The Blues

The Blues can have all sorts of definitions.  It can have a particular feel or groove and all sorts of ideas abound about the history of the blues.  There are many types of blues – Delta, Texas, Jazz, Chicago blues and of course British Blues.  There’s a few tracks on the right here – get in touch if you think we’re missing the best blues examples.

Why learn to play the blues?

Most guitarists when they get together will jam by playing the blues at some point.  It’s a great way to learn some useful chord shapes and use them in context.  It’s also a great way of expanding your understanding of how music works.

12 bar blues

When you listen to the Muddy Waters, or the John Lee Hooker track you’ll hear that the blues can have all sorts of structures.  What we’ll deal with here is the standard 12 bar blues format.  The 12 bar blues is certainly not the whole picture of the blues, but it is what is mostly commonly played by musicians these days when they play the blues.

 

School teacher blues

Let’s start off with what we are generally on the syllabus in schools in the UK.  This is a simple 12 bar blues in A major.

Yes this is a 12 bar blues – it follows all the rules but it doesn’t sound very bluesy.  It sounds a bit tame and a bit too happy to be bluesy.  Yet this is what is generally taught in schools.  We’ll fix that in the next version, but first let’s look at the structure.

Structure

Most rock and pop music is built in 4 bar blocks.  You generally get chord progressions that last for 4 bars, verses and choruses are usually built from these 4 bar chunks so you usually get each section lasting 4, 8, 16 or sometimes 32 bars.  The 12 bar blues has 12 bars – it doesn’t fit the usual rules.  It does come in 4 bar chunks though.

The important thing to see here is that you play the first chord ‘A’ for 4 bars, then the D chord for 2 bars, then back to the first chord (making another 4 bars).  In the last line we have 1 bar per chord – again for 4 bars.  Then we go back to the beginning.  It is this increasing harmonic rhythm (the rate at which the harmony changes) which makes the blues so compelling.  We sit on one chord for 4 bars, a long time, then we change every 2 bars and then every bar.

This is what makes blues music predictable.  When we solo over a blues backing we play around with this structure and this is what makes the soloing interesting.

Blues in A minor

This version of the blues in A will sound much bluesier because of the minor chords.  All you do is change the chords from majors to minors, the root notes and when the chords change will stay exactly the same.  So what holds it all together as a 12 bar blues is that structure, you can change the chords pretty much as you like.

Blues in with ‘7’ chords

This version of the blues in A uses just ‘7’ chords throughout.  This tends to sound a bit more Motowny and maybe BB Kingish.

Roman Numerals – Playing in different keys

We can use roman numbers to write down chords so that we’re playing the right chords but we can choose what key to do them in. Hopefully by now you can see that there is a consistent pattern to the movement of the root notes with notes on the 6th and 5th strings at the 5th and 7th frets. 

You could just move a set of chords and their relative positions from one of the chord progressions above up of down the neck to play in different keys.  So for example, you could play the whole A major blues two frets lower and you would get the chords G, C and D – a blues in G.

I IV V

Call the the G chord chord I, when you count up to the C you’ll find you’ve counted up to IV, and the D chord is chord V.  Do this on your fingers now!!

So now you’ve got that concept we can just write these roman numerals to show the chord progression like this:

Blues in with ‘m7’ chords and a variation on the structure

Here’s a nice version of the blues using ‘m7’ chords and just popping chord IV into the first line to give a little variation.

Here I’m just showing the two chord shapes you need – just put the root notes (in red) onto the correct locations in any key you like.

More chord shapes

Now you’ve got the idea of the structure you can start to mess around with chord shapes.  So far you’ve got majors, minors, 7s, m7s. 

‘9’ chords

Next up are some 9 chords – they sound great for a slightly jazzier feel.

A jazzier V chord

This chord sounds great when used for chord V.  It is often referred to as the Jimi chord by guitarists because Jimi Hendrix used it so much (Purple Haze, Foxy Lady).

Lear to play the blues with just two fingers

This is the easiest way to to play the blues.  You only need two fingers! It’s a great way to play harmony and fills.

Learn to play Phone Booth by Robert Cray

This is a great song for learning some more chord shapes and some tasty variations on the usual 12 bar blues.

Learn some jazz chords to jazz up your blues

You can do so much with just a few jazz chord shapes.  Try this out to get into some more sophisticated harmony.