Electric guitar

How to Play the Blues Like the Early Electric Guitar Masters

When the guitar “went electric”, its potential as a solo or featured instrument—especially in a band context—exploded. A new breed of players, including John Lee Hooker, Hubert Sumlin and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, began to exploit these different possibilities and sounds, which were later developed by Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.

What I hope to capture in these examples is a snapshot in time when people started cranking up their amps and discovering just how loud things could get!

As you’ll see, I rely more on shrill-sounding open strings rather than single-note “solos” per se, but the electric guitar really comes to the fore. With a bit of ingenuity it would be possible to incorporate bass notes and make those ideas hold without a backing track (see example 1 for some tips on this), although it would come back without doubt to return to the previous era instead of advancing boldly. …

In the future, if we draw a rough timeline from pieces like Howlin’ Wolf’s Lightnin’ Fireplace (with Hubert Sumlin) at Jimi’s voodoo chile and SRVs Scuttle Buttin’you will see how this approach has taken hold over the decades.

Rather than playing a full solo, I opted for four examples that could still be put together to make a full piece, with example 4 giving an alternate take on the last four bars.

I opted to use a pick for a strong attack, pushing the studio Vox AC15 into a bit of natural overdrive. However, using hybrid picking could also produce expressive, albeit slightly softer, results.

Ultimately, from today’s perspective, you can treat these ideas as “vocabulary” and apply them to a wide variety of musical situations – the only limit, as they say, is your imagination.

Hope you enjoy exploring these ideas and see you next time!

Example 1

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Unlike later examples, this phrase could be played without accompaniment, thanks to the support provided by these resounding bass notes.

Sliding between positions 1 and 2 of E minor pentatonic, I heavily feature the open first and second strings – another way to fill out the sound of a solo guitar arrangement.

There’s also a hint of Chuck Berry/50s rock ‘n’ roll in bar 3 with this doublestop, which also features the 6th (C#).

Example 2

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Switching to the IV (A) chord, I use a voicing of A7, which is very popular in this style and means I can start the phrase strongly with an open fifth string as the root.

As we’ll see a bit later, this shape is mobile if you have a bass player to fill in the low end – and even if you don’t, there are positions where this can be circumvented. I end with some additional vocabulary ideas from the E minor pentatonic in open position.

Example 3

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Stray higher up the fretboard in “lead” guitar territory, I think this phrase demonstrates a platform on which many later styles were built. You will hear characteristic quarter-tone bends (especially on 3rd/G minor) and the characteristic 6th (C#) also appears.

For the end of the phrase, I play a downstroke on the third string, alternating with the first and second open to fill out the sound and push the guitar forward.

Example 4

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An alternate version of the final phrase, I chose to use the same “7th” voice as in example 2, starting at B7 (the V chord) then down two frets to A (IV).

The final phrase is inspired by a mix of SRV and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with some quick chromatic hammering (you can also try dragging it) between forms 1 and 2 of E minor pentatonic, ending as we started on the sixth open string.

Listen to it here

Howling Wolf – The definitive collection

From the first song, Moanin’ at midnightyou can hear Hubert Sumlin’s edgy, lightly driven guitar using the type of phrasing I’ve highlighted. Lightnin’ Fireplace almost needs no discussion as it’s a classic – but still worth listening to again.

Spoonful shows the guitar jumping between chord-based licks and fills and outright solos. It’s easy to see why Hubert Sumlin had such a big influence on young Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

John Lee Hooker– boogie king

Another compilation, but this one gives a good insight into the evolution of John Lee Hooker’s style, and blues guitar playing in general. Sally Maesupported by an acoustic guitar (in what looks like open G or A tuning with a capo), establishes a baseline, developed further The Stuttering Blueswhich gets squarely into the territory we’ve covered here.

Well, who could forget boom boom?. very similar to Lightnin’ Fireplace but in a more rhythmic context.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – gospel train

Although Sister Rosetta Tharpe was known primarily as a singer – and formidable at that – this album, released in 1956, contains many of the newest styles and techniques.

Check out his biting tone and harmonious solo on rays of heavencan not No grave hold my bodyand 99½ won’t be enough. There’s also some wonderful footage of her performing in the UK in the early 60s, which is well worth looking up online.