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How to Play Blues Guitar (part 1)

Without a doubt, learning how to play blues guitar will serve you well. If you’re a beginner, you’ll soon sound like a pro and you won’t have to spend countless hours working on technique to play great music. If you’re a somewhat experienced player who only plays other genres or styles, you’ll have a new avenue to explore. And, if you’re an advanced guitarist, I’m guessing that you’ve already played lots of blues tunes . . . and you love doing it. Hopefully, you’ll learn a few things as well.

This is the first in a series of blues guitar lessons and it focuses on blues basics for beginning and intermediate guitarists. Each successive lesson will add more complexity to what is, really, a very simple musical form. I could go on and on about the history of the blues and how the music created by the enslaved blacks on Southern plantations has evolved into bluegrass, country, jazz, rock, gospel and R & B. But, for now, suffice it to say that life was hard . . . it sucked . . . and the music expressed both despair and hope. There’s more to the blues than a few simple chords and a simple scale. Some tunes are slow, sad and depressing, while others are up-tempo, foot-stompin’ rockers.

Think of a few great guitar players . . . like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. What do they have in common? They learned their “chops” by playing blues guitar – they learned how to express emotion and passion on the fret board. And, all of them played with The Yardbirds, the best-known British blues band in the 1960’s. This is cool . . . I saw The Yardbirds back then at a small dance club in Ohio. Jeff Beck was allegedly “in hospital” so Jimmy Page played lead guitar. And, twenty years later and just as cool (I think), I loaned my Randall Commander HG 120 amp to John Mayall, the most-revered British bluesman, for a Bluesbreakers concert in Colorado. But, enough nostalgia, let’s start learning how to play blues guitar !

Luckily, you really CAN play great sounding blues guitar even if you only know a few simple chords and a simple scale! And a couple of standard blues riffs, but they’re easy, too. Then, all you have to do is “mix ‘n’ match” and blend everything together.

The standard blues progression is a I, IV, V, which means that the chords are built on the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the scale, either major or minor. If you’re playing in a minor key, all of the chords will be minor, although substituting a dominant for the v (five) chord sounds good, too, when used sparingly for resolution effect. However, when playing in a major key, it’s best to use all dominant chords such as dominant sevenths, ninths and thirteenths. Remember that chords within a “chord family” sound similar and function the same way, so it’s O.K. to substitute one for another to achieve your preferred sound.

Blues guitar progressions are almost always twelve measures (bars) long, hence the term “ 12-bar blues ”, and there are two standard structures. It’s simply a matter of how many measures you play on each chord in the progression. Both of the following sound great:

Style One: I (4x) – IV (2x) -- I (2x) -- V (1x) -- IV (1x) -- I (1x) – V (1x) :||
Style Two: I (1x) – IV (1x) – I (2x) – IV (2x) – I (2x) – V (1x) – IV (1x) – I (1x) – V (1x) :||

And, playing blues on the guitar will sound and feel more natural if you swing, or bounce, the beat a little bit – it should sound like dotted-eighth notes followed by sixteenth notes, but not as classical. It’s really an eighth note triplet feel, with the first two notes being tied. Confused? Hopefully, the mp3 sound clips that accompany the tabs will help you get a feel for the rhythm.

Of course, you can play blues guitar in any key, but given the standard guitar tuning, the keys of E, A, D and G may be the best choices since they’re perfect for using open strings. So, those are the keys I’ve chosen for the blues guitar tabs that follow below. The examples for E, A, and D show how to play the “classic blues pattern” in the first few frets on the guitar. Although you can also use an open string pattern for the key of G, the tab shows how to play a 12-bar blues progression using a moveable fingering pattern, which may come in handy if you’re adding vocals. If you are a singer, you already know that some of the “easy keys” might not be suitable for your vocal range, or comfort. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of tuning down or using a capo to accommodate vocals, but many artists do it, so . . . anyway, here are the tabs, and each one is slightly different (not counting the key change, of course):

Basic Blues in E


Basic Blues in A


Basic Blues in D


Basic Blues in G - Moveable

Now that you’ve learned how to play blues guitar in four standard keys by using the “ classic blues pattern ”, you can also play a rhythm guitar part for each and adjust the song’s tempo to your liking. And you only have to learn six chords in open position! It doesn’t get much simpler than that! I’ve included moveable chord forms, too, in the chord diagrams below – these are important chords and you need to memorize them. Really . . . memorize them!

Basic Open String Blues Chords


Moveable Form Blues Chords

That’s it for the first of a “ how to play blues guitar ” lesson series, and I hope it gets you started. More fun stuff will follow in the next lessons . . . in the meantime, please review my “How to Solo with Pentatonic Scales” lessons . . . that’s where the real fun starts! Listen to some blues!

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@fredguitar   3 years ago
Really like your approach to teaching beginners . This is the most useful lesson I have seen in a while .