The Blues Language

Difficulty: Blue
Views: 308,254

If you want to learn the blues, it really helps to think of it like it is a language. Learn the alphabet (scales) then words (licks) then put them into sentences (phrases) and eventually into poems (solos). The lesson explains this in more detail and it's a pretty big deal if you want to get into playing Blues Lead Guitar. We don't play much this lesson but it will really help you to understand where we're going in this course and help you make the most of it!

Ok, lets flesh out this 'blues as a language' idea a bit.

The Alphabet

Blues is a language and the easiest way to understand it is to compare it to the way we learn a language (especially the way we would learn a second language as an adult). Most children will learn words directly from their environment (much as you might find yourself playing blues licks if you listen to it a lot!) but when at school and learning how to communicate, students are taught the alphabet first. If you want to try and learn a new language the first step will be to learn the alphabet of that language so you can pronounce the words! In the Blues Language, the most basic alphabet is the Minor Pentatonic Scale. It's very important that you learn it correctly and well, so you don't have to think about it, your fingers know where to go instinctively, much the same way as we learn the alphabet by rote.

The Words

Once you know your alphabet you will have trouble communicating anything unless you learn some words. Using English as an example, if you say "gohtsdref" it doesn't make sense to an English speaker. It's only when you start to combine the letters into recognizable words that you'll start communicating an idea.

Often guitar students will start improvising with the minor pentatonic scale and feel it's 'not sounding right' and listeners will think it sounds strange. But when the student starts playing some licks, even just a few, they can start communicating and it 'sounds right', 'feels right' and listeners will recognize the words - 'that person is speaking Blues' and they'll dig it!

Also interesting to observe is that you can use the same letters (with pronunciation changes) to speak other languages, say using our 'English' letters to speak French, merci mon amie! Same in music, we can use the Minor pentatonic scales in other styles of music, but we'd probably be using different licks and changing the way we play it (the accent) to make it sound right in the new language.

The Great Lick Myth

It's often been said that learning licks and set phrases can make your playing soulless and that you will not be expressing yourself. I don't expect or want you to believe me, but simple observation should show you that licks are an essential part of the blues language! If you listen to Eric Clapton you will hear licks that are exactly the same licks Albert King played, and while you can say for sure that Eric was influenced by Albert there is nothing bad about it! You will also hear Stevie Ray Vaughan playing Freddie King licks, Keith Richards playing Chuck Berry licks and the list goes on. Every great blues guitar player uses blues licks and as you develop your own playing you will notice that you can express yourself using licks you stole from someone else, you will put your own emotion into them and the collection of licks you learn will mix into your own style.

The Grammar

Not only do we have words but we also need to learn a little grammar too! We make sure our licks can be understood using space (full stops), repetition (developing an idea) and not over complicating things... You also need to be using the right licks in the right places or things won't be sounding right.

The Story

Once you know some licks and basic grammar you're ready to start telling stories. The more you practice the better you will learn to structure your solos (stories) to have dynamic interest and a build that keeps the listener engaged. There are specific tools you can learn to do this effectively and well which we cover later in the course, but most of this is best learned by experience.

The Old School Approach

I've studied a lot of Blues artists and the history of the blues and I can say for certain that many of the blues masters don't know much about the technical or theoretical elements of the music (language). They learned the same way as people learn a language by experience. Learning a foreign language at school will not be as effective as listening to native speakers, especially if you are completely immersed in it. There are many stories about the British Blues guitarists of the 60's hanging out together listening to blues records by the Three Kings (BB, Freddie and Albert) and stealing licks from them! Learning licks by ear will teach you a lot more than learning by 'book'. You will pick up the 'accent' a lot better and your playing will sound more authentic.

But. It's a lot harder to learn the Old School way and using the approach I give you here will make the journey a lot faster, and in some ways better. Once I show you the alphabet and some words, you'll recognize the words in solos you like and you will find it a lot easier to learn the solos by ear.

YOU MUST LISTEN TO THE BLUES IF YOU WANT TO PLAY IT.

Without a lot of listening you will never pick up the correct accents and pronunciation, it just won't happen. During the course, I will be recommending albums that I think are amazing and I'm sure you will learn better and faster if you can get 30 minutes a day at least to listen to some blues. Pick the artists you like and that stir emotion in you because they are the ones that will resonate best with, and you should learn the words that affect you the most.

I hope all that makes sense and that you are ready to start your journey learning The Blues. Hope you enjoy it.

Homework and Practice

There's no set physical practice this week - but try to find 10 minutes a day to do some concentrated listening of great blues recordings. I've had students say "it's just listening, surely scale practice is will help me be a better guitar player" but listening is THE most important thing to do and properly focused listening is something you try to do every day if you can make time. I mean REALLY listening, not having it on in the background, but immersing yourself in the music.

Give yourself time to do nothing but listen to a blues guitarist you love (and if you're not sure where to start - check out the BB King album below!) and focus on this language element and ask yourself:

a) Can I hear words (licks)?
b) How are the words being used to make sentences?
c) Are some of the words repeated?
d) Can you hear different artists using the same or similar words?

There are no right or wrong answers here, but listening and thinking about it will teach you more than you might expect ;) trust me!

Recommended Album

Remember that listening to great Blues is an essential part of the course, so try and check out all my recommended albums, they're the best of the best!

B.B. King - Live At The Regal (1964)

This is undoubtedly one of the finest Blues albums ever recorded. Just incredible on every level. Just get it!! I don't know anyone who doesn't like this album, B.B.'s playing is right on it, and the audience interaction is a window to the world at a very different time.

Buy at Amazon.co.uk • Buy at Amazon.com • Hear it on Spotify

External Links

Here are some additional links you might find interesting and helpful at this point!

Clapton talking about learning licks (video)

Know of another interview with one of the Blues Masters where they talk about using and learning licks? then let me know!! :) thanks!

 

Blues Lead 1: Essential

- LESSON STEPS -

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