How Blue Can You Get?

Having won multiple Grammy awards, having released a successful string of solo albums, having played lead guitar on dozens of influential rock and pop records, and having a signature line of Gibson 335s produced in his name, Larry Carlton has been blessed to see more than a few of his dreams come true. Now, with his new TrueFire multimedia course 335 Blues [available online at and  ], another of Carlton’s goals has been realized: “I can finally address many of the questions I get asked all the time about my blues playing,” says the guitarist. “I’ve been very fortunate over the years to play with many of my favorite blues musicians. Now I get a chance to share what I’ve learned.” If you love electric blues guitar (and who doesn’t?), including Larry Carlton’s blues playing (again, w

Rhythm Rules

Let’s start out by working with a simple shuffle in the key of A. What I’d first like to do is explain that when you’re playing a rhythm guitar part like this [Ex. 1], it’s really important to focus on the hi-hat and the snare, because this little muted part should fit perfectly with the bass and drums. And when I’m playing this, my ears are big—they’re listening to where the time is so that the part is right in time with the hi-hat. That G note [fourth string, 5th fret] is on the upbeat. The placement of that note against the hi-hat and the bass is really going to help determine whether this part grooves or not. That little accent right there can really make it bubble along good. If I’m a little early or a little late on that note, which is the anticipated note, it’s going change the feel of the line significantly, so it’s very important that while I’m coming up with a line, I listen to the bass and drums and really place it in the center of their groove.

And if you’re going to develop your muted part a little bit—perhaps put some accents in, some little pushes, some chords—that’s when your ears have to be very, very big, so that those accents come right between those hi-hat beats. That’s what’ll make your rhythm section gel really well. In the next chorus, I might start developing this little part with guide tones and guide chords [Ex. 2]. These sounds give a little more pad for the solo, which makes the soloist very comfortable. The guide voicings I’m playing are an A6 sliding down to a G6—even though the bass is holding the root A the whole time—then D6-C6 for the IV chord (with the bass playing D). This is one of those sounds that all blues players use at some point; it’s part of blues vocabulary.

What Is Hip

Most of us know the notes from this position [Ex. 3]. There’s a lot of music to be made out of this shape. You don’t have to know a special scale or a special mode or anything. With this one position, you can play blues. It raises the question: What makes one guy sound a little hipper than the next guy when playing this shape? Well, it has to do with how the notes in this position are phrased, how they’re expressed. For instance, if you were to play this little line [Ex. 4], notice that the C note [first string, 8th fret] has nothing on it—it’s just a note. But as soon as you put either a little vibrato on it, or a little bend that hints that the note is moving up a bit, it becomes a lot different [Ex. 5].

Notice that after I played that bent C, I did not re-pick the A that follows. I pulled off to it, and then added some vibrato. That’s pretty cool—suddenly this little lick has a thing to it, doesn’t it? You can even bend the G, too [Ex. 6]. Now it’s starting to sound like the blues! This is just one way to express these four notes. You have the options to do any of these same things on the rest of the notes in this position. For example, do a little bend with the index finger [Ex. 7], and put a little vibrato on the last note of the first bar. Play the phrase again, ending on a high note [bar 2]. Express thyself!


Let’s talk about improvisation. There are some tools that I think can help you become a better improviser. First, make sure to take anything you can play in your comfort zone find out ways to play it in other positions on the neck. That will free you on the fingerboard to improvise more fluidly, because you’re not stuck in one or two positions. For instance, listen to the difference in this little line [Ex. 8] if I move it up one position [Ex. 9]. The tone is completely different. You need to become familiar with these different positions so you have more options for how you want to express your musical phrase. Here’s another example of the same notes played two different ways [Ex. 10]. The second way of playing the notes might not sound or feel as good, but you should at least know how to do it.

