[Updated November 2019]
This is a question I have thought about a lot in the past and after thinking it over I came up with what I consider to be the Three Skills you MUST have to play great blues guitar.
This pretty much covers all the technical aspects of playing blues guitar such as vibrato, bending, speed, articulation and other technical areas. Now that we’ve gotten this out of the picture we can move on. You MUST have ability. I don’t care how much heart and soul you have, if you don’t have any technical ability it won’t matter. Without technique, you simply won’t be able to play what you want to communicate with your heart and soul.
So how do you get the ability?
It’s simple. Practice, practice, practice, and more practice. Once you have the ability, then you can move on to the other 2 areas which are just as important.
To me this can be very hard. What I mean by emotional connection is connecting your heart and soul with your hands. Even if you have ability, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to communicate to the audience the heart and soul of what is inside you.
You need to learn how to connect the feeling of your heart to what comes out of your fingers when playing guitar. This is not easy in my mind. You can’t be thinking about impressing the audience or showing off. You must remove all those thoughts from your head and start playing from your heart. You will now be able to translate the feelings of your heart to your fingers and an emotional connection can be made.
Have you ever had one of those nights where everything you play is great, and it’s like you’re not even trying? I have. Somehow things just flow out of you. It seems like you can do no wrong. Every time you play, it seems like all the emotions you carry are perfectly translated through your fingers like something else has taken over, and you’re just the vehicle for your spirit to control your ability. It’s quite an experience and is very hard to just re-create.
To me, it seems like you have to put yourself in the right frame of mind before you start playing to attain this and the more you play the easier it will be to get there. This skill can also be very difficult to master because if you start thinking too much about it, then it probably won’t happen for you. I think it can happen easier by arriving at a more peaceful place in your mind where you are very comfortable with yourself playing the music you love for people. If this can happen, then I think everything else will take care of itself.
Now that you have ability and can translate the emotion from your heart and soul to your fingers, I believe you must also have confidence to complete the triangle. I can tell you from experience that without confidence, you will not be able to really put on a great performance. I remember playing a gig where I definitely had the ability and felt like my mind was in the right space, but for some reason my confidence was shot.
I was playing pretty good I thought, but it seemed like I was very timid and had no confidence about what I was playing. It showed too. That made it even worse. What I’m trying to say is that you need to have it in your mind that you are going to play a great gig. I don’t mean you have to be cocky about it, but you do have to tell yourself what a great performance you’re about to put on in your head.
Think about what baseball players experience. Do you think great home run hitters go up to the plate saying, “I hope I don’t strike out.” NO! They go up there saying, “I’m going to hit this one out of the park! Bring it pitcher!” I think when hitters get into slumps, they do start thinking about striking out and getting out of the slump can be a very mental thing about building up their confidence again.
After thinking about this for a while, it occurred to me that all three of these skills are needed. You can’t successfully play the blues without each one of them.
Think about it.
If you have confidence and an emotional connection but no ability, then you won’t sound good. If you have ability and the emotional connection but no confidence, then you won’t sound good. If you have ability and confidence but no emotional connection, then you still won’t sound good.
No matter how you stack them, you need all three in my opinion.
So those are the three skills I believe are needed to play some great blues guitar.
What are yours?
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Wow this is extremely well put and very insightful. Many people talk about ability but don’t mention emotional connection or confidence.
I’ve played for years and always had ability and confidence to a degree, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to make an emotional connection with what I’m playing. Having that connection and turning my brain off has taken my playing to another level. It’s very tough to do consistently though, but hopefully it gets easier with time.
Thanks for posting this John. :) you’re a great player and your playing always speaks to me and I’m sure most others. It’s awesome that you manage to make that connection even while playing in instructional videos.
Keep it up!
I agree with you 100% put it this way, congratulations and thanks for so good ideas. But the question wasn´t right to me, you questioned for three things you must remember, instead of three things you must HAVE. Thank you very much for this lesson.
Thanks for the comment Milton. I thought the same thing when I wrote it, but didn’t know how to change it until you made that comment. So now it’s changed thanks to you!
I agree! How can you come up with a good song if you don’t have ability, emotional connection and confidence. Even if you have the ability and the confidence but lack on emotional connection the songs couldn’t turn out great.
Credit to your insight!
I must admit, most if not everyone play guitar because they are inspired by their hero’s.
You have revealed secrets that were not available before the advent of the internet.
Even the worlds best talent are influenced by someone and are affected by the basic elements that you have mentioned here.
With a little understanding, direction and insight maybe future stars will gain the ability, confidence and emotional connection to inspire us all.
Power to you!
Thanks for the secret…
Absolutely, all well layed out. And In the ability stage of practice practice and more practice, it’s so important that the reverse of 2 above is experienced I.e let your fingers talk to your heart. Experience the meanings of intervals, of sustain, vibrato as if it were language, only then could the reverse come out. This can be very difficult because there are so little guidelines of what to look for, and how to compile it all into vocabulary.
Good article, John. I enjoyed reading it and I agree with you. This is a lesson we all need to keep in mind.
I think of it as playing with passion. You are right, it isn’t always easy, but when you put in the effort–it pays off. Sometimes when I practice or jam with my friends, I think about the technical side of playing…the chords, song arrangement, my tone, etc. But when I have all of that down and just focus on playing from deep inside, it is magic.
This is probably a Left Brain vs Right Brain issue. We need to learn to transition from one to the other to be our best. Perhaps this is the difference between those that are good and the truly great.
Very insightful post and yes all 3 are absolutely valid points. Keep it up John !
I agree 100%, not only for blues, I thing is the same for any kind of music (Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Rock’n Roll, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Jazz Rock, Funk, Rockabilly, Bluegrass, Country, Flamenco, Reggae, and…..all music)…
I enjoyed Playin music I like the way
So true! If you could only narrow blues playing down to three things it would be these!
One thing I’d like to add though is that all music would benefit from less ego, because ego develops from ability and over-confidence but lacks emotional depth and connection.
In true blues, there is no ego just genuine emotion. Great article!
Yes I agree. Ego in music is not good to have. Thanks.
and when you’rre jammin’ with others there’s almost a spiritual connection that fills each person with an indescribable feeling due to all three of these. I rreally dig this blues site. Thanks John
Outstanding 3 criteria. Should be a must to attach a label with these 3 musts when selling a guitar to someone or don’t bother.
I have to disagree with you on this one point.
Ability: how many bad guitar players are out there that can’t play well but people love them?……lots and lots….. Why do they love them?….because they can connect with the audience…they feel the blues and project that out….its the EMOTIONAL CONNECTION that counts.
Absolutely Spot on by me! My art teacher told us that anyone can learn to paint or draw if they work at it, and after that it’s how good you are at “composition”, for your work to be captivating.
It’s sort of the same thing with music, once you practice up and achieve #1 (a proficient vocabulary of ability) it’s #2 (phrasing & composition) i.e. the emotional connection that are inspiring to both the player & listener. As for #3, when playing live, you can definitely psych yourself into playing sloppy & making mistakes by not being confident and that can foil the whole gig like a steamroller, and the fumble fingers then take over. It’s good not to spend any energy second guessing yourself when you’re in the middle of it, that almost never turns out well.
I think Derek Trucks is a great example of a guitarist who has all 3 of these skills down, almost to the point of perfection.
Thanks for laying it all out here for us John!
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