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Music & Entertainment

Guitar Lessons 101: Learn About Blues Guitar Playing Techniques and History

Written by MasterClass

Jan 31, 2019 • 6 min read

When you dig into blues compositions by B.B. King, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, Elmore James, and others, you may notice that, harmonically speaking, these songs are more or less the same. The traditional 12-bar blues progression involves a fixed 3-chord progression, a fixed 5-6 note scale, and similar rhythmic patterns. So then what differentiates individual blues rock songs?

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What Is Blues Guitar?

Blues guitar is an influential style of contemporary rhythm guitar typically built around a 12-bar chord progression. Almost every subgenre of rock, from country to metal, incorporates some blues guitar.

To succeed as a blues guitar player, internalize the following two elements:

  1. The 12-bar chord progression. The 12-bar blues is the backbone chord progression of not just most blues music, but rock music in general.
  2. The Minor Pentatonic Scale. Similarly, the Minor Pentatonic Scale—a musical scale with five notes per octave instead of the usual seven—is the most commonly used scale in blues, pop, and rock.

What Are Blues Guitar Chords?

Chords are the building blocks in music. The easiest way to think of chords is like words in a book. When put together, the words will form a sentence. In turn, the sentences will form a book. Similarly, chords put together will form chord progressions, and chord progressions put together will form a song.

Guitar chord progressions are written in Roman numerals, utilizing something called the Nashville numbering system, which categorizes the scale degree on which a chord is created. For example:

  • The I is the root note, and the base of the chord.
  • The IV is the fourth note in a scale.
  • The V is the fifth note in a scale

What Is the Most Popular Chord Progression?

A popular chord progression is the one-four-five-one progression, or I–IV–V–I. Each progression can be played in any key, which allows for different combinations and sounds.

Easy Chord Progressions for Beginners

In blues guitar, the most common chords are dominant 7th chords, which give the blues its distinct sound and feel. The three beginner blues chords are E7, A7, and B7.

  1. E7. To play this chord, place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the A string. Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the G string. Strum all the strings.
  2. A7. Place your index finger on the 2nd fret of the D string. Place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the B string. Strum from the A string.
  3. B7. Place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the A string. Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the D string. Place your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the G string. Strum from the A string.

Common Chord Progressions in Blues Guitar

In order to play a chord progression like the 12-bar blues, it’s necessary to understand which key to play in. A musical key refers to a group of chords and scales. The two most common keys in blues music are A and E.

To play blues guitar in the key of E, the three chords needed are above: E7, A7, and B7. You will also need a D7 chord, which is:

D7: Place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the G string. Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the B string. Place your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the high E string.

Now, a 12-bar blues progression would typically go something like this:

/ A7 / A7 / A7 / A7 / D7 / D7 / A7 / A7 / E7 / D7 / A7 / E7 /

A Brief History of the Blues

The blues has its roots in African-American history, born on the plantations of the deep South in the nineteenth century. As slaves and their descendants worked the plantations, they sang the music their ancestors had brought with them from Africa: a combination of chants, prayer songs, drum music, and rhythmic dance music.

The blues slowly evolved through Mississippi Delta and into New Orleans, mingling and intertwining with jazz. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the blues spread past the South to the rest of America, spawning and evolving as it did into the different kinds of blues we recognize today, like the Chicago blues, characterized by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and rock ‘n’ roll with the likes of Eric Clapton. Eventually, the message of the blues began to shift. What began as a form of lament and longing slowly turned to something more positive and upbeat—representing hope and change.

Blues pioneers in the 1920s like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Charlie Patton performed solo with a guitar, usually in plantation camps and social gatherings. The idea of a blues band evolved slowly, alongside the early jazz bands, adding other instruments along the way, from mandolins, banjos, kazoos, stringed basses, harmonicas, fiddles, and washboards.

While the face of blues has changed, at its core, it remains strong in essentials: a storyteller and his or her guitar.

Five Famous Blues Guitar Songs

1. Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues” (1937)

Johnson performed this song with an acoustic slide guitar in the Delta blues style. Although the lyrics are not literal, many believe Johnson is singing about selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. If you listen closely, you will be able to hear Johnston mastering the slow tempo fingerpicking, slide acoustic style.

2. B.B. King, “The Thrill is Gone” (1969)

B.B. King, the “king” of call and response in his playing, released this slow, 12-bar blues in the key of B minor. With its high production values and use of strings, the song was seen by many as a departure from King’s older work. It ultimately became one of the most popular songs of King’s career, debuting in the Billboard Hot 100 chart at number 15.

3. Muddy Waters, “Got My Mojo Working” (1957)

This blues song was originally written by Preston “Red” Foster but popularized by Muddy Waters. The song mixed a melody defined by a 1/4/5 chord progression with a blues rhythm defined by a harmonica lead; it was hugely influential, especially in rock ‘n’ roll. The song made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and also received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

4. The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun” (1964)

This classic folk ballad is said to have been sung by miners as early as 1905. It has been recorded and rerecorded time and time again; one of the most popular versions was by Leadbelly in 1944. The Animals recorded their unique take on the song in just one take on May 18, 1964—starting with Hilton Valentine’s now-famous electric guitar A minor chord arpeggio.

5. Howlin’ Wolf, “Little Red Rooster” (1961)

This blues standard has been interpreted by many musicians over time. The original was recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in the Chicago blues style, with vocal and slide guitar as the two main elements of the song, while the drums and bass keep the rhythm going in the background. The song is said to have popularized Chicago blues when American soul singer Sam Cooke adapted it and it became a chart hit.

In 1964, The Rolling Stones became one of the first rock bands to delve into modern electric blues with their cover of the song.