5 Lessons We Can Learn From Peter Green
By the Happy Bluesman
Record producer Mike Vernon once described Peter Green as the ‘very best blues guitarist’ that England has ever produced. That is saying something, considering that Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – amongst others – all grew up calling England home. Yet it was a sentiment that was shared by B.B. King, who said that Green had ‘the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats’.
Sadly, as a result of mental health issues and drug use, Peter Green’s career was cut short in the early 1970s. Yet during his time with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers and then as the founder of Fleetwood Mac, Green produced some of the best electric blues guitar playing ever caught on record.
Green’s playing represents everything that is so brilliant about the blues. He plays with pure emotion. His playing is not fast, nor is it flashy. He doesn’t use a range of exotic scales. Instead, he strips everything back to focus on what is essential in the blues – feeling.
To play with feeling and emotion is challenging. So here I have compiled some of the key techniques that Peter Green used to create his beautiful blues solos.
Here are 5 lessons you can learn from Peter Green:
Mick Fleetwood – the drummer and co-founder of Fleetwood Mac – said that Peter Green gave him ‘an education into touch.’ Green has a masterful touch, and it is one of the most distinctive elements of his playing.
A big part of what makes Green’s touch so special is his control of dynamics.
Green constantly adjusts the volume at which he plays; he never plays two notes with the same dynamics. Instead he is always altering his volume to produce a different feeling, and create light and shade within his solos.
You can hear this in almost all of Green’s lead playing. But some brilliant examples come from his live performances of songs like ‘Jumping at Shadows‘ and ‘Worried Dream‘. In both songs, Green makes his guitar sound like a human voice. It naturally ebbs and flows like a voice and never sounds the same from one moment to the next.
If you want to play in a similar way and become more expressive, focus on your pick attack. Back off and just touch the strings lightly when you are trying to play softly. Then when you want to crank things up a notch, dig in with your pick to add bite and aggression to your sound.
APPRECIATE THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Another distinctive element of Green’s playing that sets him aside from many of his contemporaries, is his use of silence. This might sound fairly unexceptional. However, the reality is that very few guitarists use silence effectively in their playing. It takes a lot of confidence to leave large gaps of silence when you are soloing. And many guitarists – particularly in the earlier phases of their learning journey – don’t have this confidence.
Typically, less experienced players leave very little space between notes and phrases when they are improvising. And unfortunately this prevents them from crafting beautiful and impactful solos, because it diminishes the impact of the individual phrases in their solos.
Listening to a guitar solo with no silence is like listening to someone talking incessantly. There might be moments of brilliance in what they are saying, but those moments get lost amongst all of the other words.
If you want to create beautiful blues guitar solos, you have to place as much focus on the notes you don’t play, as on those you do. Silence will make your playing more impactful. Your phrases will stand out more and you will move away from producing an endless stream of noise that overwhelms the listener.
Playing in this way also gives your guitar a vocal quality. This is important, because the most beautiful and expressive blues guitar solos are those that closely mimic the human voice.
Pausing between phrases is natural for singers. They have to breathe and so cannot sustain a continuous melody. These breaks in the melody sound natural to our ear because we are used to people pausing to take breath whilst talking to us. In fact, if someone talks to us without taking a breath, it sounds quite unnatural and it is difficult to focus on what they are saying.
To recreate this in your own playing and give your solos a more vocal and expressive quality, I would recommend the following 3 exercises:
Record yourself when improvising. This will allow you to see opportunities in your solos where you can hold back and be more restrained. It will also allow you to see if you are overplaying or just endlessly noodling around the fretboard.
Aim for 50%. When improvising, consciously aim to play half as much as you do normally. Really hold back. Use the time between phrases to listen to the music and plan your playing. Think about what you are going to play next and how you can make every lick and phrase that you play count.
Hold your breath. I appreciate that this might sound a bit wacky at first, but try taking a breath before you play a lick, and then breathe out as you play. Stop playing when you have to take another breath. In this way, you will be mimicking a singer, and this will give your playing a more vocal and expressive quality.
