Learning blues guitar is a fundamental step for anyone learning to play guitar. Guitar greats such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix honed their skills playing blues. Blues guitar is a simple technique that you can improvise with, modify, and individualize. Plus, you can learn it in a few hours!
3 Simple Tips For Playing Blues Guitar
Play with ears, not your eyes: Chord charts and tabs are great tools to learn chords and fingering techniques, but you’ll need to listen to the blues in order to really understand it. Get artists such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King on your playlists!
Don’t be afraid to steal: Blues guitar is a craft passed on from generation to generation. Young blues guitarists learn the tricks and techniques from the masters, then create their own style. Don’t be afraid to steal what you hear. Chances are, they were already stolen from someone else.
You can take a few shortcuts to learn blues guitar quickly and sound like an expert! One is a power chord. You can play these chords with one finger, though you might need two at times.
A power chord is uniform and doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is where on the fretboard you use it. In effect, power chords allow you to play any song in any key.
Power chords include a base-note (basically the key of the chord you are strumming) and one other note, usually four steps up from the base note. For example, take the key of E. It is one of the more popular keys for blues songs. Low E on the guitar is the open 6th string (the big one on the top). The second note on an E power chord is a B, which is the next string down (the A, or 5th string) and two frets up. There you have it. An E power chord!
Now memorize that simple chord shape: the base note together with the second note, which is one string down and two frets up. Next, play a G (third fret on the E, or 6th string), and with it play the note that is one string down and two frets up. There you have a G power chord!
Do you see how simple it is? Find the note you want to play, and then with it, play a note that is one string down and two frets up. It’s your ticket to the blues!
Now keep in mind many blues guitar progressions use what are called “seventh” or 7th chords. Today, because this is a quick beginner’s guide, we will stick to using basic power chords so that you can focus on the music and the progressions instead of finger locations.
Blues Guitar Timing
The majority of blues progressions are played in 4/4 time. That means there are four beats with every phrase or measure. It’s a simple rhythm that you can modify with a shuffle or swinging pick technique. The basic 12-bar blues progression is 12 measures of music, each measure containing four beats or pulses.
12-Bar Blues Progression
The 12-bar blues progression is the foundation of all blues music and blues guitar playing. Memorize this chord progression, and you’ll discover hours of fun playing, jamming, and creating. Once you learn the 12-bar blues progression, you’ll be able to play hundreds of songs. That’s because the 12-bar blues progression works in any key. Here’s how:
The typical 12-bar blues progression uses three chords. That’s it. We designate the chords as the 1-chord, the 4-chord, and the 5-chord. Why not 1, 2, and 3? You’ll figure it out as you read on.
The 1-chord is the key that the song or the jam is in. For example, if a piece were in E, the 1-chord would be the E power-chord you learned earlier. The 4-chord is the note that is four steps up in the key. So in the key of E, that note is an A (E F G A B C D). The 5-chord is the note that is (you guessed it) 5-steps up in the key. This note is a B (E F G A B C D) in the key of E.
So now that you have the three (1, 4, and 5) chords, it’s time to learn the chord progression. It’s a tune you’ve probably heard countless times before (each vertical bar below represents four beats of music).
1| 1| 1| 1| 4| 4| 1| 1 |5 | 4| 1 |1
In the key of E, it would look like this:
E| E| E| E| A| A| E| E| B| A| E| E
In the key of A, it would look like this:
A| A| A| A| D| D| A| A| E| D| A| A
5 Famous 12-Bar Blues Songs
Many famous rock and pop songs can lend their catchy rhythms and toe-tapping style to the 12 -bar blues progression. Practice singing and playing at the same time and start performing these popular tunes written in the 12-bar style:
- “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin
- “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
- “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman
- “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2
- “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash