One of the most common questions I get asked about when it comes to blues is how to “mix up” rhythm and lead guitar when playing Blues. Well it’s a pretty big question and has multiple answers.

Sometimes I think people mean “embellishing chords” Jimi Hendrix style (see the Jimi Hendrix Rhythm Guitar lesson on my site for that) but that is a very particular style and it’s a lot more common to “alternate” between lead and rhythm and as you progress you will find that the distinctions between the two get more and more blurred.

In this lesson I’ll be taking you through a step by step approach to learning to do this, and we’ll be using Guitar Pro files to help you keep in time. I’d recommend starting with the set examples and playing along and then muting or deleting my licks and putting your own in. Don’t be afraid to ‘work stuff out’ for a while until it really locked in, but the aim long term to be able to improvise with it.

(click on the image to download the Guitar Pro tab)

We’re going to be in the Key of A, using a basic open shuffle rhythm groove and A Minor Pentatonic scale (maybe with a bit of Blues) so you’ll want to make sure you know these before you get going (both are covered in my free Beginner’s Course Lessons BC-176 & BC-183).

Example 1 [A]

So the first thing to realise is that IT’S ALL ABOUT RHYTHM! So no matter how fancy or complex you want to get you MUST stay solid with your time or it will just sound rubbish! So start with [A] and make sure you know how to play this and make it feel good and stay in time. Do it along with the Guitar Pro file (use repeat function, select the bars and then the ‘loop’ button in the transport).

Example 2 [B]

Now you need to get a space to put some lead guitar, so we’ll play the same as the above but stop AFTER playing the notes on beat 1, and make sure you count the 2, 3, 4. You should be tapping your foot on the beat only (the 1, 2, 3 and 4) and if you struggle with doing that it’s something I’d really recommend you work on a lot, or it will always give you trouble!

Example 3 [C]

Next we’re going to add in a very simple little 3 note ‘lick’ in the gap, just one note on each of the beats, don’t get fancy yet, keep it simple. Master the example shown and then try playing any other 3 notes from the A Minor pentatonic and get well comfortable with this before going any further. Make sure you start the rhythm again on beat 1. It’s a big deal.

Example 4 [D]

The idea now is to just add in a little bit of 8th note rhythm. It’s a good idea to finish on beat 4 so you have time to get back to the rhythm because it’s ESSENTIAL that you come back on Beat 1 for now. You need to get super confident of where 1 is so you come back in solid with your rhythm.

One really cool thing about Guitar Pro 6 is being able to mess with the notes right there in the TAB, so you can go in and adapt my licks to other things to hear them before trying them out on the guitar!

Example 5 [E]

This next lick is using triplets, it’s a very common blues style lick, but you’ll notice now how tricky it is to get back to the rhythm right on beat 1 – but you have to. That’s you’re challenge here! Notice that all the licks so far have started on beat 2 to give you time to get to the ‘lead’ mode and I hope you are getting back to rhythm mode on beat 1 comfortably.

Example 6 [F]

Of course you might like to start earlier than beat 2, so if you’re quick you can jump up and play on the ‘and after 1’ as well. There are not any rules, but at this stage I recommend that you start and finish rhythm on beat 1.

Example 7 [G]

So far most of the licks have been quite ‘full’ and with consistent rhythm, which makes it a bit easier – but make sure you realize that you can play pretty much any lick with any ‘melodic rhythm’, simple or complex, fast or slow – just make sure you stay in time.

It’s true that many of the great blues players play “across the beat” or very freely, but to do this well you have to have a VERY solid sense of time that is staying strong underneath. Guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan were masters of this and could plays so loose and free but come back right on the money when needed – and it’s important that you often come back to ‘time’ for the listeners sake!

Once you have this lick down I’d recommend trying out some of your favourite licks, just make sure they’re less than 3 beats long! But take some time here to explore on your own.

Example 8 [H]

This last example has a lot of things going on to check out, more advanced concepts and follows a whole 12 Bar Blues in A.

Firstly, in the rhythm I’m using 12 Bar Blues Variations to add some melodic elements to the rhythm. This is a very easy thing to mix in and loads of fun. This is just a small taste of what you can do with it. Again a whole lesson on this can be found in my Beginners Course (BC-194).

Also notice that the first lead break doesn’t finish until beat 1 of the next bar and the rhythm starts an eighth note late BUT THE RHYTHM REMAINS IN TIME, as if I started in the ‘right place’. This kind of thing takes more practice than anything else and you have to be very strong with your internal time.

You’ll also see that I’m changing chord in the rhythm now to follow a Standard 12 Bar Blues sequence and I’m choosing licks accordingly and stretching beyond the Minor Pentatonic Scale. You can stay with simple blues phrases or stretch out as far as you like as long as you stay in time!

Note for the last 4 bars that I play the chord just once and then fill the bar with lead lines and add a turnaround lick at the end. You could just choose to do rhythm here, or one bar of rhythm and one bar of lead. There are no rules IF YOU STAY IN TIME 😉

Hope you have a lot of fun with this, and if you dig it you’ll find over 900 free lessons on my site, many which use Guitar Pro to help you understand the concepts.

Wishing you all the very best for 2016!

– Justin


mike marfuta - févr. 2, 2016

justin- i can’t open the files for this lesson because in the GPX format. What can i do. (mixing blues, lead,and rhythm guitar,.

help me out. thanks – Mike M.

adrien - févr. 3, 2016

Hi Mike, unfortunately the tab is only available in .gpx format. You’ll need GP6 to open it.

JustinGuitar - janv. 2, 2016

Glad y’all like it 🙂

Derek - janv. 1, 2016

Thanks, Justin. Finally, someone who is able to break down in proper steps what needs to be done! Do you know how many lessons say what to do but no one has yet come up with a proper improvisation course in a step by step approach. This lesson is a good beginning but it would be nice to see it expanded upon with chapters on soloing over the changes, ending licks on the right notes for the progression or chords, etc in just the same step by step fashion.

Marcelo - déc. 18, 2015


Diane Sanderson - déc. 13, 2015

Have downloaded but can open this. So sad!

adrien - déc. 14, 2015

Hi, glad you liked the article! Do you have a Guitar Pro 6 license to open the tab? Thanks.

Diane Sanderson - déc. 13, 2015

Just right for me at moment, your blues based lead/ rhythm course. Keep up good work and thanks. Justin.

Diane Sanderson - déc. 13, 2015

Everything you do is ace and the blues/ lead/ rhythm course you just did sounds appropriate for me right now. Keep up the good work, Justin S

dan hawthorne - déc. 12, 2015

another great lesson, you have help my guitar playing so much over the years from a 3 chorder to being able to throw in the odd blues solos when jamming with friends, can’t even imagine how many others you have helped. keep up the good my friend

Patrick - déc. 12, 2015

Happy Holidays … have a great 2016

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