“You have to know how to play the blues, and how to swing. The rest is just semantics.”
— Tim O’Brien

“If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
–Keith Richards

The blues, as a musical style, is as about as ubiquitous as you can get.  At least in terms of popular American styles of music–rock, folk, country, jazz–you can find a good helping of the blues just about anywhere you look.

When I talk about blues, I’m not just talking about a 12-bar blues chord progression–although 12 bar blues progressions occur in just about every genre of popular music.  And I’m not necessarily just talking about the genre of music played by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, etc.  Rather, I’m talking about a couple of different elements:

  1. A sound, or tonality, that’s based on certain note choices (in relation to the chord over which they are played) that are unique to the blues, and not really found in any other music, historically speaking.
  2. A sense of emotion, timing, and phrasing that is an important, and arguably essential, aspect of good improvisation.

Of course, the blues is hard to teach (especially point #2, above).  All of the best improvisers and all the best blues musicians will tell you that the only way to really absorb the blues is to listen to the blues.  I’m not saying that you have to LOVE the blues, and I’m not saying that you have to be a blues player per se.  But you definitely have to check it out.  There’s a huge variety of stuff out there…if you don’t care for a certain blues artist, then check out another.  Figure out some licks, or just stand back and absorb the feel and attitude of it.

Nowadays the blues winds its way through the improvisations of a huge variety of musicians.  Jazz wouldn’t exist without it.  Bluegrass wouldn’t exist without it.  Rock and roll certainly wouldn’t exist without it.  Country might exist without it, but it would sound a whole lot different.  And it plays a significant role in the styles of Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio, perhaps the two most influential guitarists for me personally.

So my goal here is not to try and present some kind of history of the blues–there are far better sources available for that than me.  Nor is my goal to turn everyone into a blues guitar player.  Rather I just want to show you some basic ideas for how you can incorporate some blues sensibility into your improvising, regardless of what kind of music you ultimately want to play.  First we’ll look at some of the theory behind the sound of the blues, and examine which notes make the blues sound they way it does.  After that we’ll attempt to examine the timing, phrasing, and attitude that comes from the blues.  And lastly, we’ll take a look at the 12-bar blues progression and hopefully learn some new ways to navigate it.