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Blues Guitar Lessons: Essentials of Touch

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Now you know how to play the minor
pentatonic scale, up and down, and
you know all the different keys.
Let's talk about touch.
Touch is kind of the mojo, it's the magic
ingredient that makes a note sound good.
That's just one note, but you put
a little something on it, and suddenly it
takes on some weight, it sounds important,
it gets some message across.
The essence of that, we're gonna talk
about all that sliding and vibrato, we're
gonna get to all of that, but it starts
with, having a firm grip on the strings.
And, one, little technical issue that,
is often, a problem for guitar players.
Is that you sort of concentrate
on one finger at a time.
And the other fingers are waving
around in the air [NOISE] and
you're going like this [NOISE]
And each finger is operating
like an independent contractor,
it's like call me when you need me.
That's not the way to
get a good blues sound.
We've gotta get the fingers
to work together.
And this is a concept called supportive
fingering, sounds very fancy,
it's a very simple idea.
This is an exercise that
you can do every day, for
a few minutes, and then just forget about.
But over time it will sort of bleed
into your technique, and make your
fingers cooperate and give you a much
bigger and better, more confident sound.
Okay, here's the deal.
Instead of using one
finger to play a note,
I use as many fingers as I've
got available to play the note.
And I hold on to the note
as long as I can,
until I'm required to move those fingers.
So, for example, [SOUND] I play A.
Now I don't use one finger
to play A like this.
I use three fingers to play A.
First finger, second, third,
they all go down together.
[SOUND] Now I don't hear those fingers,
they're there to support the third finger.
I've got a solid grip on that note,
that's not getting away.
That note is solid.
Now my next note up is there.
Now I'm not gonna let go of that note,
until I have to, so
I can reach that C over
there with one finger.
Now the next note up is the fourth D.
And I switch those two fingers together,
now I've got three notes down again.
So just again that little bit.
Move my first finger.
Move my second and third fingers together.
Next note on the next string,
first finger.
Next note, I need my fourth finger, so
I put all four fingers down.
switch that first finger over.
Now it's tricky to Get that first string,
while the other fingers
are all down there.
So you have to just your
position a little bit.
Going back the other way,
one finger, two fingers,
one finger, two fingers.
So I go up with as many
fingers as I can on each note.
I come down with as many fingers as I can.
Now, that might seem like, really?
I gotta spend time doing that?
But trust me,
what that does is get your hand to
start to feel connected to the neck.
And every note that you play
has a solid foundation.
And like I say, you do it for
a couple of minutes at the beginning
of your practice schedule.
It's a great way to warm up.
And get the fingers in the pocket.
And then you turn your attention to
other things, you don't think about it.
But overtime, you naturally start to
bring your hand closer to the strings,
you've got better control, and
it's going to pay off when we start
to play more tricky, faster stuff.
Mess around with that,
and I'll see ya', soon.
All right, so we've started
the conversation about touch, here.
And you've started to do that exercise
where you're keeping your fingers down.
Think of it as, it's a snail.
All right, you're not a rabbit jumping
around the neck, you're a snail and
you're oozing from note to note.
And that's how you wanna
connect those notes so
that it sounds like one continuous idea,
all right?
Now related to that is a technique
which addresses some of the typical
phrasing issues you wind up with in
the pentatonic scale, in particular.
The pentatonic scales lays out on the neck
and you use your first finger, or
sorry third finger, first finger, third.
You notice the same fingers moving around,
and it forms a shape,
which is typically called the box
pattern because it's kinda square.
These four notes form kind
of a like a rectangle and
then over here you've
got kind of a square.
And because the notes are adjacent to each
other, on adjacent strings I should say,
it's very common in phrases
to get stuff like this.
Melodies don't always
go through the scale,
one step at a time, into correct order.
If they did it'd be incredibly boring.
So we change the order of the notes and
we skip around a little bit,
and use those different finger shapes
to create different melodic effects.
On a purely technical level,
here's what happens.
