If you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in learning how to play blues guitar. And let me tell you, you’re in for a treat! Blues guitar is one of the most timeless and influential genres of music, and it’s not hard to see why.
When you listen to the greats like B.B. King, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Elmore James, you’ll notice that their songs all have something in common. They all use the traditional 12-bar blues progression. But don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!
In fact, the 12-bar blues progression is a simple three-chord progression that serves as the foundation for countless iconic blues guitar songs. And not only that, but there’s also a fixed 5-6 note scale and rhythmic pattern that’s easy to learn and will have you jamming in no time.
So if you’re ready to take your first steps into the world of blues guitar, let’s dive in and learn the basics of the 12-bar progression.
Table of Contents
What Is Blues Guitar?
Blues guitar is a popular and influential style of contemporary rhythm guitar that has made its way into almost every subgenre of rock, from country to metal. If you’re interested in playing blues guitar, there are a few things you should know.
The 12-Bar Chord Progression
The 12-bar blues chord progression is the backbone of not just blues music, but most rock music in general. It’s a simple structure that repeats over and over again, providing a solid foundation for the soloist to improvise over. If you want to play blues guitar, you need to internalize this chord progression and understand how to use it.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave, instead of the usual seven. It’s the most commonly used scale in blues, pop, and rock. Learning the minor pentatonic scale is essential for any blues guitar player, as it forms the basis for many blues guitar solos.
The Blues Scale
The blues scale is similar to the minor pentatonic scale, but it adds one B5 interval for a total of six notes. This additional note gives the scale a distinctive bluesy sound that is perfect for playing over the 12-bar blues chord progression.
Where Did it Originate?
The soulful and captivating sounds of blues guitar have a rich history, rooted in the African-American experience of the deep South in the 19th century. As slaves and their descendants toiled on plantations, they brought with them music that reflected their cultural heritage, blending traditional African rhythms with chants, prayer songs, drum music, and rhythmic dance music.
Over time, the blues evolved and made its way from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans, where it intermingled with jazz. By the late 1930s, the blues had spread beyond the South, transforming into the different genres of blues we know today, such as Chicago blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, popularized by legendary musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton.
Initially, the blues was a form of lament and longing, but it eventually shifted to something more positive and upbeat, embodying hope and change.
In the 1920s, pioneers of the blues like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Charlie Patton performed solo with just a guitar, typically at plantation camps and social gatherings. As the blues band evolved alongside early jazz bands, it added more instruments like mandolins, banjos, kazoos, stringed basses, harmonicas, fiddles, and washboards.
Despite its evolution, the essence of blues guitar remains the same: a storyteller and their guitar, weaving together melodies that captivate audiences and tell the story of a rich cultural history.
What Are Blues Guitar Chords?
Blues guitar chords are the backbone of blues music. They’re the magic that makes the blues sound so soulful and heartfelt. So, what are blues guitar chords exactly?
Think of chords as the words in a sentence. Just like how words combine to make a sentence, chords combine to create a chord progression, and chord progressions create a song. It’s that simple!
When it comes to guitar chord progressions in the blues genre, they’re often written in Roman numerals using the Nashville numbering system. This system categorizes the scale degree on which a chord is built. Here’s a breakdown:
- The I chord is the root note and the foundation of the chord progression.
- The IV chord is based on the fourth note in a scale.
- The V chord is based on the fifth note in a scale.
These three chords are commonly used in the 12-bar blues progression, which is the backbone of many blues songs.
Easy Blues Chord Progressions for Beginners
If you’re new to playing blues guitar, you might have heard that the most common chords used in this genre are the dominant 7th chords. These chords are responsible for creating that unique and authentic blues sound and feel. In this article, we’ll be sharing with you three beginner-friendly dominant 7th chords to help you get started on your blues guitar journey.
- E7: The first chord we’ll be exploring is the E7 chord. To play this chord, you’ll need to look at your guitar’s fretboard and place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the A string. Afterward, place your index finger on the 1st fret of the G string. Once your fingers are in place, strum all the strings together. Easy peasy, right?
- A7: Next up is the A7 chord. To play this chord, place your index finger on the 2nd fret of the D string, and your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the B string. After that, strum from the A string. It’s that simple!
- B7: Last but not least, we have the B7 chord. To play this chord, place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the A string, your index finger on the 1st fret of the D string, and your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the G string. After that, strum from the A string. You’re making progress!
How to Play the 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression on Guitar
Playing the 12-bar blues is a great way to get started, but you need to understand which key to play in first. A musical key is simply a group of chords and scales that sound good together.
The two most common keys used in blues music are A and E. If you want to play in the key of E, you’ll need to know three chords: E7, A7, and B7. Don’t worry, they’re not as complicated as they sound!
