The Blues: It’s a form of music all about feel.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use your head to give you an edge, though! Sure, it’s all about heart, but you have to break down the barrier between your feelings and the music. Some of these barriers are mental and others are physical but I’m going to give you some keys to open them up!
The first key is to sing:
No, not out loud. Well, you can, but that’s not exactly what I mean. When you speak, you don’t just spit out random words that you think might sound nice together (or at least I hope you don’t, or you’re going to have a hard time!), you have an idea and then you express it by speaking. You probably even form the exact phrase in your mind just before you say it.
What happens a lot of the time with blues guitarists is that they pick up the major and minor pentatonic scales and just fire out almost random licks – yeah, it works to a certain extent. As long as you use the right scale it’s going to sound OK no matter what you do. The problem is that a computer could be programmed to do that at random too; when you do that, you’re doing the musical equivalent of spitting out context relevant words in a random pattern. You aren’t speaking sentences and putting across complete ideas.
The practical exercise for this key is to take it slow, away from your guitar.
In your mind, form licks. Just imagine it in your minds ear, create the ideal licks.
Then, sit down with your guitar and play these ideas as best you can.
This creates a stronger link between your mind and your playing, your guitar will become more of an extension of your thoughts.
The second key is to listen:
Don’t just hear music, really listen to it. If a piece has three musicians playing, listen to it five times. Once casually, once for each part (focus just on vocals, then just on guitar, then just on piano… etc.) and then a final time focusing on exactly how they interact together.
If you’ve never tried this before, your mind will be blown. You’ll understand the conversation that’s going on so much better. Imagine carrying a conversation without being able to listen to the other person in any way, a situation where you have multiple people doing what I described in the first key; a whole band just putting out individual words and letters, never forming a sentence – never mind having a conversation!
The practical exercise for this key is to figure out how to play things by ear. Not just guitar though, find blues tracks with at least a guitarist and a singer (it can be one person playing both). Figure out the guitar part, I can’t help you with the exact method but just take your time and experiment ‘til you get it, and then figure out the other parts on guitar. You can even figure out the rhythmic patterns of any percussion there might be just by strumming while muting your strings.
The third key is to play:
This might seem so obvious as to sound dumb, but you need to play.
Not practice, play.
Of course, you need to practice technique too, but there’s no way to get better at playing with authentic expression than to actually do it. Everything else gives you a nice edge but this is the meat of your playing.
Even if you plan on being a solo performer, play with others. In just a single part the notes will sing so much more sweetly if you understand how musical conversation works with other people. Again, a computer can play anything you can – it’s the human touch that makes you worth listening to and the way you develop that is by coming into contact with other people musically.
If you lived in a cave your whole life but spoke perfect English, you’d still have trouble communicating with another English speaker just because you wouldn’t have a base connection with them. In fact, someone who spoke broken English (or even none at all) would be able to communicate better if they shared more experience and feelings with whoever they were trying to talk to.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t work hard on perfecting your technique and musical knowledge, on the contrary, you need to work as hard as you can but you also need to put it into real use. Memorising the Dictionary won’t make you a great speaker!
It’s one thing to know which notes work over which chords and to have a library of licks you picked up from killer players; it’s another to play meaningful responses to other people’s musical expressions in a live context.
To that end, I want you to find at least one person to jam the blues with. Even if that means teaching someone to play the blues in the first place, or finding a singer; you don’t need to just play with other guitarists, there’s actually a great deal you can learn about phrasing from most singers. Get together once in a while and focus on making worthwhile, heartfelt call and response playing between you.
Don’t stress about flawless execution and just put the keys into use:
1. Listen to what they’re playing.
2. Sing it in your head and then formulate a response.
3. Play what you mean to say back.