If I'm playing A on the first string and
I wanna play E on the second string,
what I would do probably without
thinking is I would play A,
I would life my finger up, place it on E.
Okay, that's good.
And if I wanna go back again,
I lift my finger up and place it on A.
All right, I can hear the two notes.
What I did is I broke the phrase.
I broke my contact.
And it makes the phrase sound choppy.
Now here's the way to address that issue.
You don't lift your finger up and replace
it on the next string, you roll it over.
And I'm gonna show you how to do
this in the form of an exercise.
This is another very valuable exercise.
Pays off big time down the road.
We're gonna expand the pentatonic scale,
Go down to that note on
the fifth string there.
So now we're using
most of the notes that are available in
that one position there.
Okay, so starting on the fifth
string with my third finger.
The next note I'm gonna play is on
the fourth string at the same fret.
So I play the note on the fifth
string with the tip of my finger.
Finger it normally,
in other words, fret it.
Now I roll my finger over, in other words,
I let it collapse onto the fourth string.
There's almost no break
between the fifth string
and the fourth string.
As soon as I let go of the fifth string,
I hit the fourth string very smooth.
They call that legato in musical terms,
the Italian term,
means tied together, all right?
So that's legato.
When I go to the next note, fourth fret,
no sorry, fourth string fifth fret,
third string fifth fret,
do the same thing,
tip of the index finger, roll it over.
So, third finger, roll,
first finger, roll,
third finger again, roll,
first finger, roll.
Now these notes are not at the same
fret so I have to use separate fingers.
Third finger, fourth finger.
Now first finger, roll.
Fourth finger, roll.
Now I go back down again.
Roll over.
When you come back down you have to hit
the note with the side of your finger,
in other words, you're planning the move.
This is part of learning a phrase,
learning how to finger a phrase,
you know in advance.
Now when you improvise, that means you've
learned enough phrases and you've got
enough techniques under you belt that
you can think more spontaneously.
In the beginning there's
a lot of planning involved.
So, side of the finger, tip of the finger.
First finger.
Side, tip.
Different frets.
Normal fingering.
Now first finger.
Side, tip.
Third finger.
Side, tip.
First finger.
Side, tip.
Third finger.
Side, tip.
And I'm back home again, all right?
Now, the idea is to play this in tempo,
get the smooth transitions so
that there's no break between notes.
It's legato all the way down, okay?
I'll demonstrate it for you.
Don't wanna play too fast on this thing,
because again,
you don't wanna train
yourself to make mistakes.
Play it super slow and super accurate,
and then gradually work your way up.
Sounds like this, three, four.
Now you notice
that the notes don't
actually ring together.
It's like each note stops just
slightly before the next note, and
that keeps the notes
distinct from each other.
That's kind of the key right there,
is it isn't like they're running
into each other, they're separate.
But each note has complete control
because you're corralling that note
with one part of your finger and
it gets your full attention, okay?
So practice that legato exercise.
That's one of the ones.
We'll call it the finger roll.
We have another legato exercise coming up,
this one will really enhance
your ability to play phrases
that are very common in blues that
otherwise will just drive you nuts.
But if you have this finger roll exercise
down, then the phrases flow very
naturally and suddenly it opens
up a whole new world of melody.
All right, have fun with that one.
In this lesson, we're gonna
look at another aspect of touch.
Which is probably the most common
application of touch that guitar
players use in blues and almost all
other styles, particularly rock.
And that is generally called
legato technique, but
you might know it better by its common
names, hammer ons and pull offs.
And these refer to specific ways of
sounding a note that don't
always involve the pick.
So let me give you a little
demonstration here.
The hammer on technique sounds like this.
It's exactly what the name implies.
I hammer on to the note using my finger of
my fretting hand rather than
picking the note twice.
Or picking the two notes.
And the idea is that when I hammer
on properly and
with the right amount of force,
you really can almost
not tell the difference.
