How was this kid playing the blues scale differently than you were?
When I went to his house to see him play, I was stunned, because he was one huge leap ahead of me. I mean, I knew the scale, but until I ran into him, I had never seen anybody really use it. Like me, everything he played came from that little Chuck Berry boxposition pentatonic blues scale, but he was getting a meaty, authentic sound by holding the two highest strings with his 1st finger while bending with his 3rd, like this [Ex. 2]. That was a big “Eureka!” moment for me, because before that I only played single notes or chords, and nothing in between. I noticed other little details—like the fact that his 1st finger was also touching the third string to keep it from ringing accidentally, and that he could do everything with his the thumb over the neck, which is exactly what many teachers back then taught you not to do.
How come it took you so long to find someone who played like that?
Back then, all the guitar teachers played jazz and just didn’t get the rock and blues stuff. I mean, they had a lot to offer as instructors, but I wanted to play “Purple Haze” and Black Sabbath, and I instantly realized the books I had been working out of were failing me. I suddenly saw that I had to go out and seek out more good players and sit right in front of them to see how they were getting those sounds.
How did your playing evolve from there?
Well, I soon got the whole idea of using double-stops in a rock setting—sliding ’em around, branching out of the blues scale a bit, like this [Ex. 3]. And the next big thing for me was Hendrix-style unison bends where you hold a note with your 1st finger on the second string and another note two frets higher on the third string, pick them both at the same time, and bend the lower note until they’re both in unison [Ex. 4]. That move never gets old. The next thing you figure out is that you can do the same move on the highest two strings [Ex. 5].
In the second version, the notes are a fret further apart. Some players are taught to bend with their 4th finger in that situation.
You can do that—that approach fits the whole “one finger per fret” philosophy some people take—but just looking at the hand, you can see that the 3rd finger is bigger and stronger than the 4th. Plus, it’s connected to more muscle and more of the hand, and is in a better spot to create that fulcrum needed for bending and vibrato. There aren’t and shouldn’t be any rules as to which fingers to use when—every human hand is different—but I generally only use the 4th finger when no other finger will do.
One thing I should mention is finger pressure—all beginners press too hard. When things don’t sound right, a beginner’s natural tendency is to strangle the guitar neck even harder, which often makes things sound out of tune. I tell beginners, “Press less until you find that point where the strings almost stop ringing, then press just a little bit more.” If you’re watching a great guitarist play, and you say, “Wow, it looks effortless,” well, that’s pretty close to the truth. That’s how it should be.