I've seen many jazz guitarists neglect to learn the blues, but if you ask me, that's a huge mistake.
Learning the traditional blues style can help you:
- Learn about tension and release
- Acquire useful vocabulary (licks)
- Inject a hefty dose of attitude into your playing 😎
As the great Dexter Gordon once said,
"If you can't play the blues... you might as well hang it up!"
What do I mean by "traditional"? For our purposes, this will refer to old school BB King, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, and so on.
I hope to not upset the purists with this one as I'm just trying to make a distinction here! 👍
Before we begin, let's just make sure we're all on the same page with the basic blues form:
Now, let's get into it 👇
Tension and Release
One of the hallmarks of the blues is the way that tension and release is used to build excitement.
This happens both in the actual lyrics of the songs, and solos!
For example, here are the opening lines to "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong":
- phrase 1 - introduction
- phrase 2 - tension
- phrase 3 - release
Listen to this great T-Bone Walker version to hear it for yourself! Notice how when he's soloing around the melody, his phrases mostly follow that formula:
introduction, tension, release.
The first two more subdued phrases build tension, which is then released in the more exciting 3rd phrase. It's a great way build an exciting solo!
Plus, this makes it sound like you're actually playing the song as opposed to playing "over" the song. I'm sure we've all been guilty of the latter at some point 😅
Now that we've established that tension and release can help build a great solo, you'll probably want to try it out for yourself.
I've put together a selection of classic licks to help you do just that:
Another minor pentatonic scale lick! Works great on the IV chord as well.
This one is intended to be played with a medium-slow triplet feel. Try changing the rhythms to make it work in a jazz context!
Feel free to mix and match to get started - this is no replacement for really learning the songs, but it's a fun way to get your feet wet.
The Blues 'Tude
Last but not least, learning the blues can add an extra layer of attitude to your playing, and really make your lines sing.
Part of this is because of the way blues players are unafraid of guitaristic things like bends, slides and trills. These techniques can be very expressive but for some reason have been underused by jazz guitarists.
Here are a few jazz guitarists who also have that blues 'tude:
Wes Montgomery - Kind of like Grant Green, but dialed up to 11! If you want to start working on your Wes impression, try taking any of the licks above and playing them in octaves. Or harmonizing with drop 2 voicings!
John Scofield - Blending blues vocabulary with jazz is clearly something Sco enjoys quite a bit! It's cool to hear how he mixes blues licks with modern techniques like pedals or even Holdsworth-style legato playing.
If I've successfully convinced you to dive into the world of traditional blues, you're gonna want to get some recordings by:
- BB King
- Albert King
- Albert Collins
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Muddy Waters
- Buddy Guy
- Freddie King
...just to name a few! So get crackin', bend those strings!
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, mastermind and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.