King Biscuit Time
Lead Guitar #1
by Glenn Weiser

This is the first KBT column dealing with lead guitar playing.

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In the early days of the blues, acoustic fingerstyle guitarists usually played the their instruments like a piano- the player’s right hand thumb struck bass notes in droning or alternating patterns while the fingers played melodic lines on the treble strings. All that began to change in 1936, when the introduction of the electric guitar with it’s capacity for higher volumes meant that the guitar now could be played with bands like a horn in single-note style. Players like T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Robert Jr. Lockwood soon were exploring its potential as a lead instrument, and eventually the electric became the premiere blues ax. To play in a modern style you should know the principals of lead guitar, so this issue’s column will show you some of the basics of this great art.

Lead riffs are usually derived from scale patterns. Exercises 1-3 show you simple versions of three of the dozen or so movable scale fingerings that guitarists of all styles commonly use written in guitar tablature. They are identified not by pitch, which varies according to which frets the scale is played on, but by their form, which is the same anywhere on the neck. For example, in the first scale, the lowest place we find the tonic, or “root” note, which is the note that names the scale - is on the sixth string and played with the first left hand finger. In the second form, the lowest available tonic note is played on the fifth string with the first finger, and in the third form the lowest tonic is on the fifth string with the third finger. Hence the fingerings can be named Index-6, Index-5, and Ring-5 respectively. They are written in the pentatonic minor form, which is a 5-tone scale commonly used by blues and rock guitarists (1-b3-4-5-b7-8/1). Above the notes in the form are the steps of the scale, and below is the left hand fingering. In the solo, the Index-6 scale form is used for the A chord riffs, the Index-5 for the D chord riffs, and the Ring-3 for the E chord riffs.

As for the right hand, an essential skill of lead guitar is pick direction-when to move the pick upward or downward over the string(s). The generally accepted practice is known as ‘alternate picking,’ which means that the downstroke is usually used for notes on the onbeat (that is, on the count of “1”, “2.,” “3,” or “4”), and the upstroke is usually used for notes on the offbeat (on “1 and”, “2 and,” “3 and,” or “4 and.”) Triplets, a common rhythm in blues, should be picked down-up-down. The pick direction has been written out for the entire solo.

Practice playing the scale forms as a warm-up, and then try the solo. “The Biscuit Bounce” uses call-and-response phrasing, which has its origins in work songs and is common in blues. To ease the day’s labor, a team leader would sing a line to the workers in a field, who would then sing a rejoinder in chorus. In this solo, the call occupies the first two measures and ends on the first beat of the third measure. The response occupies the rest of the next two measures. The next four-bar line is divided in the same way, but with different calls and responses. After the third call phrase comes the turnaround, which is a type of riff usually reserved for the last two bars of the 12-bar blues form (watch for more on these in a future column).

Also, memorize the correspondence of notes to scale tones in each of the three scale fingerings. You’ll need to know this when we talk about how develop ideas for riffs in the next issue.


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