How to Play Blues Guitar: A Beginner's Guide

How to Play Blues Guitar: A Beginner's Guide

By Andy Aledort

Over the last century, the most common form of music played on the guitar is the blues. The sound of blues music, and blues guitar specifically, is at the root of a great proportion of popular music; this is especially apparent in rock and roll, rockabilly, and its latter incarnations such as blues rock. Equally, the blues form is essential to the foundations of country music, folk music and other styles.

Today, blues guitar is more popular than ever. It is relatively easy to get started playing this style, as the simple components of beginner blues guitar are easy to grasp. I would encourage all aspiring guitarists to learn blues guitar and the basic foundations of this style of playing, as the chord shapes, scales and melodic phrases will prove invaluable as one continues to study blues guitar, as well as and the instrument overall regardless of the genre.

Origins of Blues Guitar - Where Did the Blues Originate?

The roots of blues music can be traced back to African culture, such as the tribal chants and Yarum praise songs of the Fra Fra Tribesmen, first recorded for posterity at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Africans were brought to America as slaves, this musical sound was preserved and transformed via the field hollers of the plantation workers in the American south.

By the 1920’s, solo performers who sang while accompanying themselves on guitar brought the sound of blues music to the masses, first through community congregations and street corner performances and, later, through recordings made available on 78rpm shellac records.

Mississippi Delta blues performers like Freddie Spruell, Tampa Red, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson, among a great many others, helped to popularize the style of blues music and blues guitar specifically. Through the ensuing decades, millions of people across the globe have been inspired to learn blues guitar, first assembling the basics of beginner blues guitar and then broadening their ability to play blues guitar via blues chords forms such as dominant seventh chords, and blues scales like pentatonic minor, pentatonic major and the blues scale.

As the music continued to change and become more popular, the basics of blues guitar served to inspire new forms of musical expression. As the saying goes, the blues had a baby and they named it rock 'n’ roll.

Who are the Most Popular Blues Guitarists?

The most popular acoustic blues guitarists include the Mississippi Delta blues guitar players mentioned above, such as Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Also essential are Skip James, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and a variety of others.

For electric blues guitar, the list of historically essential and influential players is long: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Pat Hare, Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Clarence Holloman, Wayne Bennett, Luther Tucker, Luther Allison, and the Myers Brothers are but just a handful of important blues guitarists.

When it comes to “modern” electric blues guitar soloing, the all-time most essential and influential pioneers are B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy. These brilliant players inspired the blues/rock explosion of the sixties which brought to the fore the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Leslie West, Ritchie Blackmore, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan and so many others.

Today, some of the modern players keeping blues guitar alive are Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales, Marcus King, Gary Clark, Jr., and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, to name but a few of today’s shining blues guitar stars.

Tips for Getting Started Playing Blues Guitar

All beginning blues guitar players should familiarize themselves with the 12-bar blues, which is the most prevalent blues form of all. As the name implies, the form is twelve bars long and is then repeated throughout the given song. Traditionally, a 12-bar blues is built from a chord progression that includes the I (“one”), the IV (“four”) and the V (“five”) chord.

How does one determine what chords these are? It’s simple: the I (“one”) represents the home key or the tonic; for example, if the song is in the key of E, then E is the “one” chord. The “four” and “five” chords are found by locating the fourth and fifth scales degrees of the major scale in the home key: in the key of E, the E major scale is spelled E F# G# A B C# D#; the fourth scale degree is A and the fifth scale degree is B.

As illustrated, the three chords of a I-IV-V chord progression in the key of E are E, A and B.

The Blues Shuffle Rhythm

It is also essential for beginner blues guitar players to learn how to play a blues shuffle. The blues shuffle is by far the most common rhythmic pattern within which the blues is played. The shuffle feel is based on a pattern of eighth-note triplets. This may sound complicated, but it can easily be understood in this way: for each of the four beats (quarter notes) in a single bar of 4/4 time—tap your foot and recite, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR”—imagine that each quarter note is divided into three equally syncopated accents, known as “eighth-note triplets,” sounded like this: “ONE-two-three,” “TWO-two-three,” etc., or “ONE-trip-let,” “TWO-trip-let,” etc.

A shuffle is created when the first two eighth notes in the eighth-note triplet are combined to create a quarter note, followed by a solitary eighth-note. Sounded as “Da-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da,” that pattern looks like this:

Alternating Root/Fifth and Root/Sixth Chords

Now that you have a grasp of the shuffle rhythm, let’s address the chords forms that are used when playing a blues shuffle. Most often, a guitarist will alternate between a root/fifth and a root/sixth chord for each of the I-IV-V chords in the 12-bar blues progression. The root/fifth form for E is known as E5 and consists of the notes E and B, five scale degrees above the E note. The root/sixth form for E is often notated as E6 and consists of the notes E and C#, located six scale degrees above the E note.

A5 is built from the notes A and E, A6 is built from the notes A and F#, B5 is built from the notes B and F#, and B6 is built from the notes B and G#. The complete 12-bar form looks like this:

Common Blues Guitar Tunings

Though blues guitar is generally played in standard tuning (low to high: E A D G B E), many blues players prefer open tunings such as open E (E B E G# B E), open A (E A E A C# E), open D (D A D F# A D) and open G (D G D G B D). Of course, you might need a little help making sure your trusty axe is in tune before tackling the blues. Check out our guide on the wide world of guitar tuners to get a feel for what’s available out there.

Final Thoughts: How to Play Blues Guitar

This blues guitar primer should get all aspiring beginner blues guitar players on the road and headed in the right direction. As you start jamming away, check out Positive Grid's Spark amplifier. This smart amp offers a wide variety tones that pair well with all blues guitar styles via ToneCloud – Positive Grid's massive, ever-growing tone library – where you'll find over 10,000 killer guitar, bass and acoustic tone settings as well as effects presets from famous guitarists, professional session players, expert studio engineers and hit-making producers from around the world. Get ready to rip some blues with Spark!

Andy Aledort has contributed to the international music scene for over 35 years as a journalist, instructor, performer and editor of Guitar World magazine. His 2019 book, “Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan,” is a New York Times bestseller. He has sold over one million instructional DVDs, on top of teaching guitar privately and on online sites such as Truefire.

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