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Insider's Guide To Electric Blues Guitar Techniques with Philip Sayce

Blues guitar extraordinaire Philip Sayce plays famous electric blues guitar riffs and shares his personal collection of vintage Fender Stratocasters.

If you haven’t heard of Philip Sayce, you are really missing out. And if you have heard Philip’s music you know - this guy knows how to play the electric blues. At first glance his long hair might remind you more of Kurt Cobain or Kurt Vile, but the minute he picks up a guitar it’s clear he’s more in the realm of Stevie or Jimi.

Below we’ll break down some of Philip’s advice on playing the electric blues, including:

-- The Advice - play with emotion, learn from the greats and try an alternate tuning.
-- The Techniques - fingerstyle vs picking and the pentatonic scale
-- The Gear - Vintage Strats and the Princeton reverb amp

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The Canadian guitarist started playing in clubs at the young age of sixteen, and he’s played with a variety of artists such as Jeff Healey, Uncle Kracker, and Melissa Ethridge, but the one thing that will strike you most about Philip (aside from his otherworldly talent) is how humble he is. "I have not been playing guitar long enough" replied Sayce when host Eugene Edwards (Dwight Yoakam) asked how long he’s played. "Im an eternal student of the instrument." That combination of humility and passion for learning is perhaps the most inspiring part of Philip’s playing.

The Advice

Play With Emotion

There’s no doubt blues music is timeless and a popular genre to play, but it’s also incredibly hard to do well, and even harder to find your own sound. For Philip, what guides his playing is emotion. It’s clear that any time he plays he’s fully engrossed in the music, and he makes sure to let his own personality shine through in his playing. When describing his style, Philip says “it’s an emotional style first…it comes from an emotional space because I can’t really play something the same way twice”. While that might annoy some studio engineers trying to get the same take twice, it’s a recipe for some truly unique blue playing.

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Learn From The Greats

Ever the humble artist, Philip Sayce is quick to point out that he’s still learning from the greats that have helped define the electric blues. Throughout the episode Philip pays homage to his influences, whether it’s Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or countless others. At one point when talking about the “Texas Cannonball” himself Freddie King, Philip demonstrates what he loves about Freddie’s style. “I’m going to attempt to play a Fredde King inspired riff…this is me doing the best impersonation I can” says Sayce, despite already having wowed us with his playing. Check it out below:

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Want to learn songs by the greats? Here are a few song lessons on Fender Play:

I’m Tore Down - Freddie King
Lucille - B.B. King
Damn Right I Got the Blues - Buddy Guy

Try an Alternate Tuning

You can play almost anything in standard tuning, but there are some advantages to changing up your tuning. For Philip, he prefers to play everything a half step down in Eb standard. Why exactly? According to Sayce, "There’s good hurt and there’s bad hurt…we want to avoid the bad hurt when we are playing the guitar." Hand pain affects everyone, including the pros like Philip Sayce, so one way to help ease that is to lessen the tension a bit with an alternate tuning.

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In addition to providing some pain relief, dropping your tuning a half step can make bending easier, allow you to play with heavier strings if that’s your preference, and help ease the amount of pressure you need to push down on the strings. If you want to take it a step further, try an alternate tuning outside of standard to really push your creativity. Countless blues players have played in drop D and open tunings such as open E and open G, which are especially helpful if you want to try out slide guitar!

To learn how to play with alternate tunings, check out this collection of lessons on Fender Play that cover drop D, Open E, open G, and teach you songs in those tunings!

The Techniques

Fingerstyle Vs Picking - Which is Better for Blues? (Insider Clip)

As Philip mentioned earlier, one of the most essential parts of blues is the emotion you put behind it. But if you are a true beginner, it might be hard to know how to translate that emotion into playing. One tip: using your pick hand in different ways can change how that emotion comes across. Fingerstyle picking with blues adds a softer and mellower sound to your blues playing, while playing with a pick can give you a percussive and more dynamic sound. So which one is better for the blues? The answer is a matter of preference, and you’ll find blues legends playing both ways!

