Blues and the guitar go well together, guitar is one of the most often used blues instruments and as a guitarist it's important to speak at least the basics of the blues language. In this tutorial we'll have a look at those basics of how to play blues guitar.
Blues developed in the United States in the beginning of the 20th century and has a mixture of European and West & Central African elements.
Robert Johnson (1911-1938), one of the most famous Delta blues players, has had an enormous influence in the history of blues guitar. A lot of bands and musicians (Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, ...) name Robert Johnson as one of their biggest influences and call him one of the greatest blues guitar players that ever lived. He, amongst others, had a great influence on the standardization of the 12 bar blues.
Today (since the 1930s), the 12-bar blues is more or less the most played chord progression in the blues. Like the name says, the 12-bar blues has 12 bars with in its most basic form 3 chords. Let's have a look at the basic chord progression of the blues:
|I |(IV) |I |I |
|IV |IV |I |I |
|V |IV |I |(V) |
The Roman numbers in the scheme above refer to a degree in a tonality. Let's take for example a blues in the tonality of E.
Here are the notes of the E Mixolydian scale (a common blues scale, more about it later):
E F# G# A B C# D
I II III IV V VI VII
Each note in this blues scale correspondents with a Roman numeral. Let's replace the Roman numbers with notes:
|E |(A) |E |E |
|A |A |E |E |
|B |A |E |(B) |
Most chords in blues music are dominant 7 chords. I'll put them in the chord progression and I'll omit those that are repeated:
|E7 |(A7) |E7 | |
|A7 | |E7 | |
|B7 |A7 |E7 |(B7) |
This is the most basic and the most often used blues chord progression. The chords between brackets on bar 2 and 12 are not necessary to play, but make this basic progression a little more interesting. The chord in the last bar is called a turnaround, it marks the transition back to the beginning of the chord progression when you are playing loops.
Try to play the chords on your guitar, each bar has 4 beats, take any rhythm or strumming you like, as long as you play it with a swing feel. The swing feel is a very important thing to master when you learn blues guitar and it is something you can't read in tablature.
A swing feel has uneven eights (1/8 notes), but this probably doesn't tell you a lot. To demonstrate the swing, listen to this basic drum groove (click the speaker icons), first played in a normal way (straight feel) and then with a swing feel:
When you have a hard time getting into a swing feel, it might work to sing 'chunka chunka chunka chunka ...' in your head.
Here's the guitar chord chart for the 12 bar blues chords in E. The E7 and A7 have 2 possible voicings:
Most guitarists start learning the blues by playing a shuffle. A shuffle is a kind of groove played on the bass strings of the guitar. Here are the guitar tabs for a shuffle blues in A:
Here's a little variation on the basic groove (I wrote the guitar tablature for A7, you can find the groove for the 2 other chords of the blues yourself):
You can play this shuffle with a pick or with your fingers, depending on the sound you like the most. Other styles like Rock and Roll, Boogie or Rockabilly use the same shuffle groove, but in a different tempo. Blues is generally slower than those music styles.
The next step is adding more variation to this basic shuffle, by adding blues scale licks, different rhythms and chords, but that's for the next blues lesson.
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