B.B. King, R.I.P.

It’s no overstatement to say that B.B. King influenced countless guitar players, changed the way the instrument was played in important ways. He certainly wasn’t the only one of his generation; in addition to the other two “Three Kings” (Albert and Freddie) of blues, you had (and still have) Buddy Guy, and the late Albert Collins was another contemporary who had a strong voice on the instrument.

But B.B. was probably the most prolific of the bluesmen, and certainly had the longevity, playing well into his ’80s, at a pace that players half his age frequently won’t run.

There’s a pretty decent rundown of King’s approach and solo style here. You may recognize the box as pentatonic box #2 (the major pentatonic), with a passing (blue) note thrown in. This is yet another feature that set B.B. King apart from most blues and rock players — the use of the major pentatonic rather than the usual minor (box #1) pentatonic that everyone uses.

Once your ear figures out the key, it should be relatively simple to pick up the melodic and solo notes. Of course, that’s the easy part with the blues — the real challenge lies in learning to make every note count, to make your phrasing spare, to make the notes sing and swing. That’s the magic, to plug directly into an amp, no effects, no lightning-fast licks, just you and your hands making the guitar sound like another voice, like a woman crying, whether in sorrow or joy. It’s very much a duet, between King’s voice singing a verse or chorus, and then playing a melody or solo on the guitar, as a response from the other vocalist.

Again, the note choices are critical, but not in the sense of having to memorize a pattern or box or scale. If you hit a note your ear perceives as “wrong,” just remember that the “right” note is next to it, one fret up or down. Then your wrong note becomes a passing tone. Even a “wrong” note played with conviction is better than a “right” note played half-assed. Keep it simple. Think of your tone — the amp, the guitar, the amount of pressure you use in your picking and fretting hands — as your speaking voice. Think about what you’re trying to say on your end of the conversation.

Watch the way B.B.’s left hand shakes as he squeezes every last drop out of a note, that’s vibrato. Hendrix had it, Stevie Ray Vaughan had it, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons and Joe Bonamassa have it. Great vocal bending control and powerful vibrato are among the strongest tools a lead guitarist can have. B.B. King helped forge that path for the rest of us, a true musical pioneer.

Bending and Vibrato

As we mentioned in the Still Got the Blues lesson, one of the really cool things about the guitar is that there are techniques you can use to mimic human vocal sounds and styles. Two of the most powerful of these “vocalisms” are bending and vibrato. They are related, but not quite the same thing.

The thing about bending and vibrato is that they require your ears as much as your hands to accomplish successfully. For beginning players, this can be difficult, because you’re still in the process of training your ears to what sounds “right” or “in tune.” Rest assured that persistence will pay off when it comes to ear training, it just takes time and practice.

These techniques are difficult to teach as well, because they are more about feel than precision. That doesn’t mean that there’s not some precision involved, just that it’s not easy to convey with a simple tabbed lick to practice.

Vibrato

A good vibrato is characterized by being able to sustain the note long past it being initially picked. Keep pressure applied with the fretting finger for as long as you can, letting the note ring out. A minimal amount of motion with the finger, either back and forth, up and down, or “circular” (sort of a cross between the first two), will help sustain the note even longer. Bring your wrist into the motion a little bit as well, for stability and support. Some players will even use their forearms as well. Keep it simple until you get a better feel for it.

As the vibrato motion continues, the pitch of the note will alter microtonally (less than a quarter-tone). It’s important to not use so much vibrato that you end up off the note you were aiming for. Again, knowing how much is too much is mostly a matter of trial and error. Really listen to how much the note “shakes” when you apply even minimal vibrato motion.

You’ll find that it’s more difficult to apply vibrato (and bending) on the wound (lower-pitched) strings. Still not too bad, again it’s just something that takes practice and ear training.

Usually when we run through a scale or a melodic sequence the idea is to use a metronome to track and improve your precision and time. For this exercise, you don’t need a metronome at all. You really don’t need any tab, either. Simply work a basic chromatic position pattern from the low E string to the high E string. Start at the 7th position or higher, use each finger once per string, 1-2-3-4, low to high and then back down.

Do not worry about keeping a rhythm or playing in time for now. Just get a feel for sustaining the note, and giving it a little vibrato. Sustain each note for as long as you can, before moving on to the next note. You will probably find that the pinky finger is not very good at this by itself, so use your ring finger for added support. (You’ll need that for bending also.)

