Acoustic blues isn’t easy.
Even after you get the hang of thumping out a beat and bashing a few chords, there’s another element to contend with. And it’s important.
Acoustic blues is full of flashy licks and guitar breaks. Some dive head first into learning full blues solos note-for-note. That can work, but it can also feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.
There’s another way to get started playing acoustic blues solos.
Something I call MicroLicks.
MicroLicks are short and easy little licks that…
- add a bit of flash to your blues rhythms
- are quick to learn
- are easy to play
- help keep the groove going
- help you start full solos
They are great on their own, but you can think of them as your stepping stone into the world of acoustic blues solos.
I’ve put together an in-depth guide for you on what MicroLicks are and how to use them to level up your blues. Even as a beginner player.
Sound like something you’re into?
Build Your Collection of MicroLicks
Every player needs a handful of go-to guitar licks.
If you listen, you’ll notice little recurring habits of your favorite guitar players. From Robert Johnson’s famous turnarounds to the BB King Box, players tend to have their go-to spots.
One of the best ways to start filling out your blues sound quickly is to develop a few of these go-to spots of your own.
That’s where building a collection of MicroLicks helps.
These short licks will help you become comfortable with key spots on the fretboard. Fast.
Let’s dig into 10 of my favorite MicroLicks.
The Train Whistle
This is the #1 place to start for a short, bluesy lick.
Once you bend the G note against the steady B, you’ll hear why we call this the train whistle lick. That sound really jumps out when you alter the lick below and play the notes together.
More to come on altering this Micro Lick. But for now, let’s focus on a version of the Train Whistle lick with the individual notes plucked.
You can almost hear the train rolling down the track.
If you’re into country blues like…
…Mississippi John Hurt,
…Blind Boy Fuller,
…Blind Blake, etc
…you should definitely know this lick cold.
This lick is played out of the Long A Chord Shape and moves down to the bluesy A7 chord.
We’ll move this lick into a different key later, but here it is in the open position.
This lick uses the open strings and a few subtle blues bends on the fretted notes to make a statement.
Use this in an acoustic Delta Blues style tune.
And here’s a hint of things to come: it pairs nicely with the Train Whistle lick.
BB King’s Chuck Berry
Want an excellent way to open a solo?
Try this stripped-down bluesy variation on the opening lick from Chuck Berry’s, Johnny B Goode. Makes me think of those sweet little moves of BB King’s.
The Long A Walkdown
Remember the Long A shape from the Sliding Third lick?
We’re going back to that shape for this MicroLick.
But for this lick, you don’t have to hold the chord shape the entire time. You can drop the tough three-fret stretch. But, the lick is a bit busier with back-to-back triplets.
💡 Tip: I use the same fingering pattern on my fret-hand for the triplet at beat 2 and beat 3.
The Mud Cat Lick
Catfish Blues has been around the Delta in various forms.
Muddy Water’s version gives us a fantastic Micro Lick we’ll call the Mud Cat lick.
I love a lick that is as functional as it is fun to play.
Use this quick slide from the 4th fret down to the 2nd to change positions on the fretboard in a bluesy way. Follow it up with a pull off to the open 3rd string and you’ve got a nice variation on the Mud Cat lick.
The Ragtime Blue Note
This lick is a sharp left turn from the others in this collection. But if you play Ragtime Blues, you’ll want to have this lick in your back pocket.
The Jump Blues Lick
This MicroLick is a great way to start off a song. Particularly one that has an upbeat groove in a major key.
The Collapsing Hammer
Some of my favorite MicroLicks fit neatly into the twelve bar blues shuffle. The Collapsing Hammer does this job quite well.
To play it, you’ll fret an E Major chord, but then on beat 2, collapse your ring finger into a barre at the second fret. Then quickly stand your fingers back up into the E Major chord position, adding a cool hammer along the way.
Try to make that hammer happen quickly by focusing more on the destination, the 1st fret of the 3rd string.
Modify the Lick to Fit the Music
Collect as many MicroLicks in different positions on the fretboard as you can. But then what?
Supercharge them by learning how to make two easy modifications.
On the fly.
Change the Rhythm to Fit the Groove
What if your your favorite MicroLick needs to fill more space?
What if you find yourself playing a slow blues and only know the lick over an upbeat shuffle?
You can tackle these situations if you learn how to change the rhythm of the lick to fit the groove. Let’s take a look at how this works.
Here’s a simple shuffle groove:
Play the Train Whistle Lick over this groove. It sounds natural and like it fits.
But now try it over this minor blues groove in 12/8.
The structure of the lick is the same. But in the minor blues example, I changed the rhythm of the lick to match the groove. Plus, notice how we used repetition to stretch the lick out over this slower beat.
Let the groove drive the licks, not the other way around.
Change the Order of the Notes
The second modification you’ll want to make is to play with the order of the notes.
This is where you begin turning MicroLicks into something that lives and breathes. Think of each lick as flexible. Something you can bend to fit the jam.
Here’s an example of how you can mix things up with the Zero Three lick.
Even this subtle variation of the Zero Three lick will help give you options when you’re jamming.
Get More from MicroLicks by Changing the Key
Each of the example licks above can be converted to any key. Let’s start with licks that don’t involve the open strings.
The lick doesn’t use an open string, so we can easily move it to another key just by knowing two things:
- the root note of the lick
- the note location for the key we want to move to.
Take the BB’s Chuck Berry lick for an example. The root notes are circled in the tab. The original lick is in the key of A because that’s the note name of the note at that location on the fretboard.
We can move the fingering of the lick to any key by moving the root to a new note. Say we want to play this lick in the Key of G.
Since the root note is on the first string, we need to find a G note on the first string. There’s one at the 3rd fret. Now, move the entire lick down two frets. Keep the fingering the same, just play everything two frets lower and you’re in G.
Here’s the lick moved into the Key of G. Note, the I moved the bass note on the six string to accommodate the low G note. This is optional.
For licks involving the open strings, there’s one extra step.
Open strings aren’t moveable.
But we can adjust our fingering to accommodate the open strings making the lick moveable. Here’s how to do it:
Play the lick using the open strings. But, place your index finger over the nut and use your other fingers to play the lick.
This is now a moveable fingering. Use the same process as above to move the lick into a different key using the root note.
Link the Licks Together
Things get fun when you link MicroLicks together to form longer, more developed ideas. This can even be the basis for recurring or call and response melodies.
Here’s an example linking the Long A Walkdown with the Sliding 3rd.
And another example linking the Train Whistle, Zero Three and the Collapsing Hammer.
Notice how we alter the licks in the second measure so they fit together.
We’re chaining them together in a way that feels natural.
Mix it Up!
Now try plugging these little gems into a blues and mix them up on the fly. You may even stumble on a few MicroLicks of your own as you get the jam going.
If you’re looking for a place to start, try playing a dead bass E Blues like the one in BGI’s course, Back Porch Blues.
In this standalone course, you’ll learn a beginner friendly fingerstyle 12 bar blues that’s perfect for a few train whistles. 🙂