There’s a video floating around the internet of John Mayer playing a random, only sort-of-tuned guitar that a fan passed up to the stage mid-encore. Mayer still sounds amazing, which goes to show that gear doesn’t matter as much as we think it does.
However, choosing the right gear can make it easier to achieve a tone when you have a specific goal – such as sounding like your favorite blues player.
In this article, we’ll give you tips on
- Which playing techniques you should focus on to sound like a blues player
- Choosing a guitar, amp and effect pedals for playing blues guitar
If you’re not familiar with the basics of the genre, check out “How to play blues guitar”.
Blues guitarists often take on the role of a vocalist. If you want to sound more bluesy, work on your vibrato and bends. These techniques are often regarded as cornerstones in a blues player’s sound.
What is bending?
On the guitar, bending is when you raise the pitch of a fretted note by pushing the string upward or pulling it downward.
- It’s important to understand that whether you push the string up or pull it down, the pitch of the note will always go up.
- This is because, in both directions, you’re increasing string tension – which raises the pitch.
These are some guitarists who have truly mastered the art of bending:
- B.B. King
- John Mayer
- David Gilmour
- George Harrison
How to practice bends
When you push a string up or down, consider these tips:
- Rotate your wrist to move the string with strength and control.
- Your finger is just holding on to the string.
- Many players pull down on the lowest three strings and push up on the highest three strings.
- Experiment until you find what feels most natural.
Before the bend:
After the bend:
Exercise 1. Half-step bend with your index finger
On the guitar, a half-step is the distance between one fret and the next (E to F, F to F#, etc.). This is also known as a semitone.
- Play the first note and then the note you’re aiming to bend to.
- Remember what this sounds like.
- Then, play the first note and bend to the second note.
- Assess by ear whether you’ve bent to the correct pitch.
Exercise 2. Whole-step bend with your index finger
Try bending the string to the floor and the ceiling.
- Use your ring finger to execute whole-step bends.
- This means that you’re effectively raising the pitch of the note you’re playing by two frets.
- You can use your index and middle fingers to add strength and support.
- You should have three fingers on the string when bending.
Like a singer, you’re manipulating the pitch of a note when you’re using vibrato.
- This technique involves slightly bending the pitch of a note up and down in a quick, repeated manner.
- Vibrato is often a distinctive characteristic of a player’s sound.
- B.B. King was famous for his fast and wide vibrato, whereas Adam Levy utilizes a slow, subtle vibrato.
As you lock vibrato into your muscle memory, the technique will likely become an unconscious part of your playing.
This is great because it’ll add a layer of richness to all your lines, but it’s important to be mindful of how and when you use vibrato.
How to practice vibrato
Master your bends first, then just sequence multiple bends together and you’ll get vibrato.
By understanding the vibrato spectrum, you can use this technique more intentionally, and with greater musical awareness.
Exercise 1. Learn to use your dimmer switch
- Pick a note and see if you can find a happy medium vibrato – not too fast or slow, not too wide or narrow.
- Then alter the parameters.
- Adjust the pressure of your thumb as needed.
Exercise 2. Stevie Ray Vaughan-style lick
Can you add vibrato to this simple lick made up of three notes from the A minor pentatonic scale?
- Stevie often used a fast and wide vibrato to evoke an aggressive sound in his playing.
- Apply this vibrato to the last note of the lick to bring some attitude to the phrase.
The right gear for blues guitar tones
Choosing the right gear depends on a number of factors:
- Your budget
- What gear is available
- What style of blues you want to play
- Where you play
To give you a better idea of what you need, we’ve listed some of the most popular gear for blues guitarists.
The best guitar for playing blues
Blues tones often favor single-coil pickups (Stratocasters, Telecasters) or P90 pickups, but this is not a strict rule. Humbuckers can work well too, especially for a thicker, warmer sound.
The most commonly used models by blues players are
- Semi-hollow 355
The pickups actually make a bigger difference so choose wisely:
- Humbucker: Warm and full sound – best for jazzy blues/rock blues.
- Single coil: Clear and bright sound – best for modern blues.
B.B. King was most often seen playing a Gibson 355 semi-hollow guitar. He famously named all his guitars “Lucille”. He liked the version with humbucker pickups and no f-holes.
Photo: B.B. King Lucille Legacy/Gibson
Like all gear, it comes down to personal preference, but here’s a little bit of info on strings for blues guitar.
- 10's are often the standard.
- 9's are a valid choice if you're straining to bend.
- If you use 9’s, you might lose some natural sustain on the top three strings.
