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Guitar Blues Riffs

Updated on September 3, 2020
Jon Green profile image

Part of my practice routine every day is trying out variations on the Blues, especially integrating riffs and chords.

Guitar riffs in Tab

Playing blues, at either a basic or more advanced level, can be a lot of fun. Simple forms of Delta style blues, such as Robert Johnson tunes, are really a challenge to play well. Jazz influenced blues, such as T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday Blues are great to solo over, and more advanced jazz blues like Kenny Burrell and Joe Pass can teach you a lot about chords.

The guitar tab examples here show some of the best guitar blues riffs, without any rhythm directions, though I'll give some guidance on how to count the rhythm. The examples can be played in many different speeds and with many different phrasing approaches.

All the examples are for a 12-Bar blues, in the key of E. This means the chords are E7, A7, and B7. My other hubs have chord charts for 12-Bar Blues, in different keys. E is a very good key to use, partly because of the guitar tuning - an open E is on string 6, so you can fill out the sound with the open string, with the riff going on over the top of a bassline. More info in the hub Blues Guitar Tabs lesson.

Reading guitar tab

Just the basics of reading guitar tab - the strings are the horizontal lines, with string 1, the thinnest, on top. Then the numbers are the fret numbers, 0 is open string.

Line 1 riff

The first blues riff is counted in triplets, a common blues style. Count it like this:

1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a.........humpty-dumpty, humpty-dumpty. That adds up to 2 bars.

Then repeat the whole thing - the first 4 bars of a 12-Bar blues.

Slide into the two-note chords for best effect. The 4,2,0 on string 3 is a quick slide.

When the riff is making some sense, you could add a low E on string 6 (open String) to fill out the sound. Use your thumb for the bass note, first two fingers for the riff.

Guitar Tab - blues riffs in E

Line 2 - Blues riff 2

Hold the note on string 3 so it sustains through the two open string notes that follow. This is more of a rockabilly style riff. You can use this riff material for rockabilly and early rock n' roll styles, which basically use the same three blues chords, E7, A7 and B7.

H means hammer-on.

Line 3 - turnaround in E

Again, this uses a triplet rhythm, counting 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4. The chord shape is just an E7, moving down one fret at a time. The last chord, B7, is connected by a run -up on string 5.

Line 4 - Intro riff

This is like the intro to Sweet Home Chicago - originally a Robert Johnson song. It will also work anywhere in a 12-Bar blues over an E7 chord.

The arrow shows a bend, and vibrato is also essential for an authentic sound.

Line 5 - last riff

A very useful riff, which can be used in a 12- Bar blues in E. You can add the open string 6 (E) to fill out the sound.

Building riffs

This melodic material can be improvised, and combined in any way that you like. For instance, Riff 2, minus the last 3 notes, will combine with riff 5 to make a longer riff. You can play riff 5 over and over to great effect - in fact, repetition is a key feature in making these riffs sound good, especially if you vary the rhythm and phrasing a bit. You can also mix in notes from the Em pentatonic scale and the E blues scale. Starting from string 1, the thinnest string:

3, 0

3, 0

2, 0

2, 0

2, 0

3, 0.

Bending any fret 3 notes will make it sound more bluesy.

Listen to blues masters such as T-Bone Walker and copy the phrasing.


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