How do you play with feeling?
That phrase – play with feeling – used to frustrate me. Feeling, was too vague for me to truly understand. Plus, no one seems to tell you how to actually play with feeling on the guitar. We all just know it when we hear it.
After years of teaching, it hit me. The guitar is an expressive instrument and using it to mimic the human voice can help us play with feeling. Luckily there are a handful of techniques that can help you get started.
In this lesson, we’ll explore three tips to help you play guitar with more emotion.
Use These Three Guitar Techniques to Add Feeling to Your Sound
Technique is all about how you play the notes on the guitar.
At first, it seems like the notes at the frets are fixed – play the 5th, fret 6th string and you get an A note. End of story. But there’s more to it than that. There are ways to change the pitch of that A note.
Later, we’ll look at an expressive way to change the pitch of notes to add emotion. But first let’s explore how to add feeling without changing the note.
Slide Ins and Outs
Sliding between two notes is expressive because it’s a smooth way to connect notes. The note changes at the frets, but this is smoothed over, especially with fast slides. Try this subtle spin on the slide to add a little emotion to a single note:
Slide into the note from nowhere.
We’ll call this technique, Slide Ins and it can be tricky to perform but will add character to a single note. Here’s how you do it:
Pick a target note. Let’s use the A at the 2nd Fret, 3rd String. Start with your fingers off the strings hovering over the 4th fret. Then, with your fingers still off the fretboard, start moving your hand toward the target note. As you approach the note, lower your finger to the string and press down as you are moving.
This is all about the target note, not the starting point.
The first two measures of this example feature several Slide Ins.
The movement is like landing a plane on the string. Land the plane at the target note and you’ll get this quick sliding sound.
Normally, you should learn techniques at a slow tempo. But, Slide Ins are difficult to practice slowly, so test this out using one quick and fluid movement.
Then, try the Slide Out. It’s like the Slide In, but start with a fretted note and slide up (or down) from the note. Lift your finger off the string as you slide away from the note. Slide Outs remind me of someone trailing off in a conversation.
Slide Ins and Slide Outs add a little expressive nuance to the note and will help your phrases sound vocal.
Hammer Ons and Pull Offs
These two legato techniques can be very expressive and show up constantly in Delta Blues.
Like slides, these techniques connect two notes, but there is one main difference. These legato techniques connect the notes by jumping from note to note. Still, this jump sounds fluid and adds soul and expression to the parts.
This example from before features hammer-ons heavily, especially in the third measure.
As expressive as slides, hammer ons, pull offs are, if you only play the notes at the frets, you limit your expression on the guitar. That’s where the next technique really shines.
String Bending is the ultimate expressive technique on guitar. OK, maybe it’s a tie with Bottleneck Slide Guitar. 🙂
Both techniques have something important in common – they free you from the frets.
Playing bottleneck slide lets you glide up and down the strings freely. As you do, you aren’t limited to the pitches at the frets. You can access the entire continuum of pitches like your voice.
String bending can do this too…in a way.
What makes a whole-step or half-step bend sound so good?
It’s the travel.
It’s the journey through the notes adds soul. Think about every big bend from Jimi Hendrix or Albert King. Those notes grab you because you know they’re going to take you somewhere. You hear one note and all the mircotonal changes along the way to another note.
Full bends can be difficult on the acoustic guitar. Fortunately, in Delta Blues, we often use microtonal bends – notated as 1/4 bends – as a subtle way to add emotion to a note. Playing them is the same as playing half-step and whole-step bends but push the string a small amount. You are looking for a slight bend that pushes the note a little sharp.
Technically, these tiny bends are out of tune, but they sound great in blues and are very expressive.
Try your hand at mixing these techniques to add soul and life to your playing. As expressive as these techniques are, they aren’t the only way to play with feeling.
Mix it Up and Break Free from the Shuffle Rhythms
The blues shuffle rhythm is very common in the blues and Delta Blues is no exception. Locking into the rhythm can drive the groove and that’s definitely important. But sometimes, deliberately shifting your rhythmic feel and pack a punch.
Try this extreme example that shifts from shuffle feel to straight time in Measure 2:
For a more subtle effect, try mixing in different note values. For example, in an 8th note heavy part, try playing a few quicker 16th notes. Try two 16ths after an eighth note or before like this example.
Stay rooted in the main beat, but create find ways to add variety to your rhythms for interesting moments.
Create a Connected Sound By Playing Phrases That Cross the Bar Lines
The groove is important in the Blues.
Which means that in the beginning of your guitar journey, counting is important. You’ve got to know where the one is – the all critical downbeat. That’s where chord changes happen and it’s often where riffs start over.
But there’s a trap here if you aren’t careful.
It’s easy to let everything you do start on the downbeat which means that things need to end before the downbeat. That way you can start your next bar. Here’s the problem: this can lead to your parts sounding a robotic.
Good music flows and doesn’t have this start-stop feel.
Try finding ways like the example below where you can take a phrase over the bar line. Doing this can help connect the music and sound soulful.
Remember to musically connect your ideas and let phrases ring over the bar lines.
Put These Tips Into Action to Play with Feeling
To recap, use these three tips:
- incorporate bluesy bends, slides and legato,
- add rhythmic variety,
- and develop long lyrical phrases.
Mix these techniques and ideas into your licks and phrases to get that elusive “feeling” that we all want to come across when we play.
With focused, purposeful practice your acoustic blues guitar will truly sing!