If you’re looking to add some R&B techniques to your guitar playing, look no further.

In this article, we’ll break down 10 R&B guitar techniques that you can learn and integrate into your playing. If you’re interested in decorating a chord progression or using R&B guitar techniques to take your playing to the next level - we’ve got you covered!

Ready for your first R&B guitar lesson?

#1 – Singability

Fast and complex guitar licks can sound awesome in the right context, but in R&B, the singability of your guitar playing is the most important element.

The idea is that every melody that you play needs to be memorable, catchy, and most importantly, singable.

Here are some tips to make vocal-like hooks with your guitar:

  • Practice scales and melodies by learning to sing and play at the same time – this deepens your connection to the instrument and ensures that your playing is always intentional.
  • Create short phrases to keep your melodies concise and meaningful – it might seem basic, but a simple, clear melody can go a long way.
  • Repetition of melodies and phrases is key, every great earworm has one thing in common – a repeating melody!
  • Singability is about mimicking the human voice – this is done through slides, vibrato, or bends to add some fluidity to a melody.

Challenge: Try to play the vocal melodies of your favorite R&B songs. Listen as closely as you can to any techniques you hear the vocalist doing and see if you can imitate them on the guitar.

#2 – Slides

Slides are a great way to smooth out the attack in your chordal or melodic playing. They can be dramatic, or they can be gentle and subtle while approaching a desired chord or note.

There are lots of ways to make slides an effective tool in your ‘guitarsenal’. Check it out:

  • When you play a note, slide in from a semi-tone beneath your target note to add a laid-back feel.
  • Sliding means that you don’t need to pick every note – make your melody sound smoother by picking less and sliding more!
  • Don't be shy! There’s no limit to how far you can slide across the fretboard – dramatic slides across multiple frets can add some energy to a pivotal moment in the song.
  • Slide into chords to make them sound silky – paired with hammer ons and pull offs, chord sliding is a cool way to add some flow to your progressions.

#3 – Hammer ons

It’s hammer time!

Hammer ons and pull offs are about generating notes without picking the strings. We use this technique in R&B guitar style to really help a chord progression sparkle!

  • Hammer ons can add movement to static chords – if you’re playing a Dm7 for a couple of bars, try to hammer on some extensions surrounding the chord for some extra spice.
  • Trills are a sequence of rapid hammer ons and pull offs – they can be really useful for building suspense or adding some flair to the finale of a song.
  • Hammer ons and pull offs can create melody within a chord shape –  use notes around the chord you’re playing to add a melodic element.

This technique requires a strong pinky finger. Build strength, flexibility, and finger independence in your fretting hand with these finger exercises.

#4 – Whammy bar technique

The whammy bar has played its part in many genres of guitar playing. From Eddie Van Halen’s screaming guitar playing of the 80s, to the more subtle uses heard in gospel and R&B guitar. The whammy bar offers an incredible array of textures and sounds.

Check out the diversity of sounds and tricks that Mark Lettieri achieves with the whammy bar:

  • All great things in moderation! The whammy bar can be used to create ‘divebomb’ sound effects by fully depressing the bar, but in the R&B guitar world, it’s used with a lot more subtlety.
  • The tremolo sound makes a ‘shivering’ effect and is a fantastic technique to integrate into your R&B playing – you can adjust the speed of the tremolo effect as you are playing a chord or phrase by how quickly you move the bar.
  • Whammy bars allow you to slide into notes – the whammy bar can be used to bend from underneath a note to create a even smoother sliding effect.
  • In R&B, we often hear vocalists *scoop their melodies.

*Scooping is the vocal practice of sliding from one note to another. You often can’t hear the change between the notes so clearly because the slide makes the transition seamless.

#5 – Thumb slap technique

Ever wanted to be a drummer and guitarist at the same time? Thumb slapping is a must-know R&B guitar technique that can add so much to your game!

Thumb slapping is a great percussive technique that can also help keep you in time. It’s especially useful if you’re playing solo guitar and need a beat to play along with.

  • Thumb slaps usually happen on beats 2 & 4, like how a snare drum would accent rhythms in a band context.
  • The thumb does the slapping, while the fingers are in control of the chords.
  • Like lots of fingerstyle guitar techniques, assigning each of your fingers a role is usually the most efficient approach.
  • Especially in R&B, hip hop, and neo-soul music, it is important to accent the backbeat (2 & 4).