Peter Green’s restrained approach to soloing and clever use of spacing is evident in most of his lead work. But two particularly good examples are the intro solos in ‘Worried Dream‘ and ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘.
MASTER THE B.B. KING BOX
B.B. King was one of Peter Green’s biggest influences. He had a real impact on Green, who utilised and adapted many of the techniques that King pioneered. One of the most significant of these, is the ‘B.B. King Box.’
The B.B. King Box is amongst the most distinctive elements of B.B. King’s playing. In essence, it is a 6 note scale that King created. It features a lot in both his and Green’s playing, so including it in your solos and improvisations is crucial if you want to capture a bit of that Greeny magic. The B.B. King Box is constructed from notes that appear in both the major and minor pentatonic scales, and it contains the following intervals:
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6
It is a moveable shape that you can play all over the neck of your guitar. Typically though, King (and also Green) play the B.B. King Box on the top 3 strings, with the 1 (tonic note) played on the B string. This is what the B.B. King Box looks like in the key of A:
Here the tonic note (shown in light blue) is played at the 10th fret on the B string. The 6th note of the B.B. King Box – which in the key of A is F# – is typically played on the string below the tonic note. In the diagram above, this is the 11th fret on the G string. However, you can also play it one octave higher. This is shown on the diagram above at the 14th fret on the E string.
The beauty of the B.B. King Box is that it works when you play it over all of the chords in a major 12 bar blues. You can play it over the I, IV and V chords and it will sound equally effective over each part of the progression.
This is not true over a minor blues progression. It is difficult to use the B.B. King Box effectively in a minor blues context. But if you want to add a slightly different flavour and some sophistication to your playing, you should definitely learn this scale.
You can hear Peter Green use the B.B King Box during the opening solo in ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘, by Fleetwood Mac. Here Green plays the B.B. King Box in the key of A (as illustrated above) to brilliant effect.
ADD IN THE AEOLIAN MODE
A standard 12 bar blues progression is made up of dominant 7th chords. But Peter Green often used minor chords in his compositions. When soloing or improvising over a minor blues progression, both the minor pentatonic scale and the minor blues scale make great choices.
However, if you want to recreate some of that Peter Green magic, I would recommend experimenting with the natural minor scale. Also known as the ‘Aeolian mode’, this is a mode of the major scale that Green uses quite frequently to add a different and slightly exotic feeling to his playing.
This is what the 5 positions of the natural minor scale look like in the key of A:
Without getting too deep into the theory – the Aeolian mode contains all of the same notes as the minor pentatonic scale. The key difference is that within this mode there are 2 additional notes per octave which do not appear in the minor pentatonic scale. Targeting these notes within your solos will add a different feel and texture to your improvisations and greater variety to your playing.
Additionally it will help you to sound like Peter Green, as well as guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Carlos Santana – all of whom use the scale in their playing.
Much has been spoken about Peter Green’s mental health problems and an infamous LSD party in Munich in 1970, which many feel led to Green’s decision to quit Fleetwood Mac and then leave public life altogether. But as Tom Hussein – a fan and friend of John Mayall and some of the Bluesbreakers – has noted: ‘I was quite close with Peter. He really was the most kind and friendly guy that you can imagine. In 1967, there was nothing tragic about Peter Green’.
In fact, those that played with Green and knew him well continue to comment on how much fun he was to be around. As John Mayall once said when asked about the differences between Peter Green and Eric Clapton:
I don’t judge guitarists by the number of notes they play. I just want them to have something moving and original to say. On a personal level, though, Peter was a much easier guy to work with than Eric. Very easy-going and fun-loving, great to be around. He became a really good friend.
Whether you are playing at home, in a band with friends, or professionally – enjoy the process. I know as well as anyone how challenging learning the guitar can feel at times. It is a difficult instrument, and it is easy to become frustrated if you aren’t happy with your progress. But try to learn from Peter Green and the way that he approached the guitar in his early days. Focus on enjoying the process and don’t ever forget that playing the guitar should enrich your life, not make it more stressful.
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