I start out the video with a quick recap of blues basics. For the most part, when we’re talking about blues, we’re talking about a standard 12 bar sequence of chords. (Not always though…) It’s important to have this basic chord sequence memorised. You will want to develop an awareness of where you are in the chord sequence and an instinctive sense of when the chord changes are about to happen. This is where it’s useful to do a lot of listening to the great blues artists.
It’s very common for musicians to refer to the chords in a blues by numbers (written as roman numerals) rather than their actual note names, and it’s something I’ll be doing throughout the series. This is a really clear way of viewing chord progressions, and stays the same irrespective of whatever key you happen to be in. Below is a very simple 12 bar blues written out using this number system. The actual chords will change depending on the key, but the number and function of the chord will remain the same. As we shall see later on, there are many variations on this basic chord sequence.
Below is the actual piece I play at the start of the lesson. You can download a copy here.
Being a good blues player is all about having a good tone and a good feel. Once you can play the basic piece, work on getting it sounding as good as you possibly can. Dig in hard, and play with some commitment. Here are some things to try:
- Palm muting, with the side of your picking hand, for a chunky, percussive sound.
- Fretting hand muting. Release finger pressure briefly after each downbeat.
- Accents. Pick a bit harder on the downbeats, particulary beats 2 and 4.
- Try changing the feel and using a bold down-up strum instead of all downstrokes
- Add in an occasional extra stretch with your little finger up to the flattened 7th of each chord.
- Try playing through the progression using all 6th string root shapes for a fat, consistent tone.
- This works just as well with a straight 8ths feel. More of a rock n roll sound. Think Chuck Berry.
Playing In Other Keys
It’s really important to be able to play a blues in all 12 keys and not just the usual guitar-friendly ones. Then next time a piano player asks you to jam on a blues in F or a horn player wants you to accompany him on a blues in Bb you won’t look like a doofus. Fortunately changing to a different key on the guitar is relatively easy; it’s just a case of shifting our chord shapes along the neck so we’re starting on the appropriate note. You will however need to to know the names of the notes on the low E and A strings. (But that’s another lesson…)
Be aware of the visual relationship between the I, IV and V chords as the pattern is always the same, and will help keep you orientated when playing in unfamiliar keys. The IV chord is always directly above the I chord at the same fret with its root on the 5th string. The V chord is 2 frets higher than the IV chord, at a diagonal to the I chord.
It’s also well worth being able to play a blues starting from a I chord which has it’s root on the 5th string. For certain keys this approach works very well. Here we will be changing down (lower) to the IV and V chords, and the visual relationship between the chords will have changed. The IV chord is two frets lower than the I chord but with it’s root on the 6th string. The V chord will again be 2 frets higher than the IV chord, this time directly over the I chord. Er, I hope that’s clear. If not, I’ve written out an example of a blues in F, starting with a 5th string root shape below. Download it here if you so wish.
(Hey, Adrian couldn’t I just change up to a IV and V chord with their roots on the 4th string? Why yes, that’s certainly possible, it’s just not very common since 4th string root chords tend to sound a bit weedy for this particular pattern.)