Work through the position pattern a few times, by then you should have a feel for what you’re striving for, and your ears and fingers are prepared. Then try it out all over the fretboard, any combinations you can think of. Play a three-note-per-string scale going from the low E string to the high E string, putting vibrato just on the last note before you go to the next string. See the tab below:

VibScale01

The above example doesn’t have to be played perfectly in time, but start trying to keep it at least to a rhythm. Slow to medium tempos work best for now, but even in faster songs, a well-placed bend or vibrato is a nice change of pace from a rapid-picked flurry of scale fragments.

As you get more comfortable with vibrato, start experimenting with widening the note as you’re sustaining it. It’s still not quite a half-step bend or more, but it’s more than the subtle microtonal changes we started with. Make that final note of the phrase sustain as long as possible without having to pick it again. It will take some trial and error but it will be well worth the effort.

There are great players of all genres, not just blues, that use vibrato very well. Rock players such as David Gilmour, Gary Moore, Frank Marino, and Zakk Wylde all have tremendous vibrato, as do countless other players of all styles. As you start hearing in your own playing the sound you’re trying for, you’ll start hearing it in the music you listen to as well. Obviously, that’s true for just about any technique, but it’s especially so for highly personalized techniques such as vibrato and bending. Like with anything else, imitate the greats, and then make it your own.

Bending

Bending is just like vibrato, only more so. (See, that was easy!) Successful string bending requires being able to push or pull the string considerably farther than vibrato, but the real difficulty is in maintaining pitch accuracy. You’re bending to another specific note, whether a half step, a full step, or even more. But you want to land accurately on that note at the right time, which requires even more feel and ear training.

For the higher-pitched strings (high E and B), you will be pushing the string straight up toward the ceiling. For the lower-pitched strings (low E and A), you’ll pull the string straight down toward the floor. For the two middle strings (D and G), it’s pretty much your call; there’s generally enough room on the neck to bend quite a bit without pushing or pulling the string off the neck (which chokes the note).

Again, learning how to bend with taste and feel requires training your ears just as much as your fingers. So let’s try a simple and effective exercise to train ears and fingers simultaneously in the nuances of bending strings. The idea here is to create a unison; you’ll play a regular picked note, and then bend up to that note from the string below it. Check the tab:

Bend03

Bend slowly at first, working up to the target pitch without going past it. You will probably need to use your ring finger to support and reinforce the pinky. Listen closely to the two notes, pick back and forth between them if you need to in order to remember your target. When the two notes ring together, you’re there.

The tuning between the G and B strings makes it easy to practice bends of a half step and a full step. Try both examples below:

Bend01

Bend02

Use your vibrato to work on holding the bent note as long as possible, at least into the next note. Listen closely to make sure that the bent note matches the note on the next string accurately. Just like with tuning, the two tones should match perfectly. Practice bending the note at different rates, quickly and slowly, the variations will give your ears and fingers a workout.

Bending down the neck on the lower strings is also cool for riffs. Here’s a simple but effective one used by countless bands over the years:

Bend06

For the last exercise, visualize the first two boxes of the E minor pentatonic scale, starting at the 12th fret. We’re just going to use the first three strings (E’-B-G) for this exercise:

Bend04

Again, don’t worry too much about perfect metronomic rhythm just yet, just try to keep it more or less in time. Now let’s try creating the highest notes on each string by bending the next note up to it, then releasing it back down to the original pitch:

Bend05

This one will definitely take some practice, so be patient, take it slow, and listen closely for the pitches of the bent notes to be accurate.

As always, make sure to try these out all over the fretboard, especially when you practice transposing the pentatonic boxes in various keys. Vibrato and bending are probably the two most important techniques that make up great phrasing, and let you find and create your own voice on the guitar.

Usually we’ll sign off with “stay tuned,” but when it comes to ear training, it’s extremely important to be accurately tuned. Unless you’re comfortable and experienced at tuning by ear, use a tuner to be certain. Have fun!

Still Got the Blues

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:

SGB_v1 SGB_v2
The chords are arpeggiated as shown above in the intro, but strummed when the vocals come in. Use a clean tone, neck or bridge pickup, back the volume off a bit from max.

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:

SGB_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.)

SGB_chorus
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.

SGB_var1 SGB_var2

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.

Holiday Weekend Discounts and Free Downloads!

For the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the entire PTG catalog will be either discounted up to 75% or FREE.

