10 Lessons You Can Learn From Peter Green
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 tones.
Here are 10 lessons you can learn from Peter Green:
1.) Be Dynamic
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 masterful control of dynamics.
Green constantly adjusts the volume at which he plays. He never plays 2 notes with the same dynamics. Instead he is constantly 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. It is very powerful because it is just so expressive.
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. If you pair this up with a tube amp that is dialled in properly (more on this below), then you can totally alter the sound and feel of your playing.
2.) 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 – but 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 this is a confidence that most guitarists don’t have.
This is particularly the case with less advanced guitarists. 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 trying to say, but those moments are lost amongst white noise.
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 just 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 your neck.
- Aim for 50%. When improvising, consciously aim to play half as much as you do normally. Really hold back. Use the time between phrasing 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 really count.
- Hold your breath. This might sound a bit wacky, but try taking a breath before you play a lick, and then breath 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 2 particularly good examples are the intro solos in ‘Worried Dream‘ and ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘.
3.) Get The ‘Greeny’ Sound
Peter Green was the original owner of ‘Greeny’ – a Gibson Les Paul that has now become one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Green first used the guitar with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. It went on to be his main guitar in Fleetwood Mac and was used to create the beautiful blues tones on many of their most iconic songs.
When Green played with Fleetwood Mac, guitarists puzzled over how he achieved his tone. His guitar had the power and bite of a Gibson Les Paul, but the definition and clarity of a Fender Strat. His tone was thick and heavy, but it was more refined than that of many of his contemporaries, like Eric Clapton. How Green was able to strike that balance remained a mystery whilst he was in Fleetwood Mac. And it wasn’t discovered until some years later – when Gary Moore owned the guitar – that the magnetic polarity of one of the pickups was reversed. It was this which gave the guitar its distinct ‘out of phase’ sound.
If you have a Les Paul or Les Paul style guitar, and you really want to sound like Peter Green, then you can actually buy out of phase pickups. These include the PG Blues Humbucker from Bare Knuckle Pickups and the PG-102 PAFs from Throbak.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to buy new pickups, you can quite easily mod your current pickups to make them out of phase. This does require some skills with a soldering iron, so if you aren’t comfortable making alterations to your guitar, I’d recommend taking it to a guitar tech who can do the job for you. Either way though, when the magnetic polarity of your pickups is reversed, you’ll get that beautiful out of phase tone when you set your pickup selector to the middle position.
4.) Take Control Of Your Tubes
Peter Green’s set up was very simple. As I outlined in full detail here, Green had his Gibson Les Paul, and plugged that into various different Fender amps – including a Dual Showman Reverb, a Twin Reverb and a Deluxe Reverb.
Green didn’t use any guitar pedals, and so he altered his sound by adjusting the controls on his amp and guitar. In this way he produced a whole range of different tones. These varied from the soft and sweet sounds of songs like ‘Man Of The World‘ all the way through to the heavy rock sounds of songs like ‘Rattlesnake Shake’.
This is not easy to do. Most guitarists (myself included) use pedals to shape and colour their sound. But Green was able to craft such a variety of different tones because he fully understood the relationship between his guitar and amp. He illustrated this beautifully on ‘The Super-Natural‘, as well as in all of his live performances.
Green’s stripped back set up shows just what you can do when you pair the right guitar with the right amp, and then fully explore the subtleties and nuances of both. Pedals of course have their place – but sometimes the simple approach is best.
5.) Slow Down
When it comes to playing at speed, Green adopted an unorthodox approach. As he noted when talking about his time with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: ‘Playing fast is something I used to do with John when things weren’t going very well…But it isn’t any good. I like to play slowly and feel every note.’ This runs counter to the belief of a lot guitarists – who think that speed is one of the most impressive skills that they can cultivate.
Whilst fast licks have their place in the blues (just look at the playing of Gary Moore, who was a huge Green fan), Peter Green’s approach is refreshing. He is the master of slow blues, and has a restrained and economical style that few players have been able to replicate.
It is not easy to play in this way, as I think most guitarists (myself included) have a natural tendency to play too many notes. However there is one brilliant exercise that I learnt from British blues guitarist Matt Schofield that can help you to slow down and extract more from every note.
Like Peter Green, Schofield places a huge emphasise on phrasing, and this exercise is all about getting as much mileage as you can from as few notes as possible. To set the exercise up, all you need to do is put on this slow blues backing track in the key of B. This is a great backing track and makes things quite easy for you, as it shows the chords as they change across the 12 bar progression.
The ‘rules’ of the exercise are as follows:
1.) You are only allowed to play 3 notes.
