For this issue, I’d like to take a break from the high-octane ‘shredding’ and theory I usually talk about and discuss something I believe is just as important – playing the blues. In this day and age, it seems far too common that guitarists will go straight to the fast, shred-style licks, yet skip over how to jam over a basic 12 bar blues. This is a shame, since there is so much that can be gained from understanding the blues; particularly in regards to bending, vibrato and phrasing. I believe it is vitally important that a guitarist have a solid foundation of blues-based playing before they move on to more advanced techniques.  

It’s all well and good to be able to shred across the neck, but if your bends are out of tune and your vibrato is weak, then it won’t mean much. By going back and working on the blues, it will strengthen your overall playing. That way, when you go back to shredding, it will be so much more powerful and interesting. A fast scale run moving into a killer bend with wide vibrato sounds awesome! You’ll find that even guys who are known for their virtuosic abilities (Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen, Batio, etc) all have a solid handle on the blues. It shows not just when they play bluesy licks, but in their overall sense of timing and phrasing, and in their bending and vibrato.   


I’ve written a simple solo over a 12 bar blues in E to illustrate some of these points. Firstly, notice all the different bends that are used. There are whole-step bends (bars 1, 5, 9), half-step bends (bars 2,6), quarter-step bends (bars 2,3,6), and a one-and-a-half-step bend (bar 15). In my opinion, bending is one of the single most important aspects of lead guitar playing since it’s where all your feeling and emotion comes from. Jamming over a blues is a great way to get your bending up to scratch. The key to good bending is intonation – bending in tune. Practice the different types of bends in this blues solo, making sure that you bend to exactly the right pitch. It’s important that you grip your thumb over the neck to support your fingers and give the bend power.

Secondly, playing over a blues is an excellent way to work on your vibrato. You add vibrato to a note by slightly bending and releasing it in a repeated and regular fashion (bars 3, 4, 7, 11). You can also add vibrato to notes that are already bent by rapidly releasing the bend and bringing it back into pitch (bars 1, 5, 9). Vibrato can be shallow or wide. Along with bending, it is an important expressive tool.

Finally, the blues is a great way to work on your phrasing. By dividing the twelve bars of a blues into three groups of four, you can structure your solos in a ‘call and response’ fashion. Notice in the solo how bars 1-4 and 5-8 start off the same (the ‘call’), while bars 9-12 answer this with a different line (the ‘response’). This use of repetition is a great way to develop your phrasing, and it can be applied to your metal solos.

Hear Exercise 1

The cool thing about the blues is that you can make it as simple or as complex as you like. Once you start using chord substitutions, different scales (such as Mixolydian), and extended arpeggios it can actually get pretty complicated. Never-the-less, my main point is that if you want to be a technical shred/metal player, don’t neglect to get your blues playing down!