Presto and Climbing the K2 will be available for free downloads on May 25th and 26th, while Practice Power, Pentatonic Licks & Sequences, and Hanon for Guitar: Inside Out will be on a Kindle Countdown from May 24th through the 26th. For the Countdown deals, prices start at just 99¢ on the 24th, then go to $1.99 on the 25th, and $2.99 on the 26th.

Get loaded and ready for a summer of great guitar playing, for less than a cup of coffee!

6 Essential Pentatonic Licks and Sequences

Let’s take a look at some more melodic phrases and patterns from the pentatonic minor scale. These are based on the first two of the five A minor boxes, and you should definitely work the patterns across all the boxes, on all strings, in as many keys as you can think of. Check out the Pentatonic cheat sheet from the Resources page for reference on all five boxes (in A minor).

The first two boxes, with the b5 note (blues scale):

Box1   Box2

The first pattern is a classic 2-finger, 2-string riff, fretted with just the index and pinky fingers. Check out the tab below:

Pent_01

Try out both picking suggestions, straight down-up alternate picking and with some legato thrown in, for a smoother sound.

For even more legato, try the variation below:

Pent_01a

As always with legato, try to keep a smooth, even tone and consistent volume for all the notes in the phrase. The picking directions are suggestions; if another way works better for you, stick with that.

Here’s another cool 2-string phrase, which might be easier to play at higher speeds; again trying alternate picking and legato variations:

Pent_02

This is a good phrase to get maximum legato with:

Pent_02a

Two-finger phrases are ideal, since they’re easy to play fast, and simple to move around the fretboard. This repeating sequence is based in the middle of the first box, and incorporates the flatted fifth “blue note” (Eb):

Pent_03

Phrases with 3 and 6 notes sound really cool played in groups of four. Try the above phrase as a quick four-on-the-floor sequence:

Pent_04a1

Pent_04a2

Now try it an octave higher, which puts the phrase on the B and high E strings, and moves up to the 2nd pentatonic box:

Pent_04b

Melodic sequences are fun to play and sound cool when played at a fast tempo, but it’s important to apply parts of those sequences into actual melodic phrases that really sing in a solo. Check out the tab below, which throws in some nice chromatic phrasing with the sequence, ending up in the first pentatonic box:

Pent_05

The final lick has more chromatic notes thrown in the mix than the previous example, and again moves from the second box to the first. Dig in on the closing notes for added emphasis.

Pent_06

It’s great to have an arsenal of licks that use multiple positions, and navigate around the neck. Again, refer to the cheat sheet on the Resources page, and work through all five boxes, and come up with phrases of your own that weave through two, three, or all five boxes.

Book Update

Just a quick update to let you all know that the next book, featuring some kick-ass pentatonic licks and sequences, is nearly finished, and will be ready for release within the next couple weeks. As always, we’ll kick off the launch with a free download weekend (where you can pick up some of our other titles for free as well).

In the meantime, we’ll post an excerpt from the new book this weekend, so be on the lookout for that. Stay tuned!

Coming Soon — More PTG Books for Kindle!

Hope you’ve all been enjoying the Kindle books we’ve released here at PTG all summer. We have several more in various stages of development, including one that is nearing completion and should be ready for release early September.

This next book will be a departure from the classically-oriented material we’ve been doing, and it’s something we’ve had a lot of folks asking for. The book will review the five pentatonic boxes, and will dozens of cool phrases you can use in each of those boxes.

There will also be brief explanations, for less experienced players, on how and why this stuff works, and how to use all the little “vocal” sounds the guitar can make that most other instruments can’t. If you’re looking for something that will take your playing to the next level, and that you can put to use right away, this is the book for you!

Stay tuned, we’ll have release dates coming soon, plus free download dates for the entire PTG library!

5 Basic Pentatonic Licks Every Rock Guitarist Should Know

Many classic rock solos tend to be built up from various combinations and sequences of easy-to-play pentatonic licks. Let’s take a look at five powerful “stock” phrases, all based around the standard A minor pentatonic box. Each tab is accompanied by a .wav file, at two speeds (92 beats per minute and 160bpm), so you can hear how it should sound.

Here’s a two-string pull-off lick:

PentBasic01

BasicPent01(slow) BasicPent01(fast)

For many two-string legato exercises using box shapes, it helps to use your index finger as anchor, similar to barring a chord, but just for the two or three strings you might be using for the lick.

The next one uses a hammer-on instead of a pull-off:

PentBasic02

BasicPent02(slow) BasicPent02(fast)

No doubt you’ve heard similar phrases used in countless rock, metal, country, and blues lead playing. Definitely use a metronome and follow the picking suggestions until you get these licks internalized, then you can start putting more distinctive dynamics into it, and make them yours.

