Eric Clapton and B.B. King — two of the most exciting and original blues guitarists to play blues licks — have instantly recognizable sounds. Is this because of their tone? Their phrasing? Their touch? Yes, yes, and yes! These, and many less tangible clues, tell us who we’re hearing.
Like most of us, King and Clapton started by copying their heroes’ blues licks. For King, the list included T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Clapton was inspired by Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and the three Kings—Freddie, B.B., and Albert. Eventually, King and Clapton transformed their hero worship into the unique styles we now know and love.
But how and when did the Jell-O set in its mold? The best way to answer these questions is to revisit early and mid-period recordings by King and Clapton, and observe how each guitarist spun new fabric from the threads of their forebears. Below is the full blues licks guitar lesson including audio, charts, tab, power tab, and more.
Blues Licks Guitar Lesson
Blues Lick #1: a la King
In the mid 1950s, King was under the spell of T-Bone Walker, who blended jazz, R&B, and jump blues into a refined, modern hybrid. Blues lick 1, a hip turnaround lick, shows the kind of jazzy lines that were part of King’s Walker-inspired vocabulary at the time.
Note the chromatic descent from E to Din bar 1, and the descending Dand Db triad shapes in bar 2 (beats one through three). The dissonant Db triad eventually works its way down to a C triad (the first three eighthnotes of bar 3) before outlining the tonic Gchord with B and D—its 3 and 5.
Blues Lick #2: Regal King
Among King enthusiasts, there is little debate that Live at the Regal is one of his finest works— and one of the classic live records. Recorded in 1964, the album captures King holding court at Chicago’s Regal Theater, backed by a tight, six-man ensemble. We hear how he could work an audience of young fans into an ecstatic frenzy with his combination of crafty showmanship, emotive guitar, and honey-toned vocals.
One of the most precious jewels in Live at the Regal’s crown is “Sweet Little Angel” — a King original and a staple of his ’50s and ’60s live shows. His performance is chock-full of choice blues licks, and lick 2 offers a sweet taste of slow-blues sugar.
The final G, C, G, C, C cadence in bar 2 is a patented King move—particularly the double C at the end of the line, which is played on the first and second strings, respectively. You can fret the final C with your 3rd or 4th finger, and you can either hit the note spot on or slide into it from a half-step below for a King-sanctioned variation.
Blues Lick #3: Thrilling Blues
King followed Live at the Regal with a string of sparkling releases, but his next big record was 1969’s Completely Well, which featured his career- making crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” This is where we really begin to see King’s blues licks move beyond his ’50s jump-blues roots and into his own style. Although the moody, minor-key “Thrill” contains slightly schmaltzy, overdubbed violins, most of the album features a revved-up King and raw, meaty tones.
Based on some of King’s Completely Well blues licks, lick 3 offers a stirring route from I to IV (a progression found in the fourth and fifth bars of a typical 12-bar blues). Notice how the tension builds in bar 1 with the use of upbeats (the and of beats one and two) and a blustery hammer/pull move (beat four). The rhythmic tension then releases in bars 2 and 3, where there is relatively little activity. Bar 2 has another kind of tension, however, as you gradually bend B (and of beat two) up to D. Your audience should wonder, “Wow—are you going to make it?”
Blues Lick #4: Lucille Rattles and Hums
In the ’70s and early ’80s, King’s albums—such as To Know You Is to Love You and Midnight Believer—presented his vocals as the main attraction, and his guitar tones tended to be a little thinner and less present in the mix. But in 1988, King teamed up with U2 and producer Jimmy Iovine to record “When Love Comes to Town” on Rattle and Hum. This song bares the brashest tones King’s fans had heard in his blues licks in a long while.
His lead breaks on “When Love Comes to Town” are righteous, matching U2’s fiery energy blow for blow. Drawn from King’s ideas, blues lick 4 demonstrates the action. This four-bar phrase begins with an attention-getting, E minor pentatonic burst. King brightens the minor mood of his blues licks like this one by following the descending five-note run with C#—a note from E major pentatonic.
Again, King emphasizes upbeats to add tension to the melodic line. Here’s how:
1. By starting on the last eighth-note of bar 1, he anticipates the first note of bar 2.
2. The Gn on the and of beat two adds more upbeat momentum.
3. The final bent B (and of beat four) finishes the bar on an upbeat.
Set between the decidedly unsyncopated bar 1 and the even more square bar 3, the upbeat-heavy bar 2 perfectly balances the phrase’s overall feel. King is a master of such controlled tension, and this is one of the skills that separates the men from the boys in blues.
Blues Lick #5: Slowhand’s Blues Power
While Eric Clapton’s work in the Yardbirds is noteworthy, it wasn’t until he left the birds nest and joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers that he came into his own as a heavyweight blues champion. Blues lick 5—a I-IV-I phrase inspired by Clapton’s Bluesbreaker-era lines—illustrates how the young Slowhand was already cocksure enough to take his time with a solo.
Note the use of sustained notes in each bar, which give the phrase a composed—in both senses of the word—vibe. Also notice how bar 2’s downbeat Dis set up by a descending triplet (Cn, A, E) on beat four of bar 1, and how bar 3’s A7 is anticipated by bar 2’s two final notes (C#, A). Such anticipations can really help keep a solo rolling. (For a more detailed exploration of Clapton’s Bluesbreakers-era handiwork, check out Jesse Gress’ transcription of Clapton’s “Little Girl” solo—from Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton—in the Sept. ’00 GP.)
