A reader recently asked about the classic Gary Moore song Still Got the Blues. I’ve been a huge fan of Gary Moore since the early ’80s Corridors of Power / Victims of the Future era, and back in my cover band days, Still Got the Blues was a favorite of mine to play. The melodic theme is simple but effective, and the structure of the song gives you plenty of room to stretch out as a soloist, and check out a wide array of melodic possibilities.
To begin with, let’s go over the basic chord progressions. Here’s the main verse progression, over which the main melodic theme also is played:
At first glance, since the song starts with a Dm7 chord, one might assume that the song is in the key of D minor (the saddest key of all). But it resolves in A minor, and in fact the chorus progression, as we’ll see, is pretty clearly in A minor. No worries, as there is only one note between the two scales/keys, as A minor uses all the natural notes (A B C D E F G) and D minor flattens the B note (D E F G A Bb C D). We’ll explore that later in this post.
You can catch a couple of performances (of varying quality) of Moore playing the song on YouTube. The tab below approximates what he appears to be playing, and is generally how I play the melodic theme:
It’s been mentioned in here many times, but it bears repeating: there are many cool things you can do on guitar that you simply can’t do on any other instrument, or at least not nearly as easily. One of the most important things is being able to bend notes, and this song is a prime example of how you can really make the most of that technique. (We’ll be doing a bending “mini-clinic” in the next post.)
But of course there are plenty of other really cool things exclusive to the guitar, that work well in songs such as this one. Sliding into and out of notes, hammer-ons and pull-offs, vibrato, palm muting, raking, and harmonics all add character and flavor to the notes, infusing the melody with a “vocal” quality.
If you check out more of Gary Moore’s catalog — and I can’t encourage you strongly enough to do so — you’ll find that he was not only a master of quick ‘n’ nasty scale runs, but had especially mastered the art of making long, slow, mournful notes at the right time, that could sound very much like a human voice. Check out Moore’s amazing rendition of Roy Buchanan’s classic The Messiah Will Come Again for another crash course in using the lead guitar like a human voice.
Here is the chorus progression for the song. Use a cleaner, “rounder” neck-pickup tone, with a bit of chorus and reverb, not much distortion, and strum the chords clean and smooth. Pay special attention to the small but important shift from the F9 to E7#9 chord near the end. (Bonus: That is the same E7#9 chord, known as an altered dominant, that makes up part of the verse progression to Hendrix’s Purple Haze.)
The melodic theme gets recapped in the solo breaks, and it’s important that you don’t play it exactly the same way every time. The essence of really good improvisation on a theme is to preserve the basic structure of the melody, but also be able to sense the places where you can play around with the feel of it, the placement of the notes, the dynamics, the “vocalisms” you can do that are unique to the guitar.
Here are a couple of variations on the main melodic theme that I used to do pretty regularly in live performances. Definitely try it first as written, with all the rakes, slides, hammer-ons, palm mutes, etc., and then make sure to start working through it with your own variations.
The beauty of this approach is that you get to really concentrate on capturing the feel of the melodic theme, of learning it note-for-note but then taking it further and playing with rhythm, dynamics, note choices. Again, that’s really the essence of blues-based music, taking a song and putting your voice into it. making it say what you want it to say, the way you want to say it.
That goes equally for the solo sections. Notice how they’re basically extrapolated from the root melodic theme, how Moore uses that strong melody as a springboard to improvise. As noted earlier, the song is technically in the key of A minor, but the theme plays over a progression that starts with a D minor chord. (In theory terms, pretty much all the chords in that progression, especially the Bm7b5, point directly to A minor.)
You might also think about the improvised solo as working between A minor pentatonic (A C D E G) and A minor diatonic (A B C D E F G). Only two notes difference, but as you’ll hear as you jam over the progression, where and how you use the B and F notes make all the difference in the world, for this type of song.
What’s fun to do in the solos, I found playing it dozens of times live, is to throw a few nods to D minor into the mix, just to keep it from sounding like variations on a single scale. So that means using that Bb note at strategic points to add a bit of color. The A Dorian mode (which is the same as A minor but without the flattened 6th, so A B C D E F# G) can also be used for a slightly “lighter” mood, but use that F# wisely. Try the F# and Bb (as well as the “blue note” of the A minor blues scale, Eb) in different parts of your melodic phrasing, especially as leading tones.
No matter what type of music or song, all solos are built by putting shorter phrases together, like words in sentences that eventually form paragraphs. The most important parts of the phrases you build your solos with are the first note and the last note, where you start each phrase and where you land, to move on to the next phrase. You’ll find that certain notes of the scale are ideal to begin the phrase with or “stick the landing,” while others (such as the F#, Bb, and Eb) make great passing tones to get to those destination notes.
Finally, while there’s certainly nothing to say that you can’t or shouldn’t work in a couple of speedy picked or legato runs here and there to spice things up, the elements that will really make your solos and phrasing stand out in this type of song are tone, taste, and dynamic control (loud/soft). Bending and vibrato will go a long way in making the melody shine.
Stay tuned, the next post will take you through a couple of simple exercises designed to get your note-bending chops going.