Playing the Blues
King Biscuit Time
Rhythm Guitar Basics, Part I
by Glenn Weiser

This the first article in my new series of instructional columns for King Biscuit Time, entitled "Playing the Blues." The column will feature how-to articles for playing electric and acoustic guitars and also harmonica. This one deals with playing chords on guitar.

See also:
The King Biscuit Columns Online 
The King Biscuit Time Home Page
Glenn Weiser's Blues Pages

Download the chord chart and other music examples here (PDF file)

Robert Johnson (left) holding an A7 chord on the fifth fret .

What do Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," Hank Williams' "Move It On Over," and Bill Monroe's "Bluegrass Special" all have in common? Each one of these classics is based on the 12-bar blues pattern (or one of it's variants), a standard chord progression that runs through American music the way the Mississippi Rivers courses through the American heartland, interconnecting and nourishing the nation. Because blues has influenced almost every American musical style, it is a common ground for musicians in this country. Most experienced guitar players here, it seems, know at least a bit of blues. Learning how to play the chords to the 12-bar blues pattern will therefore enable you to jam with players from a wide range of musical backgrounds, as well as hardcore blueshounds. It is the first step to becoming a blues player, and therefore a natural starting point for this new column, in which we will learn how to play the blues on guitar and also harmonica. So get your ax out of the case, tune it up, and read on.

Think of learning the blues form on guitar as a recipe-we'll assemble the ingredients, then throw them into the pot and cook them into a spicy gumbo. First, you'll need to know a few dozen chords. Figure 1 is chart of standard chords commonly used in blues rhythm guitar. These are also referred to as open chords because they usually use open strings. This sampling is just enough chords to get you started playing in the most commonly used guitar keys, not a complete listing (see Ted Greene's jazz book Chord Chemistry for the most comprehensive compilation in print I know of). If you see any chords here you are unfamiliar with, learn them. The chords given here are A, Bb, B, C, D, E, F, F# and G in the major, minor, 7th, minor 7th, and 9th forms. The fingering of each chord is given above the diagram; an "x" above a string in the diagram indicates that that string is not played.

Some tips for playing chords- keep your left wrist arched down slightly. Your thumb should be perpendicular to the neck with the knuckle on the middle of the neck and opposite the index finger. The fingers should be curled, with the end segments coming almost straight down on the strings on the tips of the fingers near the nails. No finger should be allowed to touch a string other than the one it is pressing down. The exceptions to this are the partial barre chords such as F minor in which the index finger is held flat on the fingerboard to press down from two to five strings, and the 'bent-back ring finger' chords (Bb9, B9, G minor, and G minor 7th), in which the ring finger is placed flat over two or more strings. You can check yourself to see if you're playing a chord cleanly by picking the strings one at a time from the bass to the treble. If you hear a dead, muffled, or buzzing string, adjust your finger position so that the chord is clear.

Figure 2 shows full barre chords, which are chords in which the index finger is held flat on the fingerboard and presses down all six strings. Barre chords, which are more difficult to play than non-barre chords, are used to make a standard chord such as E or A movable on the guitar neck. The same barre chord can thus have 12 different pitches depending on which fret it is on. The two most commonly used groups of barre chords -the E-form chords and A-form chords - are shown here.

When practicing barre chords, hold the index finger straight from the tip to the proximal knuckle, which is the where the finger joins the back of the hand. Also, place the middle knuckle over the second string. This will help you get the cleanest sound in the beginning. The exception here is the Bb chord, which is a ring finger barre chord For the Bb, hold the second, third, and fourth strings on the third fret with the ring finger and then place the index finger on the first fret of the fifth string. The first and sixth strings are not played, and the ring finger must be bent so the first string is not pressed down.

Now that we learned some chords, the next step is putting them together to make a 12-bar blues pattern. For this, we'll need a dash music theory: how chords are organized into keys. We'll temporarily define a key as a scale harmonized by three major chords, the I, IV, and the V. For example, in the key of A, the first note in the scale is A, the fourth note is D, and the fifth note is E, so the chords based on those notes are termed the I, IV, and the V chords respectively.

Figure 3 is a table of I, IV, and V chords in the seven keys most commonly used in blues - A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. There are five others, Bb, C#, D#, F#, and Ab, but they are mostly used in jazz (guitarists refer to them as the "remote" keys) and tend to require the more. The rows give the chords in each key, and the columns show the position of each chord in each key. For example, in the key of C, the I chord is C, the IV chord is F, and the V chord is G. To plays blues rhythm guitar you'll need to know what the three principal chords in these keys are.

The last ingredient is the 12-bar blues itself shown in Figure 4. This chord pattern is used to accompany the typical three-line verse form of blues lyrics, as well as instrumental breaks in between the verses. The first line sets up the situation, for example "Hey, mama, where did you stay last night," and is repeated. The last line is a rejoinder-"Your hair's all tangled and you ain't talking' right." In the standard 12-bar form, each line is four measures long with each measure lasting for 4 beats. The first line can consist of four bars of the I chord or the pattern I-IV-I-I, which is known as the "quick change" variation. The second line consists of two bars of the IV chord followed by two of the I chord. In the third line, the V chord can be substituted for the four chord in the tenth measure, and the also for the I chord in the final measure if the pattern is going to repeat. These variations are shown by the two vertically aligned chords in the second, tenth, and twelfth bars.

Now that you have the left-hand fingerings to the chords, the I, IV, and V chords in the seven guitar keys, and the 12-bar pattern all bubbling in the pot, we're almost ready to serve the meal and play the blues in several keys. For this, take each key, and use the appropriate chords to construct the blues pattern. Here's an example: in the key of A, A is the I chord, D is the IV chord, and E is the V chord. Therefore, the12-bar blues in A would go like this: A-A-A-A-D-D-A-A-E-D-A-A. The key of F should be practiced with both standard and barre chords. Strum down once per beat.

Blues is usually played in the major key, which for guitarists means either major, seventh, or ninth chords may be used for the I, IV and V chords. In minor key blues (for example, "The Thrill Is Gone," by B. B. King), minor or minor 7th chords may be used for the I and IV chords, and major, seventh, or ninth chords used for the V chord.

The last step is to add some rhythm to the recipe and learn some strumming patterns with the right hand. In Figure 5, the arrows indicate pick direction, and how each strum is counted is given below the notes. The easiest strum is the basic downstrum, which you just used when you were putting the chords together in the 12-bar form, and consists of 1 strum per beat. When you are first learning chords, this is the best one to use. Figure 5 also gives you strums for other rhythms commonly heard in the blues: the shuffle, slow triplet blues, even eighth notes, the "sock" style (used in "jump" blues), and the famous "Bo Diddley" beat. Now try playing blues in the seven keys in both the major and minor variations, using each strumming pattern in all keys.

How's that gumbo taste?


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