5 Reasons Your Blues Solo Does Not Sound Great

7 minutes read, by Tommaso Zillio

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It happens every time. You are on stage, you are jamming the Blues. It’s your turn to take the solo and you do your best... but it’s not a great solo. Maybe good, but not awesome. All the buddies at the jam session tell you not to be concerned, and all that you need is a bit more experience. Come next week, we will jam again. And yet you wonder: you did everything right, everything by-the-book, so why your solo did not sound exciting?

No, I am not going to tell you to “break the rules”, or that “you cannot learn from a book” or other platitudes. These are the things that other musicians tell you when they don’t want or can’t explain what you are missing. Because you ARE missing something, and you better discover it if you want to become a better player and leave your buddies with their jaw on the floor. Or maybe you prefer to learn from painful trial-and-error and take years in the pursuit of the great solo?

It turns out that there is a set of VERY common mistakes that Blues players tend to do unless someone has explicitly warned them. Each one of these mistakes can ruin your solo, and the worst part of it is that you might not even be conscious of them. Or maybe you are conscious of them and you do not think they are mistakes, because they “sound good to you”.

Being a Blues player does not excuse you from studying your instrument. And now that I have captured your sympathy with this last statement, let’s have a look at some of the problems that prevent many Blues players from realizing their musical potential and that are not too difficult to solve.

1: Out-of-tune bends

This is one of the most common problems I hear whenever I go to open jams. It is so widespread that you can hear it even in some self-proclaimed professional musicians! You can recognize this problem immediately when it seems that for a moment the guitar was out-of-tune, and then in the next notes the guitar is in tune again. Of course it’s not the guitar being out of tune: it’s the player. Let me explain the problem more clearly: whenever you bend a string, you should not just bend “up” with no particular target. No, you need to have in mind a very specific pitch that you want to bend TO, and then hit it with surgical precision.

Of course, in Blues there are also the so-called “smear bends” i.e. bending up a note less than a semitone from the original pitch. While it is true that in this specific technique you are not bending up to a specific note, this does not mean that you won’t have to work on your “normal” bends until they are in tune.

The simplest strategy to learn how to bend in tune is to spend some quality time working on your bending technique while using a tuner to make sure you are doing a good job.

2: Never playing the interval of a 4th

To play the interval of a 4th on a guitar you need to use the so-called rolling technique, i.e use the same finger to play two successive notes on two different strings, avoiding the notes to bleed into each other. Since many players are not familiar with this technique, they NEVER use it in their solo.

This is a subtle and insidious problem, as it is not immediately evident. The symptoms in this case are that all phrases seem to kinda sound the same. Your ear somehow notices that something is missing: the interval of a 4th!

The solution here is twofold:

  1. First of all, learn the rolling technique properly. To help you, I have created a video on Blues guitar mistakes that will show you how to perform the rolling motion properly. I promise you, this technique is not as difficult as it seems at first sight and it will become second nature really fast.
  2. Second, compose, develop, and learn some licks that actually include the interval of a 4th (i.e the rolling motion). If you don’t do that, you will most likely fall back on your old trusted licks when the time of soloing comes.

3: Never starting your phrases on an upbeat

This is one of those problems that you never notice you have until somebody tells you — but that is painfully obvious to anyone listening. Most players start their phrases on a downbeat only. It is more natural to play this way since somehow your brain thinks that the downbeat is the time for “action” and the upbeat it’s the time for “rest”. On the other hand, if you start all your phrases on a downbeat they will all sound alike even if you use different notes! Apparently our ears care more about rhythm than pitch, so unless you provide some rhythmic variety your solo will sound like an endless repetition of the same thing!

The solution here is to work in three successive steps:

  1. Improvise a solo where you start ALL phrases on an upbeat. Keep your phrases so you can focus better on the rhythm. If you have no idea how to do that, please check out the accompanying video on Blues guitar mistakes. Note that at this point the solo still sounds repetitive, we are just doing some preparatory work for the real thing. Once you can do that, then:
  2. Improvise a solo where every other phrase starts on a downbeat, and the next on an upbeat and so on. The solo now will sound a bit more interesting, but the rigid repetition (one downbeat, one upbeat) will become evident after a while. Again, this is just an exercise. Once you can do that, then:
  3. The real thing: you are free to start your phrases on either an upbeat or a downbeat without following a precise scheme. In fact you should try to make sure that when the listener expect a downbeat you use an upbeat, and vice versa. If you consistently strive to surprise the listener then you are on your road to be a great improviser!

4: Being limited to one position on the fretboard

Many Blues players rely on the same old tried-and-true basic pentatonic “box” pattern. There is nothing wrong with that per se (but see the last point below) except that many players never move away form there. Their left hand is solidly anchored on a specific position on the neck, and it’s not going to move from there for the whole song.

The problem here is that if you do not “move around”, then your solo will linger in the same ‘register’, which means that you will never move away from a reference pitch. Not only, as we have seen, our ear is more sensitive to rhythm than pitch, but it’s also more sensitive to register than specific pitches. This means that no matter how original are your phrases, if you play always in the same octave your solo will “not go anywhere”.

Again, the solution is quite simple and easy to implement: learn your scale patterns carefully so you can move “vertically” on your fretboard and you won’t get stuck in the same position. You can get started by simply playing your favourite box pattern in the position you normally use, and alternate it with the same pattern in a position 12 frets (1 octave) higher or lower. This won’t sound as fluid as it would if you knew how to move on the whole fretboard (which is what you want to aim at ultimately), but it’s a good quick fix that you can use immediately.

5: Not knowing what you can play

Finally, let’s have a look at what you are playing. The most well-known scales to play on a Blues are the minor pentatonic and the “Blues scale” (which is nothing else than a minor pentatonic with an added diminished fifth). Despite their popularity, these two scales suffer from a number of problems. Here I’m going to highlight two:

  1. Unless you are in a Minor Blues, these scales will always contain at least one “wrong” note for all the chords in the Blues progression. If you have ever wondered why other players seem to make their solo “fit” the track better than you can, this is the most likely reason: they know about these “wrong” notes and either avoid them or play other notes instead.
  2. These two scales are vastly overplayed, so when you use them you will sound like everybody else. There are a number of other scales that sound as nicely if not better on a Blues progression, and you should be able to choose among all of them.

Watch the Video

Do you have one or more of these problems? If you answered yes, I have prepared for you a video lesson that you can see that explains more in depth some strategies you can use to overcome these issues. You can find the video lesson by clicking on the button below:

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