Many guitarists aspire to play the blues. Some even get there. Blues is a deceptively simple musical style that relies heavily on a lot of a common vocabulary and each player’s individual creativity with it.
The mistake many beginning guitarists make is to think of blues playing as just a bunch of chords that they can simply play their Minor Pentatonic patterns up and down across and call it a day. That’s why there is so much bad blues playing in the world.
Blues music is a shared language that can be learned if approached the right way. After you learn your basic 12-bar chord progressions, your next task is turning your Pentatonic scales into musical phrases or riffs.
Think of this as a kid going from just saying the alphabet over and over to actually turning it into words and sentences. A riff or phrase is nothing more than a musical sentence. Some are long and complex and others are short and to the point.
BEFORE TRYING SOME RIFFS
The words ‘riff,’ ‘lick,’ and ‘phrase’ all mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably. Don’t let the jargon confuse you. Think of them as musical sentences and you will do just fine.
In this article, we will look at a number of easy blues riffs that we all play in one way or another. These are basic building blocks that are under the fingers of every player in your record collection.
As you start to play through them, you will hear sounds that you’ve heard come from greats like B.B. King, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Once you learn them, learn to sing them to get them into your ears as well as your fingers.
After that, make your own variations on them by adding or subtracting something to them. This is how you develop your own style.
1. THE KING
This is one of the first licks we all learn and is classic B.B. King magic. Use it to open a phrase over the Major chord. It creates a strong Dominant 7th sound, as do many blues ideas and ends a bit of musical tension that’s absolutely delicious.
Visualize it as based on the first position of F Major chord that all beginners hate and move it around to different keys.
The example is in the key of C. Move it to other keys by putting the root note, (in this case the C on the 8th fret of the high E string) on a different fret/note on the same string to play it in other keys.
Move the lick up and down one fret at a time to get the feel for this.
2. THE WOLF HOWL
This is a stock Minor Pentatonic lick in the key of A. It is very much in the style of Hubert Sumlin, guitarist for the great Howlin’ Wolf. The tonality is Dominant 7th all the way.
Get this learned and start changing things around to be the way you want to hear them. Every blues player in the world knows this lick and it is time for you to join the club! Move your scale pattern (and the lick within it) to different frets to play in different keys.
3. THE ROLLOVER
This one is a close relative of Lick 2, also in A, and includes a semi-tricky Third Finger rollover to play the 7th fret notes on the G and D strings.
Resist the temptation to do the same thing with your first finger on the next two notes because a rollover won’t leave you in a good position for the required small bend. Replant and use the tip of your first finger for the bend.
4. THE ALBERT KING BEND
Riff 4 is also in the key of A but is up one octave from its close cousin in Riff 3. It is the same box shape just over two strings and up two frets. It has a cool Albert King-like quality that vibes with just about anything. It’s a simple lick but you have to play it like you mean it for it to work!
The tough part here is being able to bend the first string up and then bring it back down silently. String muting is your friend!
5. THE HAMMERED THIRD
Riff 5 takes a trip down the old Minor Pentatonic pattern we all love but adds in a hammer-on note on the 6th fret of the G string that gives it an unmistakeable A7 sound.
Technically, you are hammering from the Minor Third (C Natural) to the Major Third (C#), which is an essential blues guitar move. A lot of blues playing includes both Thirds like this and it is a hallmark of the style. Just be sure to use this over A7 and not A Minor or you might have a fight on your hands.
6. THE FLAT 5 STEVIE
Riff 6 goes straight to the heart of Em7 but can also work over E7 if handled correctly. The cool part of this one is that it tags the Flatted 5th/Blue Note (Bb here) twice in two octaves for an extra serving of grease. Stevie Ray Vaughan used this position extensively. See if you can spot it near the end of the opening chorus of “Pride and Joy."
7. THE MINOR MIRACLE
Riff 7 takes us firmly into in Am7 with a lick based on the A Minor Scale fingering that our favorite Pentatonic shape is extracted from. This one works in either Minor Blues or Latin situations and is more in the style of Carlos Santana than it is SRV.
It has a lot of notes in it but that just gives you more possible variations of it to invent. Play this one expressively and it will carry more weight than if you merely shred through it.
8. THE BIG BEND
Riff 8 takes us right back to the Minor Pentatonic scale. The difficult part here is the two-fret bend on the G string that opens the lick.
The two-fret or whole step bend is the one we use most often and it is vital for you to be able to do it in tune. Poor bending technique is one of the quickest ways to make an electric guitar sound terrible, so be sure to put in your time on this one.
The best hack is to practice by playing the 9th fret note on the G (that is your target tone) and then backing off to the 7th Fret and matching the fretted pitch with the bent one.
Remember that all of these riffs are only starting points and patterns to learn. None of them are that tough but all are essential to the Blues Guitar style. The big error most students make with learning licks like these is not practicing them until they are as fluent as the language you speak every day.
When you have these licks learned as well as you do noun and verb agreement, the variations will flow out of you a lot more naturally and you will start sounding a lot less like a beginning student.
We hope you enjoyed this article on Easy Blues Riffs and that you learned a bunch of useful stuff from it. Please let us know your thoughts in the Comments section. Start thinking of Blues as a language with a vocabulary of phrases that can be learned and built upon and your playing will improve quickly.