- SRV was known to regularly use .13 gauge strings! 🤯
Your tuning will also affect the tone and behavior of the guitar. Some blues players have been known to tune down a half step for easier bends.
Check out our string guide for more info.
The best amplifier for blues guitar
What you’re aiming for is an amp that can give you a clean sound at your required volume.
That may sound a little vague but the point is that the context in which you’re using the amp matters.
Photo: Fender Blues Junior™ IV
How to get a clean sound and a bit of crunch
Let’s say you take your amp to rehearsals with a drummer or you need your amp sound to fill a room:
- The louder you crank an amp, the more distortion you’ll get.
- If you need to play at medium to high volumes, make sure to get an amp that doesn’t distort when the volume is at level two.
Let’s say you play at home or want a small gig amp that you can mic on stage:
If you want to play without pedals, you’ll want an amp that can also give you some light distortion aka crunch.
- If you need to play at quiet volumes, don’t buy an amp you have to crank up to 11 to get crunch.
- There are some lovely models with built-in attenuators that’ll give you the sound of a cranked amp at low volumes.
Top tip: Start off with a clean amp sound and leave some room on your guitar’s volume knob. When it’s time to solo, dial the volume on your guitar up to drive your amp a little harder.
How to shape your sound with EQ
First, set your volume to a level that’s right for the room you’re in.
To save some time, try out Fender’s “Magic 6” rule to dial in any amp with three EQ knobs.
- Treble on 6
- Mid to 3
- Bass to 2
Then, fine tune the tone knobs to taste and you’re good to go.
A typical blues sound is bright and punchy, but not harsh, with little bass.
Tube amp vs. solid state amp
There are strong opinions on both sides, but don’t get caught up in the tube debate/war –it doesn’t matter that much. Again, context is probably the most important factor.
- If you like the idea of having a tube amp in your living room and something about the style and sound inspires – get a tube amp.
- If your amp travels a lot and you want something light and low-maintenance – get a solid-state amp.
Sleep easy knowing that B.B. King played Fender tube amps (the Twin Reverb for example) but also brought a Lab Series L5 solid-state amp to gigs. Everyone survived.
Best guitar effects for blues
Blues guitarists often use minimal effects, but a few can enhance your tone:
It does exactly what it says on the box! Hit a boost pedal and it will boost your volume.
- A “clean boost” is when the pedal changes only the volume – no impact on tone.
- Boost pedals are great for switching from rhythm playing to lead playing.
- They can also be used to push a clean amp into overdrive for a warm, crunchy tone.
- Some players always play with a boost pedal, others engage them only as needed.
To get that bluesy grit, you can use a low to medium gain overdrive pedal like a Tubescreamer.
- Overdrive pedals will usually change the tone, so choose one that suits your style.
- If like the tone of a specific overdrive pedal but don’t want the distortion, set the gain knob to zero and the volume knob to the halfway point.
- Overdrive pedals are often used to add natural compression – this helps immensely with sustain so your notes ring out longer.
Jimi Hendrix made the fuzz pedal super popular.
- If you’re going for a rock blues sound that’s a bit more aggressive try a fuzz pedal.
- It’s a good option when you’re trying to stay away from harsh brightness.
Photo: Dunlop JHF1 Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face Pedal
Check out our Hendrix CAGED course if you want to really understand what made his sound so unique.
Reverb and Delay
Both of these are bread-and-butter pedals that add a spatial component to your sound.
Spring reverb was a popular add-on with classic amps. For that reason, it’s a good choice for blues since it’s a familiar sound.
Learn from your blues guitar idols
It’s easier to dial in a great sound, if you know what you want to sound like.
Listen to players you love and figure out how to recreate their sounds – then take the elements you like and make your own.
- What kind of licks are they playing?
- How do they use vibrato and bends?
- How can you manipulate your gear (EQ knobs on your amp and guitar, pickup selector) to recreate that sound?
- What kind of amp, guitar, pickups and effects do they use?
Below are four different lick packages and blues flavors. Try to learn a few and see what sounds you’re gravitating towards.
You might want all the best gear right away, but take your time! Building a great blues guitar sound doesn’t happen overnight.
- Your tone (and your bank balance) will thank you for taking it slowww.
- Perfecting your bends and vibrato may be more crucial than any pedal or amp.
- Work on your technique to really find your style and personality as a guitarist.
If you want some help improving your technique, check out our Blues Learning Pathway with a 14-day free trial.
A step-by-step course with daily exercises, jam tracks, song challenges, and personalized feedback on your playing – it’s awesome!
Blues Learning Pathway
Your step-by-step guide to the fundamentals of blues guitar.Learn more
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