Do you know how it feels to play the blues?
If you’ve seen a great blues guitarist perform or listened to Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson or B.B. King, you already know the feeling of blues guitar. But how does the beginner guitarist even start playing the blues?
Playing the blues with feel takes dedicated practice, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, even a complete beginner can quickly establish a basic starting point for playing effective, hard hitting blues guitar.
Knowing and practicing the fundamentals is important, providing stepping stones to discover other, more advanced styles of blues guitar. In my over a decade of performing live, I have developed an approach using 4 tried and true basic guitar techniques that when used together, will allow anyone to play fundamentally sound blues guitar in the key of E. With a bit of practice, the following concepts in this blues guitar lesson can be applied to other keys and a variety of musical situations whether playing with a guitar pick or fingerstyle. You don’t even need to know any chords to do this… so grab your axe and let’s play some blues!
“This blues guitar lesson is intended for the entry-level beginner guitarist and provides a basic approach to playing the blues, specifically in a rhythm guitar context. It is assumed that you know the note names of the strings and can read a basic TAB sheet.”
1. Simple Blues Phrase in E
Probably the easiest way to play the blues is to start with the key you are in. So for this example, we’ll play the blues in the key of E. Place your index finger on the 2nd fret A string and let the open E string ring out over it by playing both strings on a downstroke. This is the first part of our blues phrase.
Next, move up to the 4th fret A position and play the same open E string over that.
We now have 2 basic chord forms that we can alternate between to create our blues phrase.
2. Tempo and Timing
Now that we have established our blues phrase, we need to play it in time. In other words, to a tempo or beat. Let’s practice this by playing our blues phrase in time using a metronome to guide us. I like to use the default Google Metronome.
Generally, the blues are played in 4/4 time with 4 beats to a measure and the quarter note getting the beat. Set your metronome to a slow tempo that is comfortable for you (I like 60 BPM) and alternate between the two chord forms we just learned. You goal should be to space your chord phrases as evenly as possible over the downbeat of the metronome. This exercise will help train your sense of timing and increase muscle memory so you can play it later without using the metronome.
3. Control Volume and Dynamics Using Muting
Another important component of the overall blues guitar sound is muting. Muting is a guitar technique that involves controlling the vibration of the strings with the palm of your picking hand. The wavelength of a vibrating string determines the volume that string is producing. The volume of note a performer is playing is known as dynamics. Practice adding some muting to our 2 chord blues phrase. Muting allows you to add some feeling and to vary the dynamics of your playing which is an important aspect of the overall blues guitar sound.
4. Rhythm and Syncopation
The final and possibly most important concept ties together all of the techniques we just learned to create our blues guitar sound. Using our 2 chord phrase in time and controlling our dynamics using muting, we can now explore a bit more advanced concepts of note timing and duration.
We just learned how to play our blues phrase over a beat using downstrokes. We can also add downstrokes in between our quarter notes to get a quicker, slightly more rhythmic sounding blues phrase. In this example, our beats become dotted eighth notes and we will add a sixteenth note right before each beat. This creates the more classic, “walking bass” call and response guitar phrasing typical of blues style guitar.
Although there are many more advanced blues guitar concepts such as the 12 Bar Blues progression and specific blues licks and songs, using the 4 concepts above, anyone can confidently play the blues in the Key of E. You can also place a capo on the neck of your guitar to move this same phrase to other keys. Whatever note your open low E string is playing as, that’s what key you’re in!