Blues Lick #6: Heavy Cream
After leaving the Bluesbreakers in July 1966, Clapton formed Cream with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce. While the guitarist’s musical heart and soul still belonged to the blues, Baker and Bruce shared a penchant for a wild, polyrhythmic, electrified breed of jazz. The fusion of these elements made Cream unique, and gave Clapton a new context in which to work his blues licks.
There are several old-school blues numbers on Fresh Cream—the band’s 1966 debut—including Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad.” But ironically, the record’s most down and dirty cut is the Bruce original, “Sleepy Time Time.” The slow, 12-bar blues offers a golden opportunity for Clapton to burn, and he does just that. Blues lick 6 is one of those I-IV-I-V7 turnaround blues licks in the spirit of E.C.’s “Sleepy Time Time” moves.
Blues Lick #7: Strange Blue
Disraeli Gears, the follow-up to Fresh Cream, found the band stepping into psychedelic territory, with more adventurous songwriting and wilder tones—including Clapton’s first recorded use of a wah pedal. Still, his blues licks roots were as evident as ever on such cuts as “Strange Brew” (on which E.C. borrows liberally from Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” solo) and “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Of course, a big part of Clapton’s magic is that even when he cops blues licks from other players, he adapts the phrasing and dynamics to make the lines his own. (As Clapton admitted in the July ’95 GP: “I’ll start with a Freddie King line and then go to B.B. King blues licks. I’ll do something to join them up, so that part will be me.”)
Derived from Clapton’s “Strange Brew” solo, blues lick 7 shows an archetypal Slowhand move in which you deftly pivot between the eighth-position and fifth-position A minor pentatonic boxes. The pivot point is the third-string slide down from the 9th fret to 7th fret (bar 2, beat three). Simply reverse the maneuver to shift back up (bar 3, and of beat four).
Blues Lick #8: Bell Bottom Blues
In 1970, Clapton rode yet another musical wave with Derek and the Dominos. Recruiting bottleneck ace Duane Allman, Clapton created the masterpiece Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with songs such as “Layla,” “Bell Bottom Blues, ” and “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” Layla showed a mellower side of Clapton, and the songs had little to do with the blues.
But even without a 12-bar, I-IV-V backdrop, Slowhand couldn’t help but imbue his lines with a sad soulfulness. Blues lick 8, an A minor pentatonic lick evocative of Clapton’s Layla-era playing, suggests this reflective side. The faux pedal-steel move (bar 1, beat three) plays up the lick’s slightly country flavor. Make sure to hold the bent E (and of beat two) when you strike the high G, so that you have, in effect, a released bend on the second sixteenth- note of beat three.
Blues Lick #9: Rocking the Cradle
With such records as 461 Ocean Boulevard, Another Ticket, Money and Cigarettes, and Behind the Sun, Clapton spent much of the late 1970s and ’80s positioning himself as a singer and songwriter, and it seemed he had hung up his “guitar hero” hat for good. But in 1994, Clapton released From the Cradle—a collection of classic tunes by Lowell Fulson, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Freddie King. The record is much more than a salutary gesture to Clapton’s ancestors—it’s a full-blown bluesfest, with riveting vocal performances and some of the baddest guitar he has ever recorded.
Blues lick 9 is in the same mood as Clapton’s soloing on some of Cradle’s slow blues tracks, such as “Third Degree,” “Reconsider Baby,” and “Someday After a While.” With its opening triplet, this phrase is a variation of one of the prime blues licks of all time. The lick is generally attributed to T-Bone Walker, who used it on his early-’40s recording of “Stormy Monday.”
It’s hard to overstate Walker’s impact on future guitarists’ blues licks. As B.B. King himself explained in the Mar. ’75 GP, “I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today from that first record I heard—‘Stormy Monday.’ He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record. He made me know I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.” For a jazzy, Walker-esque twist, replace the b3 (Bb, first string, 6th fret), with the 9 (A, a half-step lower, at the 5th fret).
The lick works nicely as an intro or turnaround, and can be very effective in bars 6 and 7 of a 12-bar blues in G—in which case, the chords would be C (or C7) for the first bar of the lick, and G (or G7) for the second bar. Here’s why this lick sits so nicely at that point in a 12-bar progression: The Bbs reference C7 (they’re the chord’s b7) and the Bns harmonize with G or G7 (they’re the n3).
Beyond the Crossroads
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to play like someone—in the beginning. But then as you learn, you start to think that there’s already one of them. So you try to play as you play,” counseled King in the Sept. ’93 GP. In other words, once you’ve got these King- and Clapton-style blues licks under your belt, it’s your duty to make them your own.
How? Try these tips for extra-credit blues homework:
1. Using each of these phrases as a template, craft new blues licks by slightly varying the rhythms and note choices. Each lick can spawn scores of variations.
2. The tempo markings are given to indicate the tempo at which Clapton or King might play each respective lick, but you can personalize these lines by trying them at a variety of tempos—from dirge to walking pace to sprint.
3. Try playing some of these blues licks an octave higher or lower than written. Recasting them up or down an octave can give them a new spin, while keeping their musical conception intact. (And while you’re at it, try transposing blues licks to other keys. Sometimes just moving a lick up or down a few frets lets you hear it from a different perspective.)
4. Listen to recordings of King and Clapton without trying to dissect their lines note for note. Try to tune into the essence of their phrases without literally walking in the kings’ footsteps.
by Adam Levy