Jul 30

When it comes to guitar, there are a hundred, if not a thousand, tricks of the trade. These guitar tricks, or guitar techniques, can help stylize your playing. Each little tip should be worked on separately during improvisational passages or in rehearsed lines. After a little while with each tip, they’ll become second nature and your style of playing will improve drastically.

Breathing

Breathing may sound like a ridiculous thing to regulate on a stringed instrument, but think of it this way: why do musicians aspire to make their instrument “sing”? Is it coincidence that musicians wants to emulate the human voice? I highly doubt it. The human voice is by far the most emotional instrument we possess. Not only can it modulate beautifully, it can produce words that stimulate us intellectually as well.

Breathing is something that gives your instrument a human-like quality. Nonstop notes are cool in a sense, but gorgeous phrasing is beautiful on an entirely different plane. Speaking of phrasing…

Phrasing

Phrasing is a collection of notes that stand alone. The notes, taken collectively, are greater that the sum of their parts. Together they are more than simple musical notes, they are an melody that imparts a reaction on a listener. Phrasing goes hand in hand with breathing, where one phrase ends is where the breath goes. This is a natural way to listen to music. Melodies rarely just hammer one relentlessly except in very intense sections of song.

Bends

While breathing and phrasing are general musical concepts, bending is almost exclusive to guitar. A bend is basically when a guitarist stretches (or bends) the string upward (or downward) to raise the pitch of a sounded note. Bends come in many different sizes.

A quarter step bend’s target is off tonality, it sits between the first and second note chromatically (for example: between a Bb and a B) and doesn’t lift a full semitone.

A half step bend’s target is simply the next note chromatically (for example: from a G to a G#) and lifts exactly one semitone.

A full step bend’s target is two half steps about the bent note (for example: from an A to a B) and lifts two semitones.

Bends that are beyond a full step are not uncommon, but require lighter strings and a skilled musician.

Bend’s are extremely common in blues, rock, country, and pop genres of music. Bends are used often in solos and licks because they can blend between notes without distinctly separating. Often times they are used to move into a tension spot or resolve from a tension spot for effect.

Vibrato

Vibrato is another common musical concept that isn’t nearly as exclusive to guitar. Vibrato is the slight modulation in the pitch of a sounded note. Vibrato often sounds a bit “wavy” as the listener hears the pitch vary slightly as the musician rocks the note back and forth.

On guitar, vibrato can be performed like a mini bend, over and over. A small bend, perhaps less than a quarter step bend, would be sufficient to impact a listener. Another common technique is one pioneered by the famous B.B. King. King would often shake his hand around while keeping his finger locked to the string and fret he was playing. This would “push and pull” the string and make it slightly change pitch very quickly.

While some of these techniques are not exclusive to guitar, I hope you can understand just how important they are to master. Let me know if you can this of any other important concepts I might have missed.

Jul 22

In the blues, and in many other styles of music, most notably jazz, a swing rhythm is a rhythmic concept that elongates the first note and shortens the second. This subdivision effectively “swings” the notes. When this “swing” rhythm is repeated multiple times, one directly after the other, the effect is a “shuffle”. A shuffle is simply a “groove” of repeatedly “swung” notes.

Straight Rhythm

A straight rhythm is often notated plainly, with eighth notes appearing one after the other with not modulation. You will usually see no accompanying directions besides that the tune is to be played “straight.”

Shuffle Rhythm

Shuffle rhythms are notated in western music as triplets. The first note in the triplet is twice the length of the second note, leaving the impression of an elongated first note and shortened second note. Below is a literal notation of 4 swung pairs of eighth notes. The repetition of swung notes is what makes a shuffle.

Swing rhythm

Swing rhythm isn’t as pronounced as shuffle rhythm. In a shuffle, the backing instrument will play a continuous stream of swung eight notes. In swing, a bass player may play a walking quarter note bassline while the drummer taps out a simple swing rhythm.

Swing and shuffle in common sheet music

It helps to think of swing of shuffle rhythms as “feels” or “grooves” and not direct notation styles. Often you’ll find that a lead sheet will note notate swing rhythms at all, but will show a small text note at the top of the page that reads “Medium Swing” or “Shuffle.”

The reason composers or transposers don’t literally notate swing rhythms is because they tend to become very messy and difficult to read. Most proficient musicians can simply take an otherwise straight piece of music and impose different “grooves” into the music.

Jul 16

Everyone has their own list of favorite songs, and today I am going to share with you the songs I believe are the most fun to jam to. While many lists are excellent for their historical relevance, this list is more for guitarists who are looking for some great tunes to bring to a jam session.

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5. Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

“Wait, you’re going to start off the top blues jam songs with a country song?” Well, yes and no. Folsom Prison is so heavily steeped in blues that if you removed the root-fifth country bassline, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The chord progression is identical, its a 12 bar blues progression. Plus, as an added bonus, almost everybody knows the lyrics, so backup vocals galore.

4. The Thrill is Gone by B. B. King

For this cool sounding groove in B minor, make sure sure your bassist knows the bass-line. This blues jam is best served with tons of dynamic contrast, try taking it from a whisper to a lonesome wail. Don’t even think about breaking out the distortion unless the band is just ripping.