It does sound a little
bit smoother though and
that's the reason why a lot of
blues guitar players use it.
This is the basic approach to fretting
notes on a blues guitar in general.
So I've got a little exercise that
will take you through the minor
pentatonic scale, using hammer ons,
and I'll demonstrate it for
you, and then we'll play it together and
see if you can grab a hold of this one.
Now the idea is that when you pick
the first note on any given string,
you pick it, [SOUND] the next note on
that same string, [SOUND] is hammered on.
So it goes like,
Pick, hammer, pick, pick, pick,
hammer, pick, hammer, pick, pick,
pick, hammer, pick, hammer, pick.
Now you might have notice that on
the second string where you're
hammering on with the fourth finger, the
note doesn't come through quite as loudly.
And that's a technique issue.
The fact is that for most guitar players,
the fourth finger is weaker than
the first, second and third fingers.
This is one reason why when
you finger that scale,
[SOUND] players will often
reach up with the third finger.
The way I look at that choice
of the third finger or
the fourth finger in
the pentatonic like that.
Anytime you have a four fret
span like that is that if I am
passing by the note
If I'm passing by, meaning, like that,
I'll use my fourth finger.
If I want to put some
emphasis on the note.
I'll use my third finger.
And that applies to the hammer on
technique as well if I want to really
emphasize the note,
I'll use the third finger.
But I can also play it
with the fourth finger.
It's a choice.
For right now,
let's work on the fourth finger.
You don't wanna neglect the fourth finger.
You wanna bring the strength
up as much as you can.
But when it comes down to phrasing,
often the third finger is a good choice.
All right, let's play that
exercise in tempo right now.
I'm gonna set the tempo for you.
As always with exercises, you don't chase
the metronome, you set the metronome where
you can play it accurately every time and
then the tempo
marking will gradually increase as you
get more confident with the exercise.
Okay, so this is a sample tempo and
go ahead and
lay the exercise along with me and
see if you can grab a hold of most or
all of these notes and then set the tempo
for yourself when you practice, okay?
Here we go.
One, two, three,
and a four and a
All right.
Now that's hammer-ons and
that's just limiting it to that
specific scale in that position.
But hammer ons are part of phrasing that
we're going to use from here on out.
All over the neck.
The companion to hammer on,
is the pull off.
And the pull off is sort of
the mirror image of the hammer on.
You pick the higher note, and then the you
pull your finger to the side
to fret the lower note.
So instead of [SOUND] pick,
hammer, it's pick, [SOUND] pull.
Now to give you a little demonstration
going through the pentatonic scale,
it sounds like this.
So, breaking it down,
I've got my fourth finger,
I pull it to the side.
Now that's a sharp pull, and you have
to practice that one note at a time.
So you reach down with the note, and
you kind of pull back toward
the back of the neck almost.
And then pick the next note.
Now in order to accomplish the pull off,
you have to preset the other finger.
In other words,
you're pulling off to another note, so
that note has to be in place.
So my first finger's in place when I
do that pull off.
And then before I pull
off on the next string,
my finger has to be in place again.
On the second string so
that I have a note to go to.
At the same time when I'm
fretting the second string,
I'm muting the first string so when I
pull off I don't hear that note, right.
So the finger pulls to the side but
I don't pluck the first string
in a way that you can hear it.
Right, let's play that together,
three and a four and a
Now when it's executed properly,
it should flow, it sounds rolling,
that's what legato is all about,
tying the notes together.
Now let's combine the two techniques,
hammer ons and pull offs, going to up and
down the scale, and the idea is,
as I said originally, you,
you pick once per string, and depending
on the direction you're going in,
gonna use either hammer ons or
pull offs, all right?
So this exercise starts actually on
the fourth string at the fifth fret.
And what we're gonna do it a combination
of hammer ons and pull offs.
I hammer on, and then pull off.
Pick pick pick.
Hammer on, pull off,
pick, pick, pick,
pick, hammer- n,
pull off, pick,
Right, now at the top there
I do a couple of hammer ons and
pull offs in a row without
picking because each time I do
I am producing the same effect without
actually using the pick.
