 1st fret without picking it twice. You have to press down fast and powerful, then you get a tone without picking! The problem is to get the same volume and sound as the picked string.

H I-----0---0-I
B I-------3---I
G I-0h1-------I
D I-----------I
A I-----------I
E I-----------I

In this example the hammer-on changes from the minor to the major scale in the key of E. (You get also get a nice sound if you bend a little bit the note (3) on the B string, which belongs to the E7 chord.)

Video example: snippet with hammer-on and vibrato from Nobody Knows You

Pull-off

If you pick for example the G-string at the 1st fret and then move up your finger quickly, you get the tone of the open string. It works better if you move your your finger slightly downwards.

Combining hammer-on and pull-off with the same pair of notes will get a triller. You can use these techniques also for a faster playing, you can even play (“legato”) without your right hand (sorry, lefthanders…).
But – that’s no more Blues.

Slapping/Snapping

Well known from bass players and funk music, this technique is also used in Blues guitar, especially in acoustic Blues guitar. Listen to John Lee Hooker! Just lift up the string (best done with thumb or thumb/index finger, but also a pick works) and let it slap upon the fretboard. You get a very percussive sound.

EC Examples from Unplugged:

  • Intro of “Hey, Hey”
  • Ending of “Malted Milk”.

Muting

This is important for both rhythm and solo guitar. If you let all picked strings ring, the sound can be horrible. With muting you can determine the length of a note (for solo guitar) and change the sound (for rhythm guitar). If you play electric guitar, this technique is especially important: due to feedback with the amp the strings can ring even without being picked. (Never put your guitar with full volume next to an amp and leave it alone – you can kill it!) There are several ways to mute a string:

  • palm muting: this is a very effective muting when you play with a pick or thumb pick. Press down the palm of your picking hand gently upon the strings near the bridge and pick a note. Works good for fast solo guitar and for the two string rhythm guitar riffs.
  • left hand finger muting (sorry lefthanders…): if you play a chord and lift up the fingers after strumming, you can also mute the sound. This one is great for chord strumming rhythm guitar.
  • right hand finger muting: if you play fingerstyle or flatpicking style (using pick and fingers) you can also use the picking fingers to mute the string. This is a very effective technique, but not easy to learn – putting the right finger on the right string at the right moment. Take a look at Mark Knopfler’s or Jeff Beck’s technique!

Arpeggio

If you play the notes of a chord one note at a time you get an “arpeggio” (arp). When you start soloing and jamming around, arpeggios have two advantages: they sound good (just play the I-IV-V Blues progression as arps) and chord notes are easier to learn than scales. Using only the notes of a chord is a sure method to start improvisation.

Raking

If you play an arpeggio very hard and mute the strings, you get a strong percussive sound. Works especially good with bar-chords.

Examples

Let’s combine the techniques and play the intro of Steppin’ Out, one of my personal EC favourite (as done on the “Beano”-record):

I----------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------------------------I
I----3---3-5p3h5br-p3h5p3----------------------I
I-/5---5------------------5p3h5-5---3---3-5-5\-I
I---------------------------------5---5--------I
I----------------------------------------------I

It’s played in G Blues scale, first fingering pattern. You begin with sliding into the 5th fret of the D-string (root note G!), play with hammer-ons and pull-offs until you reach the 5br. Here you bend the string and release the bend immediately. The following run can also be played with many hammer-ons and pull-offs. It end with a slide down, again from the foot note G.

Video: Combining the techniques above.

Here’s the tab:

I---------------------------------------7--10b-7-10-7h10p7----7-----------------------I
I-9-9b-9-7~~--------------------------7--7-----------------10---10-7------------------I
I-------------9b10rb9-p7---9---7h9b11--------------------------------9-7---7-9-9b-9---I
I------------------------9---9-------------------------------------------9------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I

I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---7--------7b-----------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----9--7-9-----9~~------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I

Special Eric Clapton techniques

This site was once called Slowhand Blues guitar to show the roots of my playing. In the meanwhile it’s much more, but here we got some notes about his style.

Obviously you don’t find EC’s style in a classical guitar textbook. Look at the pictures to see some examples of his technique: playing with mostly straight fingers, using the thumb on the neck as an anchor for string bending and playing almost without the use of his pinky (except chord and slide playing), like many of the self taught guitar players from that era.

Eric Clapton mostly uses pentatonic scales and often changes between major- and minor pentatonic. He doesn’t like “pyrotechniques and gymnastics”. He talks through his guitar, the same note can sound very different in his solos.

Besides his very exact rhythm feeling there are two techniques he plays very effective: string bending and vibrato. Even when bending until the strings nearly rip up he can hold the tone and put a clean vibrato on it. He uses different kinds of vibrato, a fast one created by the index or ring finger and turning the wrist (like B.B. King), a slow one by bending the string up and down in different ways. He often plays hammer-ons and pull-offs, but he doesn’t use tapping or legato playing. His right hand mostly uses a pick when playing electric guitar, although there are songs (i.e. reconsider baby, sinners prayer and most acoustic songs) where he plays fingerstyle.

Some closer looks at EC’s guitar playing…
EC example

EC example

EC example

EC example
String bending with middle finger

EC example
EC vibrato