If you’d like to learn to improvise with Lonely Blues, our original blues song, then let’s dive in.
How do I make up my own music?
Several years ago I wrote the song, Lonely Blues, for my students. I wanted them to have a simple song where they could learn the pattern of the 12-bar blues. They got an initial experience in improvisation over a simplified blues scale. Since I was composing for fourth and fifth graders, the music needed to be simple and accessible. It also needed to sound different from the many folk songs that they sang at other times of the year. I wanted them to have the feel of a blues band and to have the experience of creating their own music. I also wanted them to experience African-American contributions to our popular music culture.
So, how did it go?
It was quite successful. I created a great backing track and played the bass line on the upright acoustic bass. I showed them how to play three notes up high on the A and E strings that worked over the entire chord progression. They were able to improvise all at once and kept asking all year to return to this song.
Rebecca and I then needed a 5th song for our book, Easy Ukulele Songs: Five with Five Chords. “Lonely Blues” (with a few more chords added) fit the bill. So, now the piece is ready to play as written. But what if you want to take it further and learn to improvise? What if you want to really create your own music?
Let’s learn to improvise with Lonely Blues
So, what do you do?
- Play with a backing track. Slow Blues Backing Track
- Play with Strum Machine Strum Machine
- Record yourself on your phone or tablet strumming the chords and singing the song. Include a few extra choruses with no singing.
- Improvise in the spaces where there is no singing or over the entire blues chorus. If you record yourself, it works really well, because it keeps you going when you make mistakes. Making mistakes in real-time helps you to find “licks” you can use later in your improvisations.
- Get a book of Blues licks. One of my favorites is by Lil Rev Intros, Endings and Turnarounds for Ukulele.
What do you do to get the rhythmic feel?
- Swing the strumming pattern. Play the 8th notes unevenly. The first note is longer than the second.
- Make beats 2 and 4 the strongest beats of each measure, not 1 and 3.
- Add Boogie notes when you strum.
This feeling for the rhythm comes with practice and with listening to blues artists. That’s why it’s such a good idea to practice with a backing track. If you record yourself, you will hear when you have the right feel. You will make quick progress because you’ll be able to fix your mistakes.
How do you improvise over a backing track?
- Learn the “easy” blues scale up high on the A and E Strings. This scale works well if you’re playing with others because you are higher in pitch than they are. You can hear what you’re doing.
- Create licks (2 to 3 note patterns) that you play over and over while the backing track is going. Use the notes of the “Blues Scale” to do this.
How do you create your own blues solo that sounds complete by itself?
- Learn both blues scales that are presented above.
- Create licks from these scales that use two or three notes over and over again.
- Check out books of Blues Licks for ukulele. I’ve learned from Lil Rev.
Add a blues bass line. Even up high it sounds good!
Add some cool strumming-hand effects
- Fingerpicking an arpeggio
- Slapping the fretboard during a rest
- Chunking with the right hand
- Triplet strums
Make your song complete by adding an introduction and an ending.
Understand the form of the 12-Bar Blues
Any traditional blues song will be 12 measures long. There are specific chords that appear at certain places throughout the song. When you get more advanced, you can substitute more complicated chords. But, learn the simplest progression first. It goes like this.
Write things out to get the timing.
Since I am a music reader, I find it helps if I write things out. I can’t always “feel” how my ideas fit with the rhythms behind me. There is a tradition of listening and transcribing great solos. By learning exactly what an artist plays, you get used to adding these ideas, in a different order. You mix up these ideas from other places with your own ideas. Pretty soon, you’re comfortable creating your own improvised solos.
Check out my written-out improvisation on “Lonely Blues.”
You can also make your own and improvise with Lonely Blues.
Check out this lesson on Blues Tools
In this lesson, I teach all the written examples on this page. You can then apply them to your own solos.
How do you get good at it?
- Shake it up.
- Mix it up.
- Practice and Practice.
- Rinse and repeat.
- Remember to have fun!
And, then you have the beginnings of a blues solo.
I hope you enjoyed learning to improvise with Lonely Blues!
“Lonely Blues” is in our book, Easy Ukulele Songs: Five with Five Chords.
You might want to check out the recording of our Facebook Live lesson on “Lonely Blues”!