Let’s move to the middle two strings of the box, and try a nice four-on-the-floor alternate picking lick:

PentBasic03

BasicPent03(slow) BasicPent03(fast)

Again, while these are simple phrases, your advantage is that you’re a guitar player, so there’s all sorts of cool dynamics you can incorporate into even the simplest four-note phrase. In the above example, you can use palm muting to get a percussive “chunk” sound, you can add artificial harmonics for a nice “squeal” effect here and there, you can make some or all of it into a legato phrase, whatever.

You can also play it in reverse, or with a different section of the box, or any of the other four boxes, or transpose it to another key.

Are we having fun yet?

This next lick is a fun and easy one, that will work out both your legato and picking chops. Zeppelin fans will probably note its similarity to the final phrase Jimmy Page plays in the middle (main) Rock and Roll solo:

PentBasic04

BasicPent04(slow) BasicPent04(fast)

Don’t be afraid of the triplet-16th/eighth note phrasing; once you get it down you’ll appreciate the polyrhythmic quality. It’s a huge element of developing your own phrasing as a lead player.

All of these examples are shown as just simple repetitions, because that’s the easiest way to get it under your fingers. The idea is to build a nice arsenal of these “stock” licks and take a piece here and there to combine and sequence into a great solo.

The guitar is your voice. Everyone has something to say, what’s on your mind?

The fifth lick involves the use of the blues scale. The blues scale is the pentatonic scale, with a flatted fifth (the tritone or “blue note”) thrown in. Here’s the blues scale as it lays along the first two boxes of the A minor pentatonic sequence:

Am Blues Scale

Take a close look at the above diagram; there are only six notes in the scale, repeated throughout two full octaves: A-C-D-Eb-E-G. See where Box #1 and Box #2 border each other and overlap.

So we’re going to throw that blue note in the mix with this last lick. The first bar of the phrase will just take you through the first octave of the scale, with a little back-and-forth phrasing. The second bar features some easy bending, before moving up to the 2nd box for another bend (but this time no release) with a nice chromatic passing tone (the C#, E’ string 9th fret), before ending on the high root note A (B string, 10th fret), by sliding into it from the G note (8th fret) below.

Check it out, and listen to the .wav files to hear the phrasing and nuances. This is more of a “voicing” lick, in that you don’t need (or even want) to crank it up to too high of a speed; dynamics such as bends and slides really don’t sound all that great at Mach 1:

PentBasic05

BasicPent05(slow) BasicPent05(fast)

While all of these licks are fairly simple to play and easy to master, the challenge is to make them sound unique. Use all of those dynamics (palm muting, harmonics, slides, legato, etc.) available to you to infuse the phrases with your voice and personality. Since the above exercises are in A minor, they should all sound pretty good over progressions in the keys of Am, Dm, or Em.

While it’s a rule of thumb to play any exercise in every key, not just the key it’s shown in, with pentatonic exercises there are keys that are advantageous to focus on, primarily because of the way the guitar is tuned. So while it would be great if you can transpose all of these into all 12 keys, the best ones to focus on for pentatonics are: Em (open and 12th positions), F#m (2nd and 14th positions), Gm (3rd/15th), Am (5th/17th), Bm (7th), Cm (8th), Dm (10th). The positions indicate where Box #1 will start, as shown on the cheat sheet.

When thinking about musical keys, think about how the relative minor/major factors into it as well. The relative minor key is always three frets (1½ steps) below the major key. So in your five interconnected pentatonic boxes, Box #1 is minor, Box #2 is #1’s relative major. That means the A minor boxes can also be played in the key of C major. The reverse is true as well; you will find some rock songs in the key of E major whose solos are played mostly in the C#m box at the 9th position.

The concepts are more important than rote memorization of every position and every box; once you learn the boxes in one position and get the hang of transposing, you’re most of the way there.

Stay tuned, we’ll have more intermediate and advanced pentatonic licks coming soon! Please feel free to drop a line in comments if there are any issues with playing the sound files.

If you’re ready for an in-depth exploration of the pentatonic/blues scales and boxes, and want to learn how to develop tasty, memorable licks and melodic runs with them, check out Pentatonic Licks & Sequences. Dozens of fresh licks, along with valuable tips and tricks to construct your own! Get some blues you can use with Pentatonic Licks & Sequences!