12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar — Lesson 11: Developing Satisfying Solos


Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series designed to give you a solid foundation in this essential style. Last time, I showed you how to make your single-note licks pop with chord hits. In this lesson, we’re going to look at improving your soloing by using motivic development—taking motifs or little ideas and seeing how you can develop them.

The idea is to create a solo that has a certain kind of connectedness and unity, because it’s based around some related ideas instead of just whatever lick you happen to come up with at the moment—that and to make sure that you always have something to play because you know how to take the first few ideas you come up with, reuse them and turn them around in ways that make sense. So it’s just a kind of efficient musical way of looking at taking your ideas and building them into an entire solo.

We could take a really simple pentatonic lick like shown in the pickup measure and first bar of Example 1, and turn it into a longer idea in the last two measures. Example 2 is based on the same idea, but at a higher pitch level. Because of the nature of the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D), an approach like this works over both the I and the IV chords, and Example 3 shows how to use it on the second four measures of the 12-bar form.

With a simple idea like that, you could also incorporate a bit of chord-voicing action. In Example 4, the downbeat of bar 1 places the flatted seventh (D) and root (E) under the fifth (B) for an E7 chord, and the lick ends with an echo resolution (an answer to a phrase) on a double stop (B–D) that implies E7.  You could go through this with whatever lick you started off with, taking short phrases, building them into longer phrases and creating that call-and-response between the odd bars of the first two lines (measures 1–4 and 5–8) of the 12-bar blues.

Things are a little different if you play a major third (G#) over the I chord; that note might sound a little weird over the IV, as it clashes with that chord’s flatted seventh (G). So to avoid this problem, just play a lick with G# over the I chord, lowering that note to G for the IV chord, as shown in Examples 5 and 6. Example 7 extends the above concepts to the second and third lines of the 12-bar form. Again, you’re just seeing how far you can take a short phrase and land with it.

Examples 8 and 9 show how to take a longer pentatonic lick, starting on the “and” of beat 1, and responding with a shorter phrase. In Example 10, things get mixed up with an eighth-note triplet lick including the major third on the I chord. Check out how I avoid the problem of using that G# on the IV chord, by placing it on the “and” of bar 2, beat 4, to anticipate the return to the I in the last measure. 

Variations like these leave plenty of room for some chord hits if you want them, and Example 11 shows where you might place them in the first eight measures of the 12-bar form. For the last four measures, you can use the same kind of rhythms, but you’ll have to switch up the notes to acknowledge the V chord (B7), as depicted in Example 12.

To build intensity in a solo—and you’ve probably heard this approach a million times—you might milk a lick by repeating it numerous times. Example 13 demonstrates this idea using a seven-note lick that is first played in bar 1 and restated until bar 5, when it resolves on the IV chord. Example 14 shows a variation in which the lick is repeated similarly, but not exactly the same each time.

So by going from idea to idea, and by having a few different tools for how to repurpose each idea, you have a way to start with a short fragment and build it out or bring it down. You can use some repetition, move things around, and put in a few chord hits to create this ongoing narrative way of playing through the 12-bar blues choruses that you’re soloing on. Everything is connected; it’s a very musical and very storytelling way of playing that is more than just thinking, Well, I think I’ll play this lick and then I’ll play that lick.

Example 15 brings it all together in your longest figure yet—three complete choruses on the 12-bar blues. I hope that gives you plenty of ideas to keep developing your soloing by making it more organized and musically satisfying. In the next and last lesson in this series, I’ll show you more about how to use the 12-bar form as a road map for improvisation.

David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. www.fretboardconfidential.com

We hope you enjoyed the eleventh lesson in 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar. We’ll be releasing a new lesson in this series each month. Can’t wait? Support Acoustic Guitar on Patreon and you’ll get access to all twelve video lessons right now!

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