Top 5 Blues Guitar Riffs
The lessons on this website tend to focus on the technical aspects of guitar playing such as comping, soloing, and repertoire, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for jamming along to some great blues guitar riffs.
In today’s lesson I will be counting down my personal top 5 blues guitar riffs that feature a range of different jazz and blues guitar techniques to develop your improvisational skills as a guitarist.
No doubt about it, the riff is often what defines this song, be it the bass hook on Miles’ Davis ‘So What’ or the twangy guitar riff on ‘Working Man Blues’, so it’s worth having a few riffs under your fingers.
Whether you are looking for a raw ‘n’ raunchy finger picking type riff, or a more up tempo west coast lick, there should be something here for you so tune up, plug in and let’s get started and check out my top 5 blues guitar riffs.
BB King – Woke Up This Morning
Besides being a great singe line soloist, many of BB’s classic tunes feature some catchy and tasty guitar riffs and one of my favorites is ‘Woke Up This Morning’.
The transcription here actually comes from BB King’s famous ‘Live at The Regal’ record, but this track is not available on YouTube so I have linked to the studio version.
Both versions are almost the same except that BB adds a D minor triad on the last measure of the first part of the riff on the live recording shown in the tab below. BB also adds slides into a C triad from a B in the last bar of the lick which is taken from the Live at the Regal record.
This lick is great fun to play and demonstrates how effective triads can be in a traditional blues playing.
Hubert Sumlin – Smokestack Lightnin’
There is some confusion about who originally played guitar on some of the classic Howlin’ Wolf records, but Hubert Sumlim has become known for his unique tone and playing some of the classic Howlin’ Wolf riffs such as ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
This lick sounds best when played finger style so that the low and high notes can be played at the same time. Using the fingers also produces a snappy blues tone. The video beneath the notation shows the great man himself teaching it.
Hollywood Fats – Rock This House
So far in this list, most of the riffs have come from quite well known players, but one of my favorite lesser known blues guitarist from a younger generation is the great Hollywood Fats.
Unfortunately Fats died at a young age, but he left us with some fantastic live and studio recordings. This lick comes from Fat’s intro on ‘Rock This House’ from the complete 1979 studio sessions.
The lick starts with a Charlie Christian esc diminished lick followed by some punchy 9th and 13th chords played with big band type rhythms and appears at the very beginning of the accompanying audio below the notation.
Magic Sam – Sweet Home Chicago
After listening to several different versions of Sweet Home Chicago, it’s hard to say which the definite riff for this song is because everyone plays it different. But, the Magic Sam version is my favorite so I have included his riff.
A common blues guitar technique is to emulate the sound of the bottleneck without using a bottleneck by sliding. BB King demonstrates this technique effectively on ‘Please Leave Me’ and Magic Sam demonstrates it well on this riff.
Magic Sam does not slide up the diad each time, but I think doing this can sound more like a bottleneck so I included it in the tab and notation.
Follow this link for a fully detailed video and text lesson of this song and check out the audio below to hear how Magic Sam plays it.
T-Bone Walker – Stormy Monday
To finish off my top 5 blues guitar riffs, here is the classic T-Bone intro to ‘Stormy Monday’. This riff demonstrates some beautiful slow blues chords with an augmented triad.
This T-Bone lick is played at the turnaround of a blues progression, and can be used as either an intro or at the end of any verse during a 12 bar blues.
This lick sounds best when you slide into each of the chords on the first bar of the bar.
T-Bone recorded Stormy Monday several times so this is not an exact transcription, but it includes key techniques that he often used to start slow blues tunes.
I hope that these classic blues guitar riffs have brought some inspiration to your practice session and that you enjoy playing through them. What are some of your top blues guitar riffs? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.