3 New Orleans Inspired Guitar Licks


Free Guitar Courses and Lessons

New Orleans is one of the centers of the American musical universe, and for good reason. The Crescent City is a cultural and musical melting pot, and the place where African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms met the American marching band to create Dixieland and the second line. The “second line” is a parade, traditionally held after a funeral to honor the memory of the deceased. It’s called the “second line” because it comes after the funeral march, where slow hymns are played as the marchers move in step to the cemetery. But afterward the music kicks up and the party begins, and much of that music is built around a rhythm known in New Orleans as a “street beat.”

You know the sound of the street beat; Most people would probably think of it as the “Bo Diddley” beat, as heard in Bo’s songs “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love”. But Bo didn’t invent the rhythm, he absorbed it. Here’s the beat.

Once you’ve counted it through a couple the rhythm a few times, odds are you’ll recognize the beat. It’s been used in countless songs and is one of the most familiar rhythms in early rock & roll. But its origin goes back much further, originally coming from Africa and the traditional Cuban style called “son” (Spanish, pronounced with a long “o”). Notice the “pushed” third beat. The syncopated second hit between the second and third counts. This rhythm is very common in many styles of Latin music, and is known as the clave (pronounced cla-vay).

This rhythm was brought from the Caribbean to New Orleans, where it became an integral part of our musical vocabulary. Listen to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” or Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and you’ll find you can clap that same rhythm. In the case of Aerosmith, of course, the beat of the song itself is different, but you’ll notice that the clave rhythm fits very neatly with the drum part that kicks the song off.

New Orleans Inspired Clave Beat

In New Orleans, there are many variations on the street beat, especially among drummers, but the basic rhythm comes directly from the Cuban clave. Listen to Dr. John’s version of the traditional Mardi Gras chant “Iko Iko” and you’ll hear this rhythm played very clearly on a barred D chord:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

The barre chords in the first 4 measures could be played very comfortably with repeated downstrokes. But a nice rhythmic variation shows up in bar 5, using muted strings. Release the pressure on the barre without taking your fingers off the strings, so that the chord doesn’t ring but produces a percussive “click.” These percussive hits are notated in the music with X’s, and add momentum and variation to the groove.

This part can be tricky to coordinate, but notice how the clicks are added to the existing clave rhythm rather than changing the location of the other beats. The challenge is in coordinating the fret hand release at the right moment to create the percussive sound. Listen to the audio example and you should be able to hear it clearly.

Adding Rhythm & New Orleans R&B

Our second example is still based on the clave beat, but with a small change in the rhythm and a couple of R&B licks thrown in for flavor. Listen to “Hey Pocky A-Way” by the Meters to hear a similar rhythm part. The Meters are the godfathers of New Orleans groove and inspired bands from Little Feat to the Grateful Dead to modern funksters like Galactic and Snarky Puppy.

Exercise 2

Full Speed Demonstration

We’re using a 5th position barred D7, what we might call an “A shape.” The index finger barres at the fifth fret while the ring and pinky fingers cover the fourth and second strings at the 7th fret. Just as in example 1, pay attention to the rests. You’ll need to release the left hand pressure on each chord to stop the sound. Listen to the audio example and you should hear it easily enough.

Taking a closer look at the rhythm, you’ll see that we’re using the same beat as example 1, except for the last chord of the cycle. Instead of the chords falling on beats 2 and 3 of the second bar, the last chord falls on the and of 3, just slightly later. This adds a nice funky variation.

The lick in measure 4 is a classic R&B chord fill. Play the G triad with a ring finger barre at the 12th fret, followed by an index finger barre at the 10th fret. Hammer the middle finger onto the 11th fret of the third string to complete the lick with a minor-major grace note. The cycle then begins again, but once again with small variations. Notice the eighth notes on “4 and” in the next to last bar, and the concluding partial barre D triad in 10th position on the fourth beat of the final bar. That final accented hit on the fourth beat is another common sound in New Orleans music, which drummers call the “big 4.”

Adding Rhythm & New Orleans R&B

Our third example shows one of the many ways the clave rhythm appears in early rock & roll. We’ve already talked about Bo Diddley and how this beat became identified with his music, but he’s far from the only one. Another classic example would be Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, which changes up the rhythm but is still based on that clave beat. Listen to the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead’s covers of the song to hear how the pattern appears in their versions. This example is based on the opening of Buddy Holly’s original.

Exercise 3

Full Speed Demonstration

We’re now in the key of E and using open position E and A chords. Play the quarter notes with downstrokes and the eighth notes with down-up strums, noticing how some of the upstrokes only strike part of the chord. The part itself CONTAINS the clave rhythm without following it exactly; the hits that would be accented in the street beat are all there, including the concluding “big 4” at the end of the last measure. Play it as a barred E triad, held with one finger at the 9th fret.

There are many more examples of this rhythm in popular music, whether we call it a clave, a Bo Diddley beat, or a second line. The more you listen for it, the more you’re likely to hear it! For example, check out DJ Phillips’ lesson on the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin”, a classic of funky rock, and see if you can hear how the accent patterns in the song’s signature rhythm riff line fit the clave rhythm. It’s one more example of how exploring new sounds can reveal a connection between different songs and styles, and give us some insight into the roots of the music we love.

Long Train Running by D.J. Phillips

Taught by D.J. Phillips

DJ is back with another epic song lesson! This time, he teaches The Doobie Brothers' song "Long Train Runnin'". Initially created as a jam track used for live performances, "Long Train Runnin'" went on to become one of their biggest hits. In this lesson, DJ breaks down the electric and both acoustic guitar parts. Additionally, he has arranged and transcribed the harmonica solo for the electric guitar.

Weekend Warriors save on a full JamPlay subscription.

Get our entire lesson library, teaching tools and more.

Apply Your Coupon

Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

Comment, Flame, or Troll Below