Of course, these are just guidelines, not rules –  you can experiment with thumb slaps by accenting any beats you want to.

#6 – Vibrato

Vibrato is a technique most closely associated with singers and there are many different styles!

Vibrato literally means ‘to vibrate a note’ by rapidly pushing it up and down in pitch. For R&B guitarists, vibrato is a great way to decorate the last couple of notes in a phrase to add flavor to the line.

  • Vocalists often do this naturally, but including it in your guitar playing will make you sound infinitely more soulful.
  • We often describe vibrato as either wide or narrow.
  • Wide vibrato describes a large shift in the pitch of the note that uses a lot of bending.
  • Narrow vibrato is a smaller frequency range where the note is more stable.

Here are a few tips for good vibrato technique on guitar.

  • Ideally, you should generate vibrato from the wrist rather than relying heavily on finger movement.
  • To create a narrow vibrato – lightly shift the hand back and forth, causing a subtle pitch fluctuation.
  • For a wider or more aggressive vibrato – anchor your thumb over the top of the guitar neck and rotate the wrist back and forth.

#7 – Extended chords

The influence of jazz is heard throughout R&B chord progressions used. This is where extension chords come in.

  • Extension chords include a 9th, 11th, or 13th –these extra notes can add a sophisticated flavor to the progression.

Knowing different extension chords will give you a larger palette of colors to help describe a certain feeling or mood.

  • For example, you might choose to use Am11 instead of a regular A minor, or Am7 chord.
  • An Am11 chord could give more sonic space to the vocalist – experiment with voicings in different contexts to find what works best.

Extension chords can offer the opportunity for new hammer on and pull off potential when decorating a chord progression.

  • For example, you might choose to hammer on the 9th when playing a regular minor chord to add interest.
  • Basic chord progressions can sound completely different when we replace simple triads with 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th chords – add the sauce, chef!

#8 – Double Stops

Double stops are ubiquitous in all genres of music and guitar playing. They carry a crucial role in harmonizing single-line melodies in the R&B guitar style. Double stops are when we play two notes simultaneously, usually in intervals of 3rds or 4ths.

  • Harmonizing single line melodies with double stops can create a thicker texture and underline the importance of a melodic motif or phrase.
  • Double stops can be a creative way to move from one chord to the next through a harmonized scale or mini melody.
  • If you’re feeling very adventurous, you may choose to use entire triads to highlight a melody.
  • This is like a double stop + an extra note – very common in gospel guitar.
  • You can harmonize with 3rds, 4ths, and 6ths – other intervals are a little dissonant to use for double stops.

#9 – Arpeggiating chords

Arpeggiating is an essential technique for R&B ballads and highlights the qualities of each chord in a progression. Dropping the pick for the fingers can yield some amazing results, try it out!

  • There are a number of ways to arpeggiate chords, but the general effect of this technique is that is breaks up a chord and creates a softer sound for ballads.
  • Fingerpicking will make the guitar sound even more gentle – experiment with this to see what sounds best to you.
  • Arpeggiating chords allows you to pick out the important notes – sometimes the melody notes may be nestled away in the rest of the chord.
  • Arpeggiating chords can also help highlight the bassline when playing unaccompanied.

This technique can be used in combination with hammer ons, pull offs, extended chords, and whammy bar techniques to create something extra special.

#10 – Pentatonic fills

Most people know that R&B stands for rhythm and blues, but many players forget about the pivotal role that blues music has in shaping style of R&B guitar.

Pentatonic and blues scales are a fantastic addition to the R&B sound. Having some bluesy licks and fills can add a lot of soul to your playing.

  • Pentatonic fills could be blues licks thrown in between chords in a progression.
  • They add some interest and offer a chance to be extra expressive.
  • If you listen to R&B vocalists for ideas, you’ll notice there are a lot of examples of the pentatonic scales being used to create melodies.
  • Combining pentatonic runs with all of the other techniques above can open up your improvisational and solo guitar playing.  

Want to know more? Check out this awesome vid with Melanie Faye breaking down some of her playing essentials and techniques.

If you’re still hungry for more R&B knowledge – here’s an R&B Masterclass for you to sink your teeth into.  We also offer a 14-day free trial for all our courses, who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch?!

Author: Jack Handyside