Blues rock is the foundation for all contemporary roots-rock electric guitar styles, pioneered by Cream’s Eric Clapton, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and several other classic bands. It was spawned during the British Invasion, with many of its most notable exponents—Clapton, Page, Jeff Beck, Robin Trower, Peter Green, Alvin Lee and Rory Gallagher, to name a few—hailing from the British Isles.
But blues-rock’s torch was also ably carried in the United States by players like Carlos Santana, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons.
In the Seventies, the sound of blues-rock endured, informing the work of players ranging from Angus Young, Joe Perry, Ace Frehley, Leslie West and Mahogany Rush’s Frank Marino to Pat Travers, Ronnie Montrose and Ted Nugent.
And if you dig early Van Halen or Guns N’ Roses, you’re also a fan of blues rock.
Let’s explore this style’s timeless vocabulary with a thorough lick lesson.
MINOR PENTATONIC MADNESS
In blues rock, minor pentatonic licks are commonly played in a “box” shape, as in FIGURE 1, which shows E minor pentatonic (E G A B D).
The two-notes-per-string layout makes it easy to play bends, hammer-ons/pull-offs and so forth, with the fret hand’s 1st and 3rd fingers exclusively. Such moves are largely confined to strings 1–3, with the lower strings used primarily for sustained or vibratoed notes, or, in longer runs, simply passed through on the way to other scale positions. (We’ll discuss other scale fingerings and position shifts later in this lesson.)
FIGURE 2 illustrates rudimentary blues-rock bending licks played within FIGURE 1���s shape, in a triplet rhythm (three evenly spaced attacks per beat).
As a general bending rule, push strings 1–3 upward (toward the ceiling) and pull strings 4–6 downward (toward the floor).
FIGURE 3 uses hammer-ons and pull-offs in triplet rhythms, while FIGURE 4 takes a similar approach with 16th notes (four evenly spaced attacks per beat).
These kinds of licks—short bursts of notes rapidly repeated in position—are a blues-rock staple.
Next, let’s combine bends with hammer-ons and pull-offs into smear licks, as shown in FIGURE 5. Smear licks consist of notes played so fast that they form a manic smear of pitches as they float over the music’s pulse.
The going gets even faster with FIGURE 6, which crams six notes (sextuplets) into the space of a single beat.
To keep their phrases unpredictable, blues rockers often repeat small note patterns using a contrasting rhythmic subdivision called a hemiola—the rhythmic relation of three against two or four (FIGURE 7).
In FIGURE 7A, hemiola occurs when the opening three notes—A (14th fret, 3rd string) bent to B, then D (15th fret, 2nd string)—are repeated for an entire bar, played in 16ths. As the figure repeats, it falls in a different relation to the beat each time.
Like FIGURE 6B, these two examples also involve sustaining a note on a higher string while a lower note is bent and held. This sound—a rubbing together of notes—is the result of a double-stop, a technique further illustrated in FIGURE 8.
Meanwhile, FIGURE 9 offers two approaches to the same double-stop, first alternating between its two notes in triplets (another hemiola), then tremolo-picking both (picking both notes as quickly as possible).
FIGURES 10–11 close out our look at double-stops with unison bends, in which a note on a higher string is picked while another (from a lower, adjacent sting) is simultaneously bent up to the same pitch. This sound fuels blues-rock gems like Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and the outro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
BLUES SCALE BONANZA
Now that you’re well versed in minor pentatonic, let’s embellish FIGURE 1 and other fingerings by adding the note Bb—which, in any kind of E key is a flatted 5th, a bluesy tension tone often referred to as the blue 5th (FIGURE 12).
Adding the b5th to the minor pentatonic scale creates the blues scale. FIGURE 13 presents an Angus Young–inspired lick (think “Back in Black”), and FIGURE 14 shows a classic Hendrix-style pre-bend-and-release move (think “Voodoo Child”). Both are nestled within FIGURE 12A’s box.
For FIGURE 14, after bending the 1st string, catch the 2nd string with your bending finger (the string will have already been pushed skyward, or pre-bent), pick it and then release it. Repeat for strings 2–3.
FIGURE 15 illustrates a speedier blues-rock lick found in FIGURE 12B’s box, while FIGURE 16 pays homage to Jimmy Page with a compound bend (1–1/2 steps and beyond) rooted in FIGURE 12C’s shape.
When blues-rockers aren’t hanging out in a fixed position and unloading smoldering licks, they’ll vary their phrasing and/or explore the effects of playing in different registers, sliding in and out of neighboring positions as in FIGURES 17–18. Notice that these moves steer the fret hand right back into FIGURE 1A. (In your own jamming, try punctuating these position-shifting licks with the phrases described earlier.)
MAJOR PENTATONIC AND HYBRID SCALE APPROACHES
For our final batch of blues-rock licks, well start off with a brighter, happier-sounding set of notes—the major pentatonic scale—and then mix it up with all the aforementioned scale flavors.
In FIGURE 19, two E major pentatonic (E F# G# B C#) boxes are presented, followed by an extended phrase that juggles both positions (FIGURE 20). Licks like this one surface in blues-rock tunes, where progressing chords generally imply a major tonality. They can also be used as a lighter alternative to minor pentatonic over an E5 chord.
Our last licks blur the line between E major pentatonic and E minor pentatonic. When these scale types are used over the same chord, an air of instability results. This effect results from the wavering between tension (from minor pentatonic) and resolution (from major pentatonic).
For instance, in FIGURE 21, an assortment of Jeff Beck–approved index-finger bends are used to juggle notes within FIGURE 1 and FIGURE 19A’s shapes.
FIGURE 22 then explores the same fretting region, incorporating chromatics along the 2nd string in a manner that brings to mind the fretwork of pickers like Pat Travers.