On the top end of the phrase there
it's a series of hammer ons and
pull offs in a row there.
Okay in tempo, here we go.
Three and
a four and
Now when we apply that to phrasing that
is going to become just integral to
the standard kind of blues lick.
All right?
And when you're breaking down a blues solo
by a classic blues guitar player,
BB King, you know?
Anybody that uses a pick.
And we'll talk more about that
right hand technique in a minute.
You will find that the phrases,
invariably, are using legato technique.
The idea of picking every note really
didn't come into blues at all until much
much later.
Even guys like Stevie Ray Vaughn,
fantastic technique, you know, very fast.
He didn't really pick the notes so
much, he used his left hand and
he had very strong fingers so
the legato sounded just as emphatic
as if he was picking every note.
So the idea of picking every note
like you do in a shred technique,
that doesn't really apply to blues in the
traditional sense, so we're going to use
legato technique almost all the time as we
proceed through the lessons so mess around
with those exercises and then we'll come
back and look at another aspect of touch.
In the last lesson we talked
about legato technique.
And the idea with legato is that you want
to be able to hammer-on and pull off
notes and have them come off at an equal
volume as if you picked the notes.
So it's all about evenness and flow.
Now we're gonna talk about
kind of the opposite effect,
which is making the dynamics,
the sound of each note different.
It's such a basic part of blues phrasing
that players often overlook it.
And I notice, when I listen to players
who are starting to play blues, and
they're soloing, often there's kind of
an unconscious flatness to the sound.
And the reason is that,
especially in players that
have developed their technique,
worked real hard on scales and
on their legato and so forth, every note
does come off at the same level, and
the problem with that is it creates
a subliminal monotone quality.
It's the opposite of what
we wanna hear in blues.
Blues phrasing in the dynamic sense is
like the way I'm talking to you right now.
When I wanna make a point,
I make the note or
the word sound forceful
by saying it louder.
And if I didn't do that,
I would sound like a computer.
You know, it's very flat and
it sounds unnatural.
So we have to kinda think
about that idea and
introduce it into your
phrasing in a conscious way.
Now using the pick, for example,
when you practice scales,
it's typical, you know,
to play a scale exercise.
And using alternate picking.
In this case I'm going
down, up, down, up.
All right.
It's very even, and that is an aspect
of technique that you do wanna develop.
It's called control.
So if you can't do that,
that's something you wanna be able to do.
You play that scale up and down,
just that one octave pattern, and
concentrate on making every note whether
it's a down stroke or an up stroke.
Sound at an equal dynamic
level as every other note.
Well, when we actually phrase and
we actually play solos and
try to create melodic ideas that stick,
that really reach people,
invariably you're gonna be able,
you're gonna wanna use dynamic variations.
Now one way to do that, you know,
in a sort of exercisey way,
is just to hit all the downbeats harder.
For example, like this.
In that case, all my down strokes
are louder than my up strokes.
Or I could play triplets.
Now it gives the phrase a sort
of a flowing quality in its own way.
It sort of feels like
it's being propelled,
like a flat tire down the street.
You kind of feel that extra
little bump every time around.
You can vary the location
of those accents.
But another way to do it, and I wanna
introduce this now because this will
become part of our kind of
arsenal of techniques later on.
Is actually,
forget about the pick for a second.
Put the pick down, and
gonna use your bare fingers.
Now this is a classic blues style.
Back in the day, of course,
acoustic guitar players would play with
just bare thumb and fingers.
And then to sound louder, often a guitar
player would use a thumb pick so
that the bass notes came through
a little bit more intensely.
But the thumb and
finger technique was just how you
played blues guitar for a long time.
And when electric guitar came along,
that's when players started using the flat
pick more like B.B.
King for example, T-Bone Walker.
But a lot of blues guitar players
still persisted using bare fingers.
Albert King played with his bare fingers.