3. Texas Flood by Larry Davis and Joseph Wade Scott (or Stevie Ray Vaughan)

With arguably the most recognizable intro to the general public, this remake by Stevie Ray Vaughan was hugely popular. In the key of G, this tune is a ton of fun to play in a blues jam session. Owing itself to some dynamic contrast, the slow groove can be intensified or otherwise chilled out for a wide variety of situations. This should be your standard slow burn blues jam.

2. Green Onions by Booker T. & the M.G.s

Green Onions is a classic organ driven blues tune that may have one of the most famous rifts ever. Not only is it an outrageously solid tune, it is pretty easy to play. If you have a keyboardist, you best make sure he can handle the riff. The blues progression rears it’s head again, for it comprises the backing chords to the riff that simply modulates with the chord changes.

1. Born Under a Bad Sign by Albert King

If you haven’t had a chance to jam to this classic Albert King song, you don’t know what you are missing. Originally in the key of C#, this loping song is a hallmark of guitar jams everywhere. While the bass line follows a pretty basic minor pentatonic scale, the key remains slightly major. This opens up huge possibilities. Chord changes are also kept to a minimal, with only a blues turnaround at the end to vary the groove. Otherwise, its straight sailing.

Jul 9

Most blues guitarists use a simple variety of scales. While most of them likely learned from emulating their favorites, they may consider their playing as being derived from a scale, its just what they play. Its worth noting that that the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale are often called upon by guitarists to give them the blues sound that they desire.

In this article we’ll be talking about the theory and construction of both the minor pentatonic and the blues scale. By understanding some of the theory, you can start to piece together some good places to employ either of these scales and how to vary them as you play.

The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is a five note scale noted not only for its simplicity, but for its ease of deployment in musical situations. Lacking some of the extraneous notes, the pentatonic scale tends to fit nicely over a variety of chord changes with minimal fuss. The pentatonic flavor we shall focus on is the minor pentatonic.

The minor pentatonic is a stack of five notes. Starting with the root, a minor third is stacked upon that. After the minor third, a standard fourth is added. After the fourth, a standard fifth is appended. And finally the minor seventh, or flatted seventh is added. In the end you get these handy intervals:

  • Root
  • Minor Third
  • Fourth
  • Fifth
  • Minor Seventh

It’s worth noting that these intervals are also the basis of the blues scale. The minor pentatonic is great for using over any chord progression that resides in a minor key. An easy way to tell if a chord progression is minor is to look for the minor chord in a progression, especially if it is the first chord. This will tell you which minor key to use. An A Minor chord means you should probably use the A minor pentatonic scale.

The Blues Scale

Now that you’ve seen how simple the minor pentatonic scale is, we’re going to effectively add another note and turn that minor pentatonic scale into a blues scale. We’ll do that by adding a flat fifth in addition to the other five notes. The intervals in a blues scale are shown below:

  • Root
  • Flatted Third (blue note)
  • Fourth
  • Flatted Fifth (blue note)
  • Fifth
  • Flatted Seventh (blue note)

You’ll notice that I also tagged some of the notes as blue notes. That is because they are often contrasting against the major tonality of the chords in a standard twelve bar blues progression. The great thing about this is that the ‘blueness’ of the scale is built into the relationship of the blues progression and the scale.

As you move to the IV and V chords in the blues progression, the flatted seventh of the blues scale becomes the fourth and the minor third of the chords, respectively. These relationships mean that you can keep wailing on a single blues scale for the entirety of a blues progression. In my opinion, this help keep you in ‘the zone’. You don’t have to worry about chord changes, you just have to play your heart out.

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Now that you’ve got a little taste of some of the theory behind it, go out and play this stuff!

Jul 7

Call and Response is one of the most basic musical concepts in popular music. Although the use of call and response is found as far back as the middle ages in antiphonic music, or music with “opposite voices”, the version we tend to refer to started in African work songs and is hallmark to the continuation of early African tradition into modern blues.

As a part of the tradition brought to America from Africa, African American’s in the 17th and 18th century would sing work songs heavily based on a call and response. In the early 19th century, this evolved into rural and urban blues before settling into the wide genre of blues. It is worth noting that many modern types of music, including country-western and hip-hop, have the early blues to thank for this concept.

Typically, in the blues, there are three lines of lyrics per verse. The first two lines are often repeated while the third line will often time resolve the lyric. For example, let’s look at “Cross-Cut Saw” as recorded by Albert King.

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I’m a crosscut saw, baby just drag me across your log.
You know I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me across your log.
I’ll cut your wood so easy for you, you can’t help but say, “Hot Dog!”

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After each call in this song, it’s typical to hear a response. The call and response would be the lyrics and guitar riff, respectively. It is also worth noting that this lyric and guitar riff isn’t the only call and response you can find. Often times the response can be a lyrics as well. In the case of a guitar duet, both call and response can be a guitar riff.

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Probably the most common way to hear the call and response is two measures of lyrics of call followed by two measures of instrumental or full band response. Often times the response can be minimal, perhaps a bump note or a short burst of notes, but it is worth noting that it is a very common concept in the blues and many other types of music.

I bet you can find call and response in some unlikely places.

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