“Watch guitarist Dinesh Lekhraj break down the difference in more detail in the Fender Play Insider below”

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To learn how to play fingerpickin' blues:

Delta Style Fingerpicking on Fender Play

Lead Guitar: Fingerpicking on Electric Guitar

Learn the essential blues riffs, techniques, and classic songs by legends like Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and more with the Blues Form Basics: I IV V Collection in Fender Play!

You Can Get Alot From The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is a simple pattern of notes that is accessible for players of almost every level, and it has been used in a truly countless number of songs and styles of music. For Philip, something like the A minor pentatonic scale is a great open canvas that you can use to create endless riffs & inspiration. His advice: “Try to throw in notes that are unexpected”:

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The A minor pentatonic scale is a versatile scale that’s a useful asset for beginners looking to expand their arsenal. In its most basic position, it’s played right in the middle of the fretboard. With C major (the relative major of A minor) being one of the most commonly used in popular music, the A minor pentatonic scale provides a nice, basic template for lead guitarists to create riffs and improvise solos. Like the C major scale, the A minor pentatonic scale contains no sharps or flats.

Learn the Am Pentatonic scale here

Play the Am Pentatonic scale on Fender Play here

Bonus Lesson: Am Pentatonic Guitar Scale

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The Gear: Guitars, Amps, and More

The blues are all about expression of emotion, which means you can truly play the blues on any guitar. That being said, when it comes to electric blues, the gear you play on can certainly influence your sound. For Philip Sayce, he has a few simple ingredients that he sticks with to get his ideal sound.

It's All About the Strat

Stevie Ray Vaughan. Buddy Guy. Eric Clapton. The Fender Stratocaster has been the weapon of choice for countless electric blues artists, and Philip Sayce is no different. His love for the Stratocaster started at a young age, where his guitars heroes like Knopfler, SRV and others were all playing the Stratocaster. He also mentions the durability of the instruments, which is clear from his beat-up yet beautiful-sounding vintage Strats. Perhaps this is why they are used so often in electric blues - they may get beaten down and worn out but they’ll always continue to sing just as beautifully as ever.

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The 1963 “Mother” Stratocaster

This guitar is old enough to be a grand mother. Born the same year as the Kennedy Assassination and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, this guitar is packed with history. Sayce himself purchased it in 1998, and he’s put his fair share of mileage into this instrument as well. The original pickups were destroyed after Sayce decided to play with a beer bottle, so he replaced them with a set of original 1958 pickups. One look at Mother’s chipped paint and worn down fretboard and you can really see the history in this guitar, but once you hear it in action you know she hasn’t lost her bite, making this the perfect guitar for some electric blues.

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Pro Tip: While we love the story, we recommend not using a beer bottle as a slide. Check out Fender’s selection of official slides here.

The 1963 “One-Clean-Knob” Stratocaster

Yet another vintage Stratocaster in Sayce’s arsenal, this 1963 model is all original…except for one new (and clean, as host Eugene points out) volume knob. Check him out demoing it with a blistering riff from his original song “Morning Star”:

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The Parts Stratocaster

This guitar sports a ’66 neck with a vintage big headstock, custom made pickups, and a beautiful metallic green finish.

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Fender Princeton Reverb Amp

First introduced in 1964, the Fender Princeton amp is a classic 12 watt tube amp that has been used on countless hit songs, and is part of Philip Sayce’s arsenal when playing electric blues. The one difference with his amp: it was modified by the “Amp Doctor” himself César Díaz, who has worked with everybody from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.

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Check out the ’65 Princeton Reverb here.

Final Thoughts

Philip Sayce is a true guitar talent (even if he won’t admit it himself), and one of the nicest guys to boot. His insight and advice on playing the electric blues is invaluable, most notably his comment that he is an “eternal student of the instrument”. Guitar is an instrument that you can never stop learning with, and whether you’re a first-time player or you’ve played your whole life, always remember to play with emotion and keep learning!

Want to learn more about the blues? Fender Play has an entire path with hundreds of lessons dedicated to teaching you how to play the blues. Whether it’s essential techniques like the pentatonic scale or learning songs by the greats, we’ve got you covered. Check out our catalogue of blues classics.

Watch the full episode of "Electric Blues Guitar with Phili Sayce on YouTube here.

From 12-bar to Delta-style, the songs and skills in the Blues Form Basics: I IV V Collection Collection in Fender Play will get you playing the blues in no time!