Have you ever watched a kids football match? You don't see much in the way of strategy or tactics. No elegant sweeping passes around the pitch. Instead you see a single clump of little players weaving its way around the pitch as all the kids follow the ball.
Sometimes guitarists at blues jams are like those kids. Instead of the elegant sound of a real blues band there's a kind of muddled din as everyone bashes away on those same 7th chords. Wouldn't it be great if there was a different way to play. A way to open up some space in the music so that the notes could be passed around elegantly?
Well, here's a way to do just that the next time you're playing some blues with friends. The answer is to play some rhythm riffs instead of full chords. This post teaches you a simple single-note riff that works great as a rhythm part in a band.
If you're comfortable playing some pentatonic scales then instead of playing chords that muddy up the sound you can weave in a neat little riff like this to create space and elegance. Sound good? Then let's get to work on an example riff on the I chord.
Example I chord riff
We're going use the key of G for this example. The figure below shows the riff played over the I chord, G7.
The lick starts just ahead of the first bar with a slide into the major 3rd to announce that G7 chord. It continues with a simple run on the 2nd string before winding back up on the major 3rd again.
The lick is repeated in the second bar with a slight twist at the end, it finishes on a G note instead of the major 3rd. You could just repeat the major 3rd ending, that would work fine, but I like the little extra bounce the change introduces.
The presence of the major 3rd at the 4th fret of the 3rd string really supports the sound of the G7 chord. You might be thinking that that note isn't in the standard pentatonic minor, or blues, pattern that you've learned. In fact, what's going on here is that we're mixing the minor and major scales.
Mixing the minor and major pentatonic scales
This mix of notes from the major and minor pentatonic scales can be thought of as a scale on its own. It even has a fancy name - the mixolydian scale - but you don't need to worry about that if you don't want to.
I prefer to just think of it in terms of the basic minor pentatonic scale with a couple of notes from the major scale thrown in. This also works if you think of it the other way around - as a major pentatonic scale with a couple of minor pentatonic notes thrown in.
Those notes on the third and sixth frets come straight out of the first minor pentatonic scale box in the key of G.
The other notes - those on the fourth and fifth frets - are taken from the G major pentatonic scale. These added major tones outline the chord sound and make the riff work well as a rhythm accompaniment.
But while these major sounds make the lick a great tool to outline the sound of the G7 chord, they pose problems when we move to the IV or V chord. Try playing the riff over C7 and D7 chords to hear for yourself.
The major 3rd of the G7 really doesn't sound good over those chords. Luckily, there's an easy solution for that problem.
Moving the riff to the IV and V chords
When the song moves to the IV or V chords we need to modify the riff to remove the troublesome major 3rd note. We're going to use an easy solution, we simply move the whole lick up five frets on the IV chord and two more frets (seven in total) on the V chord and play it there instead.
The figure below shows what happens when the lick is moved up to the 8th fret over the C7 IV chord.
Now the lick does a great job of outlining those chords for us and the shape is the same so it's easy to play. And here's how it's played over the D7 V chord. Note that this chord only lasts for one bar before moving down to the C7 version shown above.
Putting it all together
If you string the lick together in all three positions then you get the complete arrangement shown in the figure below. Now find yourself some blues recordings in the key of G and try it out.