From Lynyrd Skynyrd to Hank Williams Jr. to ZZ Top, the Southern boogie shuffle is one of the essential sounds of Southern rock. The chord structure and shuffle beat come from the blues, and uptempo shuffles are also common in
gospel music, both styles rooted in the deep south. The melodies and lead guitar lines often come straight from the blues as well, but when you start to listen more closely you’ll hear more going on than the familiar minor
pentatonic. In fact, the licks and lines you hear being played by Dickie Betts (Allman Brothers) or Steve Gaines (Lynyrd Skynyrd) can be downright jazzy, mixing minor and major tonalities and working through chord changes
the way a jazz saxophonist might.
You might not have ever made a connection between Glenn Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but listen to the opening lines of “In The Mood” and “I Know A Little” back to back. Both share blues harmony, a shuffle rhythm, and melody lines that mix jazzy arpeggios with chromatic and modal scale runs.
The following examples illustrate a few of the simple musical techniques that can jazz up the boogie! These lines would be played over a 12-bar blues shuffle in A, and each pair covers a section of the 12-bar form:
- Examples 1 and 1a A D A A
- Examples 2 and 2a D D A A
- Examples 3 and 3a E D A A
Learn the licks individually, none of them are all that difficult to play! Then try putting them together over a blues backing track in A, and experiment with mixing the examples: say, playing 2a instead of 2. Each pair is interchangeable, but approaches the same basic material a little differently.
Pentatonic Boogie Lick
We’re using a major pentatonic scale for the most part: A B C# E F# A. The opening lick walks through an A major arpeggio in the 5th position, with a hammer-on grace note from the minor to the major 3rd on the downbeat of the first complete measure. This minor-major shift is very common, and something you’ll see throughout these examples. It happens again in measure 2, with an F moving to F# to create a minor-major shift in a D arpeggio to match the change to a D7 harmony. The third measure echoes the opening lick over A7, but completes the phrase by descending in the A mixolydian mode. This might sound complicated if you’re not familiar with modes. Another simple way to look at it is that we’re combining the notes of the minor and major pentatonic scales. The 8th fret G is part of the minor pentatonic, but the 7th fret F# comes from the major pentatonic. This is called “mode mixture” and is very common in jazz and in more sophisticated blues.
Example 1a fits the same chords as example 1, and starts off with a variation on the major pentatonic arpeggio. Note the minor-major shift in the beginning, played as a slide instead of a
hammer-on this time. The second bar also mixes our major and minor sounds, using a minor 3rd (8th fret C on the E string, from the minor pentatonic) and a major 6th (7th fret F# on the B string,
from the major pentatonic). Notice that the chord is a D7, though. So even though the notes fit with our mixed A major-minor pentatonic, they also fit a D7 arpeggio and the D mixolydian mode.
The third lick fits over A7 again, and is basically major pentatonic embellished by a few half-step slides.
If this sounds like a lot of theory, don’t worry. The theory terms give us a way to identify the different sounds, so concentrate on getting the licks under your fingers and the sounds into your ears first. Do pay attention to the chord that each lick fits, though.
D7 Pentatonic Lick
Example 2 fits over bars 5-8 of our blues progression, D7 D7 A7 A7:
You may start to recognize a familiar pattern here. Once again, we start with major pentatonic over D7, with an added slide to include the minor note. The second and third licks follow a D7 and A7 arpeggio respectively, using a 3-string shape that comes from the “E shape” barre chord.
Example 2a moves to a different position for the D7, and once again mixes notes from the major and minor pentatonic to outline the notes of the D7 chord. Notice the quick slide from frets 4 to 5 in the first lick, and the way the tail of the lick is repeated to create a cool rhythmic variation. The A lick at the end neatly follows the notes from the partial barre shape in example 2.
The Turnaround Lick
Example 3 brings us to the last 4 bars of the blues form, the turnaround E D A A. If you take a good look at the first two licks, you might recognize a three-string shape: the three upper strings of an “A shape” barre chord. The grace note slides should be familiar by now, and you should hear them as embellishments to the melody.
Example 3a uses the same chord shape and minor-major shifts as example 3 for the first two licks, with a slight rhythmic variation. The final lick would work over two bars of A7 in any setting,
but works especially well as an ending; notice the way it resolves into a double-stop hammer-on, once again using notes from the “E shape” barre chord.
Practice these at the slow tempo of the audio examples, but once you’ve got them under your fingers try picking up speed. For an example of similar lines over a faster boogie groove, check out my song lesson “Down The Road” from the “50 Years of Guitar” series on JamPlay:
Down the Road Boogie Groove by Dave Isaacs
Taught by Dave Isaacs
By making small adjustments to a simple scale, you can make something very normal, sound much more interesting. It's been done for decades and is often not well understood, but Isaacs breaks down this concept here!
Remember, if the theory aspect of this is new to you it will take some time for everything to make sense. The best way to understand theory is to listen first and do the math later. As you learn the licks, listen closely and just notice the notes that sound different from the familiar minor pentatonic or blues scale. For this weekend, focus on getting the licks into your hands. The rest will come in time!
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Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading! Have fun with the blues this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!
Nashville Session Musician