The greatest blues guitar players could not just pick up a guitar and pick it - they had to learn how to play. There are a number of different methods of teaching guitar and playing the blues; most start with learning three basic chords that form the foundation of most songs.
The three basic chords in blues are variations on popular chords found in standard music.
In the key of E, E7, B7 and A7 are the conventional major chord with a blues note (the 7th) added on. The blues note is a tone lower than the root note. To play E7, place your 1st finger on the fourth string in the first fret, your second finger on the 2nd string in the 2nd fret and your fourth finger on the 5th string in the 3rd fret.
B7 is played with your first finger on the 3rd string in the 1st fret, your second finger on the 2nd string in the 2nd fret, your third finger on the 4th string in the 2nd fret and your fourth finger on the 6th string in the 2nd fret.
A7 is played with your second finger on the 3rd string in the 2nd fret and your third finger on the 5th string in the 2nd fret. These three chords form the foundation of what is popularly known as 12 bar blues, you can find the guitar tabs for the progression by clicking here.
12 Bar Blues Are The Key
You cannot become a blues guitarist without being able to play 12 bar blues. If you understand the chord progression in a 12 bar blues you can play along with almost any band. The 12 bars are broken down into three lines of four bars with varying progression of the same three chords. The pattern is always the same no matter which key you are playing in.
If you listen to any of the masters you will get a feel for the 12 bar blues and understand how the chord progressions are played. You will also hear how greats like B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughn developed their own techniques.
The Learn & Master series have just released a great little product for learning blues guitar. It's called Learn & Master Blues guitar and I'd definitely recommend checking it out. Their stuff is always of the highest quality.
If you ever find yourself in a play-along situation with other guitarists there's one chord progression that everyone will assume you know - the 12 bar blues. If you don't know this progression then you stand a good chance of being left out in the cold.
So now that you've learned the 3 blues chords you need to know, let's look at how to organise them into a proper chord progression.
The 12 Bar Structure You Need To Know
A chord progression is the scaffolding of a song and is closely linked to the form of the song. The chord progression details the harmonic structure while the form describes the overall structure of the song.
So the form, 12 bar blues, is a well known song form made up of 12 bars. If someone says to you "it's a blues" then they generally mean it's a 12 bar blues chord progression.
A chord progression is the important foundation of a song with the other elements of melody and lyrics "siting" on top.
The 12 bar blues is the most common blues form and one you'll use thoughout your guitar playing career. It's made up of 12 bars. So here's one in the key of E.
|| E / / / | A7 / / / | E / / / | E7 / / / |
| A7 / / / | A7 / / / | E / / / | E / / / |
| B7 / / / | A7 / / / | E / / / | E / / / ||
And here it is in roman numeral notation. Because the progression is the same in every key, the roman numeral notation can help us translate the progression into any key. In A for example, the I chord is A, the IV chord is D7 and the V chord is E7.
|| I / / / | IV / / / | I / / / | I / / / |
| IV / / / | IV / / / | I / / / | I / / / |
| V / / / | IV / / / | I / / / | I / / / ||
Memorise this 12 bar structure and you can play it in any key.
So how does this notation relate to actual songs?
You'll notice that the progression can be neatly broken down into 3 lines of 4 bars. These 3 lines correspond exactly to 3 vocal phrases. For example, consider Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago.
Here are the 3 phrases - try and relate them to the chords progression above.
||Home, baby don't you want to go |
|Home, baby don't you want to go |
|Back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago ||
Notice that the second line is a repetition of the first line. This is common in 12 bar blues. Lyrically, the form can be described as A-A-B with each letter representing a self contained sentence or concept.
Because the chords underneath the lyric are changing, the repetition of the lines is not uninteresting and is in fact, an essence of the blues.
Well I hope that clears up some of the mysteries of the 12 bar blues for you. Go forth and practice! (and listen to Robert Johnson too )
I used to have a very successful boss who would often have meetings in his office round his big desk. What I noticed about him during these meetings - and it's a trait I've noticed in most good musicians - was that he listened more than he talked.
And so as a guitarist, the more blues you can listen to, the better.
Here are my top 5 suggestions.
- Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) . It was Johnson's recordings in 1936 and 37 that led to him becoming a legend and influencer of many of the sixties rock'n'roll and blues acts. Johnson's life is mired in mythology, the most famous incident being the Devil and The Crossroads. The Devil took Johnson's guitar, showed him some songs and tuned it for him in return for his soul. Johnson used the chugging technique a lot on the bottom strings of the guitar. His music may sound strange to you and don't try to work out the time signatures, but it's haunting and unique.
- Mississippi John Hurt (July 3, 1893— November 2, 1966) was a country blues guitarist who sang in a loud whisper with a beautiful fingerstyle, alternating bass accompaniment. One of my personal favourites, his style is a mixture of blues, old time folk and ragtime. Often called Piedmont blues, the droning thumb of the right hand makes a wonderful bass for the picked notes of open D and G chords to sing over.
- John Lee hooker (August 22, 1917 - June 21 2001) started playing in a Delta blues style but quickly developed his own unique way of playing the guitar. Led by and shaped by his booming voice, the guitar parts are free and easy. Notice his right hand thumb banging the bottom strings and fingers violently pulling the strings. Again, don't try to work out the time signature - there ain't one. Try banging your guitar also (but not too hard) in marriage with the vocals you're singing. See what results you get. You'll probably come up with someone quite unique if you persevere.
- BB King (born September 16, 1925). One of the most respected and admired bluesmen, BB King has an all encompassing style with a vast library of licks, expressive techniques and tons of soul. His guitar (which he calls Lucille) is a Gibson ES-355. He is perhaps best known for his effortless and heart-rending vibrato. If you want to play like BB, work on making every note count and practice making your vibrato as tasteful as possible.
- Stevie Ray Vaughan (October 3, 1954 – August 27, 1990) Possibly one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Stevie Ray Vaughan was heavily influenced by Albert King, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. He was also a huge Lonnie Mack fan whom, he said, "really taught me to play guitar from the heart". His playing style often combined rhythm and lead at the same time giving a massive sound, helped along by the heavy guitar strings he used and the fact that he sometimes tuned his guitar to Eb - a semi-tone lower than usual.
If you want to learn how to play like BB King or Steve Ray Vaughan then I can highly recommend Learn & Master Blues Gutiar
To play the blues you really only need to know 3 chords. That's the good news. And there's no bad news.
Because the 3 chords you need to know are chords that you will use throughout your guitar playing life.
They'll be the cornerstone of your blues playing.
And not only that, but you will also be using these chords a lot if you're playing any rock 'n' roll. For example, you could play pretty much any Little Richard song with these chords.
The first chord you need to know is E major. Now for the blues, we're going to need to modify it slightly by adding what's known as a 'blue note'.
All dominant 7th chords include what's known as a 'blue note'.
To be more precise, the blue note is the note a tone lower than the root not. So for B, the blue note is A.
We need to include the blue note in our three blues chords. So the chords we really want to use are E7, A7 and B7.
Here they are:
OK, so how do we make a blues tune out if these? Well the most common, simple and effective way to do it is to play a 12 bar blues.
When people say they're playing a blues, they usually mean a 12 bar blues.