2.) The notes you are allowed to play are those on the 9th fret of the D string (B), the 7th fret of the G string (D) and the 9th fret on the G string (E)
The aim of the exercise is to improvise over the backing track using only these 3 notes. You have to extract everything that you possibly can from them and do this by focusing on your phrasing. Think about the following techniques you can implement to make those 3 notes sound soulful and bluesy:
- Sliding Up
- Sliding Down
- Hammer Ons
- Pull Offs
Once you’ve gone through the 12 bar progression once using just those 3 notes, add in the same notes (the B, D and E) but an octave higher. In the key of B, these appear at the the 12th fret of the B string (B), the 10th fret of the e string (D) and the 12th fret of the e string (E). Watch Schofield run through the exercise here to see how much you can get from those 3 notes. (Just be mindful that Schofield is playing in the key of C, and so is playing different notes).
Exercises like this will help you shift your focus away from speed and playing lots of notes, to phrasing properly and playing with feeling and emotion. You will be amazed at what you can do with just 3 notes!
6.) Serve The Song
The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of the ‘Guitar God’, a relatively new figure in the world of blues and rock music. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were lauded as divine beings, and enthralled audiences would gather just to witness their technical prowess.
Green actively rejected this role. He named Fleetwood Mac after bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, and was furious when the band’s management intervened and changed the name of the band to ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’. He didn’t want to be the centre of attention and always provided fellow guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan with a platform to play and express themselves. Green never showboated or hogged the limelight.
This is really representative of Green’s approach to guitar playing and the blues. Peter Green never played to show off or to serve his ego. He was only interested in playing to serve the song and to connect with his audience. If you adopt the same approach, your guitar playing will improve immensely. Playing the right notes at the right time, with great tone and phrasing is impressive; playing lots of notes with an absence of feeling is not so impressive.
Blues music is all about hitting emotions. And there is an important distinction between what you enjoy and what makes you feel good, versus what the listener enjoys and what makes them feel good. Green was a master of recognising this important and often overlooked distinction. As Mick Fleetwood put it so well: ‘He went immediately for the human touch. And that’s what Peter’s playing has represented to millions of people – he played with the human, not the superstar touch.’
Learn from Peter Green and try to apply the same focus in your playing. Concentrate on feeling and emotion and you will become a much better blues guitarist.
7.) Master The B.B. 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, was the ‘B.B. Box.’
The B.B. 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. box is based around the following notes of the major scale:
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. box on the top 3 strings, with the 1 (root note) played on the B string. This is what the B.B. box looks like in the key of A:
Here the root note (shown in red) is played at the 10th fret on the B string. The 6th note of the B.B. Box – which in the key of A is F# – is typically played on the string below the root 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. 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 very difficult to use the B.B. 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. box during the opening solo on ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘, by Fleetwood Mac. Here Green plays the B.B. box in the key of A (as above) to brilliant effect.
8.) 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. If you want to recreate some of the Peter Green magic though, I would also recommend using the natural minor scale. Also known as the ‘Aeolian Mode’, this is a mode of the major scale that Green used quite frequently. It added 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:
Incorporating this scale into your blues improvisations will add greater variety and depth to your playing. Not only will it help you to sound like Peter Green, but it is a scale that is also used extensively by guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Carlos Santana – who famously covered ‘Black Magic Woman‘.
9.) Embrace Variety
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Peter Green does not have one set style. In fact, if you consider the style of some of his most famous songs, they vary greatly from one another.
On the one hand, Green wrote and played soft and gentle songs like ‘Albatross‘ and ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘. On the other, he wrote songs like ‘Green Manalishi‘ – a dark and brooding composition that you would never think was written by the same person.
In all of these songs the sound of Green’s guitar and his playing is totally different. Like so many of his contemporaries, Green was influenced by guitarists like B.B. and Freddie King. Yet unlike most of his contemporaries, Green doesn’t have an immediately distinguishable style. For although Green studied players like B.B. King, he blended their techniques and style with his own. He did this in a way that never sounded like he was mimicking them.
Green really crafted his own sound by studying a broad pool of different musicians. And this is an amazing way to approach your own playing. If you focus too intently on just 1 or 2 of your favourite guitarists, you run the risk of sounding like a cheap imitation. But study a whole range of different players and you can craft your own voice.
10.) Enjoy Yourself
Much has been spoken about Peter Green’s mental health problems and the infamous LSD party in Munich in 1970, which many feel led to Green’s decision to first 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. Don’t ever forget that playing the guitar should enrich your life, not make it more stressful.
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Feature Image – Nick Contador (Wikimedia Commons) The License for the image is here.
Further Image of Peter Green – W.W. Thaler (Wikimedia Commons) The License for the image is here.
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