The other thing I’ve found to be helpful as an improviser is to think like a vocalist or like a singer. Singers have a specific melody that they’re going to interpret. You, as a guitar player and improviser, get to make up the song while you’re playing it, but if you can keep in mind that you’re a singer telling a story, it will at least remind you not to play all this stuff [plays fast, un-singable, scale pattern]. Stuff like that really doesn’t mean anything, because a singer would never think of singing it. They would concentrate on the lyric and the melody that they’re trying to get across.

Lastly, think about how to structure your solo. Again, thinking like a singer can help you develop the melody you are improvising, so start simply, like a vocal song would. Leave space between your lines so that if your lines were lyrical phrases, the listener would have time to digest the words. Tell your story.

Locked In the Funk

Let’s get a little funkier now. When you’re playing the blues and it’s got a funk groove to it, you, as the rhythm guitar player, are probably going to come up with some sort of muted part with a few accents. A couple of key things to remember: Your muted part can’t conflict note-wise with the bass player, and should bounce off of and fit between the bass part, so that you and the bass player become two guys playing one bigger, unified part.

This jam [Ex. 11] started with a one-chord vamp in C, with just the bass line happening [as notated]. I’d probably start off with a muted sound, created by resting my picking-hand palm on the strings. (Sometimes the deader you make the string, the better it feels.) Notice that the tonality is not C major or C minor, it’s just C. I’m not going to commit a major 3 against that C riff—because that would make it too pretty—or a minor 3, as that would make the song sound minor. The notes I can use are the root, the b7, the 6, and the 5, as none of those will commit to a tonality.

When I start jamming with some guys and am creating a part like this on the fly, I try to organize my part. The way I start—and this has always worked for me—is very simply. I give it space, space, space, because I don’t know what else is going to be happening in the music. Maybe there’s a clavinet player or a percussionist on the track. And as it develops, I’ll just add to my little motif. We know the bass part is working—it’s carrying the weight. So I start simple and leave space to see if anyone else is doing something. If they don’t jump in, I’ll play it again. Later, maybe I’ll add a spiky little interval like this thing you hear a lot from funk players [strikes A (second string, 10th fret) and Eb (first string, 11th fret) simultaneously].

Minor Matters

Let’s do something different. Let’s play a blues in B minor. But rather than put down a rhythm guitar track and then play lead over it, I’m going combine the two tasks. I’m going to do a chord solo for you [Ex. 12]. What I want you to pick up on most of all is that there is a real melody here. It’s just like if I was playing single-note blues licks, only they’re harmonized. It’s not just a bunch of chords. There’s always melodic content.

All Jazzed Up

What I’m going to do now for you is play the rhythm part to blues with jazzier changes. I’ll start very simply—perhaps I’ll start off the first chorus with a #9 chord, so the soloist has some room to make a statement. And after that first chorus, my comping part is going to get a little busier, because I want to help perpetuate the solo and give it more energy. I’ll be using, more altered chords, etc. [Ex. 13].

Now, I’m going to solo off these jazz/blues changes, and obviously, I’m going to be listening the chordal part, because I want ideas fed to me as a soloist. I’ll probably do the typical Larry thing and start pretty simple, and just be listening. Hopefully, I’ll get a little help from the comp track to help me develop the solo so it’s more interesting. I’ll be listening for altered chords, any kind of “Rhythm” changes [I-VI-II-V turnarounds in the style Gershwin’s famous “I Got Rhythm” progression]. Now let’s dig in to that and see what happens [Ex. 14].

Blue Meanies

Range is very important when you’re playing your solos. If somebody’s comping along for you and they’re in the midrange playing on the third or fourth string in the middle of the fretboard, you might want to start your solo in a higher range, so that now both parts can be heard clearly and they’re not conflicting at all.

Again, the most important thing for me is always to try and make a musical statement. Even if I’m playing the blues and I’m excited or I’m passionate about it, I ask myself how important can I make what I’m playing? So, always try to get in the habit of saying to yourself, “Do I mean this? Is this something I really want someone to hear? Or am I just playing these licks because I know how to play these licks?” Don’t do the latter. Instead, make your statement.