Listen to enough blues that you can hear the chord changes and anticipate them by feel, without thinking about it. Develop your ear enough to be able to single out and listen to the individual instruments. Playing blues is like communicating in a language.. you need to be able to listen as well as speak, and what you say is better if it fits in the context of the conversation.
Stay in the rhythmic "groove" established mainly by the bass and the drums. Beginning players often worry so much about notes, they forget about the rhythm--but the rhythm is the heart beat of the music, giving it life. It is normally better to make a mistake on a note than a mistake on the rhythm.
The blues consists of numerous phrases (also called "licks" or "riffs") that follow a question-answer, tension-release form. The initial phrase asks the musical question and establishes some tension. The subsequent phrase releases the tension by answering the question. So, even though the phrases are distinct and separate, they are still related. Listen to the questions asked by the other instruments and how they are answered. Build your improvisational solos in the context of this conversation. Even though you're playing a solo, you're first and foremost part of a team of musicians creating the music. Listen to the music. Add to it only to make it better.
Normally the blues is played as a 12 bar chord progression in 4/4 time using the I IV V (one four five) chords of the major scale, normally played as dominant 7th chords (i.e. with the flat 7th added to the basic triad), and melody notes from the blues scale (see below).
The basic 12 bar form is:
The blues scale consists of the following musical scale degrees:
1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 8/1.
These are also sometimes called the tonic (1), flat third, sub-dominant (fourth), flat fifth, dominant (5), flat seven, and octave.
For the key of C that's:
C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb, C.
For 2nd position in the low octave the tab
2, 3', 4>, 4', 4, 5, 6> (2 draw, 3 draw bend, 4 blow, 4 draw bend, 4 draw, 5 draw, 6 blow).
For the high octave in 2nd position the tab is:
6>, 6>#, 7>, 7#, 8, 9, 9>
Here is a diagram of an F harp that shows where the notes in the 2nd position C blues scale are. It doesn't matter whether you use an F harp or not--it's just easiest to think in the key of C.
Here is tab for all the notes in the blues scale in 2nd position:
1>, 1', 1, 2", 2 and 3>, 3', 4>, 4', 4, 5, 6>, 6>#, 7>, 7#, 8, 9, 9>, 10">, 10>, 10#
Play mostly notes from the blues scale (at first, while learning. Later you'll figure out that you can use any note, it's just a matter of how and where). Make sure you play notes from the blues scale on the beat. Try to lean on the notes in the current chord in the I, IV, V chord progression (in C, I=C, IV=F, V=G), especially the I, on the beat.
The first 6 holes are the most used for blues. Holes 2, 3, and
4 are especially important. Work on all the available bends in these
holes. Virtually always play hole 3 draw bent, at least a little.
It is one of the key "blue notes", which are the flat 3rd,
flat 5th, and flat 7th. The blue notes in 2nd position are
1' (flat 5), 2" (flat 7), 3' (flat 3), 4' (flat 5), 5 (flat 7), 6># (flat 3), 7# (flat 5), 9 (flat 7), 10>" (flat 3), 10# (flat 5)
Here is tab for the blues scale for 3rd position showing the key of
1 2" 2 3"' 3" 4> 4, 4 5 6> 6' 6 7> 8, 8 9 9> 9># 10 10>
The following diagram shows a Bb harp with the 3rd position key of C blues scale highlighted, and arrows that show the order of the notes in the scale from low to high.
Here are the 1st position blues scales in tab format:
1> 1># 2" 2' 2 3' 4>, 4> 4># 5 5># 6> 6># 7>, 7> 8>' 9 9>' 9> 10>" 10>
Here is a diagram of the 1st position scale layout on a C harp:
Here's the 5th position blues scales tab:
2> 2 3" 3' 3 4 5>, 5> 6> 6 6># 7 8 8>
The following diagram shows an Ab harp with the
position C blues scale highlighted.
Put the rhythm in your body and don't let it die. Prefer to miss a note rather than mess up the beat. Tap your foot. Tap BOTH feet. Tap your heels instead of your toes. Rock from side to side. Put the rhythm in your body!
Use triplets. A triplet divides a rhythmic unit into 3 equal parts, instead of just 2 or 4 etc. For example, "triplet eighths" have 3 notes in the space of 1 beat instead of the usual 2 eighth notes in 1 beat.
Emphasize tone and emotion more than speed.
Blues is about tone. It's about feelings and soul. It's not about how many notes you can play, but about which notes you decide to play... and which ones you decide not to play. Remember, there are no unimportant notes. Make sure each note is played clearly, cleanly, in time, with good tone, and given its proper due.
Leave some space. The rest is a valid musical expression. The silence sets up the sounds; frames them as if they're a valuable painting. Spaces, like notes, can add musical tension and interest to your phrasing and expression. Very often in blues it is best to subscribe to the philosophy that less is more.
Get the blues in your mind and ear, find something to
say, and be able to say it.. clearly and eloquently.