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Quick licks: Playing ‘outside’ the blues with Shawn Tubbs

This past year, our friend Shawn Tubbs has been sharing ideas with his YouTube audience on how to break out of improvisational ruts when it comes to playing the blues. We’ve collected his ideas here and fully “Soundsliced” them.

A thread you’ll notice as you check out these passages and listen to Shawn’s explanations: He’s focused on economy of motion. He’s following his ear and laying out shapes that fit well on the fingerboard rather than chasing theoretical concepts. His ideas get a big bang-for-your-buck when it comes to producing creative sounds and playing with technical fluidity. This approach alone might be what you need to find some new ideas yourself!

Lick one

This first line gets you from the I chord to the IV chord with some spice. (Cayenne pepper, specifically.) Shawn describes the line as connecting three chord shapes: A variation of E9, C# major and A# major. In the full lesson video, Shawn explains how the two major triads are actually extensions of 13b9 chords — something he picked up while listening to Robben Ford.

Lick two

Here’s an idea for the end of the blues form as you go from the V chord to the IV chord. The passage starts by outlining tritones at the “fifth bird.” (Shawn’s way of saying fret 12.)

Lick three

Our friend Matt Sears beat us to the punch in transcribing lick three — we’ve embedded his slice here. The shapes Shawn describes connecting are an A9(b5) to an A+. (That’s augmented, not a report card.)

Lick four

In this minor blues groove, Shawn makes a slight change to a minor 7 arpeggio to create a shape that’s easy to move around. You end up getting some great intervallic tension with low effort. He then “rounds out” the end of the passage with a chromatic run.

Lick five

This is another idea to get you from the I chord to the IV chord, though Shawn says it sounds just as fine over the I. The concept is similar to what you hear in lick one — the 13b9 phrase. He mentions that he “thought he tanked” this idea originally, but on hearing it back thought it out worked out. A lesson to us all!

Demolition guided tour

If you like what you’re hearing from Shawn in terms of musical ideas (and acceptable levels of humor), we highly recommend checking out his instructional course, Demolition guided tour.

It has more than 100 minutes of instruction, with everything detailed in beautiful tab and notation. Shawn has a way of making his musical thinking approachable, and that shines through in this course.


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