To play the D7 chord, all you need to do is place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the G string, your index finger on the 1st fret of the B string, and your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the high E string. Easy, right?
Now, let’s talk about the 12-bar blues progression. It typically goes like this:
/ A7 / A7 / A7 / A7 / D7 / D7 / A7 / A7 / E7 / D7 / A7 / E7 /
As you can see, it’s a simple pattern that repeats over and over again. All you have to do is switch between the chords in the right order, and you’ll be playing the blues like a pro in no time!
4 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar
1. Use a Thumb Pick for a Driving Bass
If you’re looking to improve your fingerstyle acoustic blues guitar, start by anchoring your rhythm with a driving bass. To do this, most acoustic blues guitarists use a thumb pick to play the root of the chord, providing a percussive bass line that keeps the groove going all night long.
This traditional technique harks back to the early days of blues guitar, when players had to be a one-person band and keep the dance floor jumping at juke joints, parties, and fish fries.
2. Master the Alternating Bass Technique
Once you’ve got the hang of a driving bass, the next level of complexity in acoustic blues guitar is the alternating bass technique. This means playing a secondary bass note, usually the root in a higher octave or the 5th of the chord, in addition to the root on a single string.
To master this technique, try learning the classic blues tune “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten (Nevills), which features an alternating bass line and has been covered by countless artists, from Peter, Paul & Mary to the Grateful Dead. With practice, you’ll be able to add a new level of richness and complexity to your blues guitar playing.
3. Enhance Your Acoustic Blues Soloing
If you’re used to playing electric blues and want to improve your acoustic blues soloing, here are some basic tips to help you get started:
Quarter-Step Bend Licks
Acoustic guitars have heavier string gauges and tension, so it can be more challenging to do half or whole-step bends. Instead, use small string bends around a quarter-step, especially on b3 scale tones, for a more acoustic blues sound.
Unlike electric guitars where it feels natural to play the entire solo up on the fretboard, acoustic guitars sound more bluesy when you use and play off open strings.
Diagonal Fingering for E Pentatonic Minor
Arranging pentatonic scales diagonally on the fretboard can be helpful for acoustic blues. As the notes ascend in pitch, move up the neck, and as they descend in pitch, move down towards the open strings.
4. Use a Bottleneck Slide
If you’re looking to add some emotion to your guitar playing, try using a bottleneck slide. This style of guitar allows for phrasing and nuance similar to that of a singer. Here’s what you need to get started:
- Purchase a slide: A glass or metal tube that goes over your fret finger to glide up and down the fretboard. You can also use a bottleneck, but it’s not always as precise.
- Use an acoustic guitar: Choose one with light gauge and action set for normal playability. Phosphor-bronze strings provide an ideal tone for slide guitar, especially on resonator guitars such as Nationals.
- Tune to open G “Spanish” tuning: This tuning was called “Spanish” by blues musicians in the South because of its association with the song “Spanish Fandango.” Adjust three strings with decreased tension to go to open G “Spanish” tuning from standard tuning.
- Learn a classic slide guitar song: “Death Letter” by Son House is one of the most powerful blues tracks ever recorded, and it uses a slide in open G tuning. Listen to different versions of the song, such as the White Stripes’ electrified version, for inspiration.
So, grab your slide and guitar, tune it to open G “Spanish” tuning, and start playing some blues!
5 Popular Blues Guitar Songs
If you’re looking to experience the different styles of blues guitar, here are five famous songs that you shouldn’t miss.
“Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson (1936)
Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” is a classic Delta blues song that showcases Johnson’s mastery of slow tempo fingerpicking and slide acoustic style. The lyrics are believed to be about selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent.
“Got My Mojo Working” by Muddy Waters (1957)
Originally written by Preston “Red” Foster, “Got My Mojo Working” was made famous by Muddy Waters. The song mixed a 1/4/5 chord progression with a harmonica lead, creating a blues riff that was hugely influential in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s no surprise that the song made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
“Little Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf (1961)
“Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” is a Chicago blues standard that features vocal and slide guitar as the two main elements of the song, while the drums and bass keep the blues rhythm going in the background. The song is said to have popularized Chicago blues when it was adapted by American soul singer Sam Cooke. In 1964, The Rolling Stones covered the song, becoming one of the first rock bands to delve into modern electric blues.
“House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals (1964)
One of the most memorable blues licks of all time, “House of the Rising Sun” is a classic folk ballad that has been recorded and re-recorded countless times. The Animals’ unique spin on the song, featuring Hilton Valentine’s electric guitar A minor chord arpeggio, was recorded in just one take and became an instant hit.
“The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King (1969)
B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” is a slow, 12-bar blues in the key of B minor that features King’s signature call-and-response style. With its high production values and use of strings, it marked a departure from King’s earlier work and became one of the most popular songs of his career.