A great blues improvisation can cause us to erupt with emotion. Soulful and heart wrenching, the blues are the epitome of feeling expressed through notes. With that being said it may sound like a tall order to learn to improvise over a blues song.
Truth is, it isn’t. The blues are not only emotionally driving but also simplistic. The most common example, as all guitarists know, is the twelve bar blues.
This is exactly where you want to start when learning to improvise over a blues progression. Subtle, yet full of possibilities, the twelve bar blues are universally renowned by guitarists as the go-to for jams with friends.
The first thing to work on to achieve powerful blues improvisation skills is the bend. Bending notes may sound simple, but the blues use bends to the extreme. If you are familiar with heavy metal or hard rock then you have heard more than your fair share of pathetic, uninvolved wiggles.
I don’t say bends because most metal musicians simply wiggle the string frantically. To get a good bend, you should position two fingers on the same string.
Take your index finger and put it on the thirteenth fret of your B string. Now take your ring finger and place it on the fifteenth fret of your B string. Using both fingers really wrenches that string up so that the note raises at least half of its value.
Now that is a bend.
When bending guitar strings, remember the directions of the bends; high E, B, and G string bends are bent towards you and low E, A, and D string bends or pushed away from you.
Now that you know how to bend, you will need to focus your intention on the most important aspect of improvising; recognizing signatures. Knowing your scales is crucial to being able to properly improvise. If you are out of key, all the great bends in the world won’t matter because you will sound out of place and cause dissonance.
Unlike death metal, the blues aren’t built off of dissonance, so steer clear of this.
Next you will need to learn what melody and harmony are, as the blues uses both. Melody is a linear progression, meaning it is a single note at a time ascending or descending pattern. Harmony is two or more notes ringing out at a time.
Most typically in the blues, harmony is incorporated in bends, using two notes on separate strings to bend and cause a moaning effect. When bending two strings at once, you will be using one finger on each note instead of the two designated to an extreme single note bend. Keep in mind the directional rule of bending, as they still apply regardless of the number of strings involved.
The last tip to help you develop blues improvisational skills is to practice licks. Practicing licks will create muscle memory. When you improvise on the guitar, your fingers draw on this muscle memory to create patterns and shapes. If you practice your patterns all around the neck, your mind and muscle will be more apt to integrate techniques without restricting them to specific strings.
Now that you know how, go try it out yourself! Remember to have fun and to put your heart into your playing, because that is what the blues are all about.
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