How To Improve Your Blues Guitar Playing

Let’s get one thing straight – there’s few people who aren’t impressed by a good blues guitar solo. Even people who don’t listen to the blues, don’t listen to rock music, and don’t even play guitar, will grudgingly admit that the blues sound just has that something to it – a certain swagger and attitude that you just don’t hear when you listen to piano, violin, etc…blues is unique, powerful, and is just an amazing type of sound. Many people aspire to play the blues well, you might even be one of them!
For a lot of folks, playing the blues can be more of an exercise in frustration. There’s a bit of a myth that gets perpetuated, that blues guitar is an easy or simple genre to play. While playing the blues does not have to be rocket science, it’s also not as simple as just learning a couple of scale shapes. Many people learn to play E7, A7, B7 and maybe learn the root position minor pentatonic “box,” but if that sounds like your process, you probably know you’re not quite sounding the way you want to just yet. And that’s OK. This article is not a comprehensive solution to your blues guitar playing, however, it will outline a few action steps so you can get your plan together to play the blues convincingly.
Before we get into any sort of actual guitar playing tips, the first step we need to take to play great blues guitar, is to develop a good foundational sense of rhythm. This might sound like a no-brainer, and on some level, you probably know you need a “sense of rhythm” to play music. But what if I told you it’s actually arguably the most important thing for your blues playing?
What we need to do, is set aside 10-15 minutes a day to work on rhythm. There are some specific exercises a trained teacher can walk you through to develop these, but suffice to say, they are not overly complex, or even demanding of a large amount of your time. If you do them a little bit each day, within weeks, you will see huge improvements in your rhythm and like magic, in your ability to play songs and improvise.
Illustration 1: You don’t need to know what pitch these are, but you need to be able to feel the rhythm. Hint – “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &…”
OK, with that out of the way, taking this step to better your rhythm will have huge benefits for your improvising skills, which is what your blues playing is built on. By having a high degree of familiarity and ability to emphasize different parts of the beat, you will notice your strumming and lead notes taking on an interesting quality. You will be able to start and end phrases on different parts of the beat – most folks only start their phrases on the beat itself, and this can sound boring and predictable. The best part about rhythm training, is that it’s mainly on a subconscious level, so just doing the simple drills will automatically improve your guitar playing.
Next, we want to effectively use both the major and minor pentatonic scales equally effectively. Most folks know the minor pentatonic. You need to have a system to reliably and consistently always know where the notes of the major and minor pentatonic are on the fretboard. That is a little too expansive to get into here, but when you do, you will be able to unleash both the melancholy, tough sound of the minor pentatonic scale, as well as the brighter, happier tone of the major pentatonic scale. There are times and places for both.
Illustration 2: The E Minor and E Major Pentatonic Scales
Next, we want to have some level of comfort with playing arpeggios. Arpeggios aren’t just for Yngwie Malmsteen fans – we aren’t going to be playing these at 200 beats per minute. We want to be able to play dominant 7th, minor 7th, and major 7th arpeggios in a few positions. You can use this to do a better job of connecting the rhythm guitar part with your lead improvisation. For example, over an A7 chord you might playing an A7 arpeggio as well as some notes from the major pentatonic scale.

Illustration 3: Amaj7, A7, and Amin7 arpeggios respectively
If you follow the three action steps outlined here, you will be well on your way to being a great blues player. It does take a bit of patience, but seeking out a qualified teacher in your area will speed up the process massively. Good luck!

Matt Chanway is a professional guitarist and teaches guitar lessons in Langley, BC.