Blues guitar is one of the most influential types of music, providing the basis for much popular rock music. Since it is so popular and fundamental, it’s vital to master every part of blues, including the licks. To get started, we’re going to look at 13 essential blues licks.
Components of Blues Licks
Before we look at specific licks, there are several vital parts that we need to cover. From identifying the particular notes to manipulating their sound, there are numerous tricks to an authentic-sounding lick.
When it comes to any style of music, scales are an integral part. Just like the chords follow a scale, so do the licks.
Once you know and understand the scale behind the blues style, you can master the licks below.
If you are familiar with guitar scales, the common major and minor ones have seven notes. However, the blues scale comes from the minor pentatonic scale, which has only five notes: the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th. Now take those notes and move the fifth one down a half step (called the flat 5th). Add that new note to the original five notes, and you have a blues scale: 1st, 3rd, 4th, flat 5th, 5th, and 7th.
You can use this scale for whatever key you’re playing in. For example, if the song you are playing is in A minor, the blues notes are as follows:
- 1st: A
- 3rd: C
- 4th: D
- Flat 5th: Eb
- 5th: E
- 7th: G
Understanding the blues scale gives you the foundation for all potential licks. Plus, many of the most famous licks are fancy scales.
When you read blues licks, you’ll see them written on the traditional music staff as well as on tabs. Since tabs are specifically for guitars, you’ll find specific intonations for more details – like bends.
Annotated with a curved upward arrow, bends are a technique to push the note’s pitch. To play a bend, you place your finger on the string and physically push – or bend – it upwards. Many bends say how far to increase the pitch. For example, a full bend raises the pitch a whole tone above the written one, while a ¼ bend only makes the note slightly sharp.
Vibrato is when a note shakes or wavers rapidly in its pitch. While vibrato may be more commonly recognized in vocals, it still is a vital part of guitar playing, especially in blues licks. You can spot them in tabs by the wavy line above a note.
You can create vibrato through various techniques on the guitar. Try each of the following techniques and see which one is easier for you, sounds the best, and fits the flow of the songs you play:
- Slightly release the string and press down again repeatedly
- Rock your hand and finger back and forth on the string
- Do tiny, quick bends on the note
The last major part of blues guitar is the slide. Learning how to play slide guitar is a lesson for another blog, but you may come across a few in popular blues licks.
You will see them marked as a line connecting two notes, meaning you don’t lift your finger between playing them, but slide down (or up) the string to reach the new pitch.
13 Blues Licks
Now that you understand the main components of a blues lick, it’s time to look at some top blues licks.
1. Implement the 16th Notes
Our first lick combines various elements of blues all in one. As such, it is a great one to practice, since you can manipulate it to fit numerous songs.
This one-measure lick has only sixteenth notes, helping you get the increased finger mobility you need when playing blues guitar.
Regarding the individual notes, this lick combines several key scale elements. The first half of the lick is written in the Dorian mode, a predominant voicing in blues. Plus, the lick includes elements of jazz, like the 9th and 13th notes from the chord.
Since blues and jazz often appear combined in songs, this is a great lick to practice.
2. A Slide Lick
This next blues lick is short and sweet but quite powerful. It includes elements of two crucial chords, IV6 and IV9, with a slide between them that opens and closes the lick. The dyad in the middle has A and D, which are the root and fourth notes of the chord.
This lick may seem difficult to pull off since the eighth notes are not singular notes, but chords and dyads. However, with a slide on your index finger, you can quickly master this essential lick.
3. Practice the Bends
Here is a simple bend to use as an introduction. The first two notes are rather long (compared to the sixteenth and eighth notes in the first two licks), giving you plenty of time to bend them.
The quarter note C requires a full bend up to D, and the dotted quarter note C has a half bend up to C#.
The following triplets don’t have any bends, but they are a simple way to prepare for more complex licks.
4. Bends and Chords
Bends can be tough, so we have another h lick to keep practicing with them! The difference with this one is that you are bending full chords, not just single notes. Luckily, all the chords are the same.
Use all four fingers for this chord, and push them slightly upwards for a simply ¼ bend. Also, note that three of these four notes in the chord come directly from the A blues scale: A, Eb, and C.
5. Vibrato and More Vibrato
If you’re hoping to practice the different ways of playing vibrato, this lick is perfect for you. The first two measures are just half note dyads with drawn-out vibrato. Make sure to add the bend before each one to add extra emphasis.
The third measure may look a bit complicated at first glance, but practice it in sections. The first note is an E with a bend and vibrato – like the previous ones – and sixteenth notes follow. Make sure to play the quick bend on the B sixteenth note.
6. Throw in Some Accidentals
This lick contains several crucial aspects. First, we have the triplet pattern, which keeps reappearing in blues music. Plus, the final A with vibrato adds a powerful finish to the lick.
Now, there are two potentially challenging aspects of this lick: the initial bend and the accidentals. Since the bend is a half-step and on a triplet, it doesn’t give you much time to play it. Plus, the accidentals on the G, C, and E can be confusing.
However, these accidentals give it a strong blues feel, since every note is part of the A minor blues scale.
7. A Triad of Bends
Here we have three bends in one lick, giving you the perfect opportunity to practice them. The first one is a full bend, pushing the D up to an E. It’s on a half note, so that gives you plenty of time to push it up and give it a full, beautiful vibrato.
The second full bend is on the first note (D) of the triplet, making it slightly more challenging. However, since the second note of the triplet is the same as the first, you don’t have to worry about switching to a new string and position.
The final bend is a quick ¼ bend on the C eighth note to finish off the lick.
8. A Bend for Each Triplet
To practice quickly bending notes, use this lick. To start each triplet, you do a quick ¼ bend on the first note, a C. The repetition of the triplets and bends serves as a great agility exercise and a way to continue practicing with the A minor blues scale notes.
9. Take It up an Octave
This next lick has a touch of vibrato and two licks – one full and one half – along with something we haven’t yet seen. If you look above the staff, you’ll see a note that says “8va,” which stands for octave. In short, you need to play the notes up one octave.
You can practice this lick both as written and up an octave, which will give you more finger dexterity at different places on the guitar neck.
10. Accidentals and Vibrato
We’ve seen several licks resemble the A minor blues scale, but this next one uses notes from the B blues scale. The F# in the given key signature and the F natural accidentals ensure the fifth and flat fifth are included. Plus, the Bb accidental gives this lick and extra blues touch.
With the bends and vibrato on the dotted quarter notes at the beginning, this lick has a powerful intro.
11. 16th Note Run
For the last three blues licks, we’ll look at some longer runs that require some rapid finger movement.
The one below mirrors our first pattern; the only difference is that it has more accidentals and vibrato. Make sure to keep an eye out for the C, F, and G accidentals.
12. 8th Note Lick
Here we have a simpler-looking lick since it has mostly eighth notes. However, ensure you keep the beat steady as you move from the starting bends into the eighth-note patterns.
Don’t forget the two sneaky sixteenth notes in the measure, and give the low E a powerful vibrato in the second and third measures.
13. Repeating Triplets
In our final blues lick, we have a combination of bends, vibrato, triplets, and sixteenth notes – a little bit of everything!
The simple thing about this one is that the triplets are the same – all you need to do is repeat them. Plus, there are no accidentals to worry about.