3 Soulful Memphis Style Guitar Licks


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You may not know his name, but you know his music and legacy. As guitarist for Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MGs in the 1960’s, he played on more hits than you can count. As a songwriter, he co-wrote “Dock Of The Bay” with Otis Redding, “Knock On Wood” with Eddie Floyd, and “In The Midnight Hour” with Wilson Pickett. His place in music history would be secure for that alone, but he’s also responsible for possibly the most recognizable guitar intros of all time, Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” That’s him playing the stabbing, staccato counterpoint to Booker T. Jones’ organ on the instrumental “Green Onions.” You know it, even if you don’t think you do... picture a scene from any movie with an old car rattling along a dusty country road and you will probably hear this song. But speaking of movies, if you’re of a certain generation, the first time you saw Steve Cropper was playing himself as guitarist for a fictional band on a mission from God: the Blues Brothers.

Cropper’s style defined the guitar’s role in R&B for generations to come: funky and melodic, understated, and always exactly what the song called for. This weekend, let’s take a trip to Memphis and take a look at three riffs in the style of three Stax classics.

Memphis Blues Riff in E

Example 1 is inspired by the riff from “Green Onions,” and is essentially a blues riff in E using a series of hammer-ons and double-stops. Note the grace note hammer-on at the beginning, a common Cropper device. Grace notes are quick, with no time value of their own; just slap the finger down on the first fret. (Note the difference between this hammer-on and the one that sets up measure 3: the second hammer-on is in eighth notes and played in time).

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Set up the double-stop lick in measure 1 by landing on the D string 2nd fret with the index finger, bringing the middle and ring fingers in place to grab the B and D notes that follow. Flatten the index finger into a partial barre to play the 2nd fret double-stop before releasing to strike the open E and B strings. Use a sharp upstroke on the open strings to make the sound “pop.” Make sure you can feel the shuffle rhythm... listen to the original to get the feel.

Soul Man Style Memphis Lick

Example 2 is inspired by the intro to “Soul Man,” a sound that is instantly recognizable the world over. This lick uses a series of parallel sixths played on the first and third strings. Because we need to skip the second string, this is best played with the fingers or with a hybrid pick-and-fingers approach as Cropper does. The hybrid approach is a nice compromise for pick-style players, and eliminates the need to palm the pick for fingerstyle parts. It’s also very efficient in that it requires less hand movement. Extend the picking hand middle or ring finger to lightly strike the first string. You don’t need to move much! Try not to pull the string away from the fretboard, we’re not looking for a chicken-pickin’ “snap” here – just lightly pull the finger in towards the palm, moving through the string.

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Licks in parallel sixths are very common, you’ve heard variations on the opening in a thousand blues turnarounds. But this one is more melodic and clearly outlines the chord sequence: E, D, G, A, B. Music theory types would call these “dyads,” two-note chords that imply a full chord but don’t complete it. Imagine a third note on the second string one fret above each dyad and you can picture the form of a D chord, the shape this pattern is derived from. Watch the rhythm and listen closely to the audio example. Because this example is not a transcription but a variation based on the original, you can listen to “Soul Man” for the vibe but the rhythm will be different. As an ear-training exercise, see if you can change up the example to match the original.

Dock of the Bay Lick

Our third example borrows a pair of nice hammer-on licks from the chorus of “Dock Of The Bay.” Play the opening double-stop with a two-string index finger barre at the 10th fret, and hammer the ring finger onto fret 12 of the B string. This gives us two of the 3 notes of a G major triad, with the hammer-on creating a suspended 2nd resolving up to the 3rd of the chord. Licks like this are common in country and gospel piano and are called “leans” by piano players. Notice how the first lick ends on an F# on the 11th fret of the G string, creating an E9 against the underlying E7 chord.

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

The second lick begins with another hammer-on to create a 2-3 “lean” on an A chord. Unlike the grace note hammer-ons in measure 1, this one is a sixteenth-note pickup to measure 3 and sets us up for a melodic instead of a chordal figure. The lick then repeats the grace note “lean” into A again before resolving back down to G.

Notice that in all three of these examples, the licks are played almost entirely using partial chords on the treble strings. This is very common in R&B, funk, and soul music, which tend to have larger bands with more instruments. The role of the guitar isn’t as primary in this music as it is in rock, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important! The guitar needs to occupy a specific place in the musical mix to play its proper role in the rhythm section: to create rhythmic texture. Listen to any James Brown, Motown, or Wilson Pickett record and notice how the guitar parts fit into the overall sound.

Remember, the examples here are meant to be a simple introduction to the style, delivered in bite-size pieces. If you’d like to take this exploration further, there’s a whole lot to dig into in this style! Check out Nick Kellie’s JamPlay lesson on R&B and soul guitar:

Intro to R&B and Soul by Nick Kellie

Taught by Nick Kellie

Nick Kellie introduces the genre and talks all about R&B and Soul music.

Time to get your groove on, and enjoy this taste of Memphis!

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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.

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