Albert Collins, fantastic guitar players.
One aspect of their sound that made it so
exciting was the sound of the notes
kinda snapping and popping.
It makes every phrase
feel like it's alive.
And so, to practice that using the
pentatonic scale, just use your thumb and
index finger.
And it comes across like this,
the thumb is down, and the finger is up.
So, you have your built-in down stroke and
up stroke.
There's no particular
technique involved there.
Now, invariably when I do that the notes
don't sound equal because the thumb and
the finger
approach the note in different ways.
When I play with my finger,
I kinda get up under the note.
And lift it up and
snap it back a little bit.
If I do that with triplets.
It sorta gives it that rolling
quality that we had with the pick,
when your using dynamics there, but
it's a very natural kind of a sound.
When you incorporate
that into a blues phrase,
it kinda gives it an extra quality.
And when you listen to recordings,
if you're not aware that the player is
playing with bare fingers, and you try to
duplicate that sound it's frustrating.
Because you think, I'm missing something.
Then when you realize they're
playing with their bare fingers and
you do the same thing,
that's when you hit it.
So you wanna practice that technique so
that you can use it when you want it.
And now we're gonna also look at another
way of combining the pick and the fingers.
But first, let's play through that scale,
gonna play triplets through the minor
pentatonic scale using thumb and finger.
And again, this is a practice thing, you
work up to it, but this is the idea, so
here we go.
Three and four, and three and four.
Yeah, and
the rhythm
is even.
But the dynamic quality changes
as the phrase progresses.
Now if I'm not playing a set
scale pattern like that,
it's gonna come across in
a more natural vocal way.
Kinda makes each part of the phrase
feel like it has a different level
of intensity.
And kind of puts the emphasis
on the important notes.
Now, talking about combining the pick and
the fingers.
This is a technique that is called,
commonly, hybrid technique.
Cuz it's a hybrid of flat picking and
bare fingers.
And this is actually the technique
that I use almost all the time.
I kinda stumbled across it after playing
with the pick for a number of years.
I was listening to some records and
I heard a guy play something I just
couldn't figure out how he was doing,
I think it was,
a fast lick like that.
I just couldn't get my pick to go there.
And so I started thinking, well I can't
reach that note with the pick in time, so
what if I used my middle
finger to snap that high note.
All right, and sure enough it worked.
Now I don't know if the guy was playing
that way, but it worked for me, and so
I started to think about using my finger
more and combining it with the pick.
And the result was I kind of
invented my own hybrid technique.
But it's a very common approach,
a lot of players use it.
And we'll be incorporating it into
a lot of examples from here on.
So here's how it works.
I alternate,
instead of with the thumb and the finger,
I alternate with the pick and the finger.
Now you can use either
your middle finger or
your third finger, and
it almost doesn't matter which one.
I switch off, like on the high
string I'll use my third finger,
on the second string I'll
use my middle finger.
It's not real scientific, but
it's a matter of comfort, sort of which
note, which finger feels most comfortable.
So to play through the pentatonic scale,
slowly, using hybrid technique,
here's what it would sound like.
Pick, finger, pick
finger, pick, finger, pick.
Now I'm deliberately exaggerating
the finger, snapping that note,
but that's part of the sound too.
Using triplets
So I'm alternating down strokes with
the pick, up strokes with the finger.
Let's try that together, okay?
Here we go, three and a four and a.
Pick, finger, pick.
work with that for
a little while.
It's gonna feel weird at first,
if you never did it before,
because it's introducing a whole
other element in your picking hand.
But the result is that you gain control
of the dynamics in your phrasing.
And like I said at the beginning,
without a dynamic range in your phrasing,
it sounds flat, it sounds monotone, and
you can't quite put your finger
on why it's not that interesting.
And often it's down to that, if you
just played the same lick with a greater
dynamic range,
it just sounds a lot cooler.
Mess around with that a little bit, do
those exercises, and we'll come back, and
talk some more.