Building A Blues

The purpose of this little guide is to demonstrate how to play all the guitar parts in a blues song. We’ll look at the various different rhythm guitar approaches which can be used either together (as I’ve done here) or individually. This is a useful skill to have if you’re playing in a blues band – how to make what is essentially the same chord progression (a standard 12 bar blues) sound different on each song – or how to make a “chorus” part sound different from a verse. As I said, I’ve shown how these individual parts can be layered together, so that two (or more) guitarists in the same band can play stuff that compliments each other rather than just doubling up on the same thing.

Here is the basic chord sequence we’ll be dealing with throughout the whole lesson:

|A7 / / / |A7 / / / |A7 / / / |A7 / / / |

|D7 / / / |D7 / / / |A7 / / / |A7 / / / |

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

We’ll also look at how to play convincing sounding blues lead guitar by copying the way a singer has to approach a blues. But before we get to that let’s look at the first of our three rhythm guitar parts. This is just a standard Status Quo type boogie shuffle that we associate with blues. Click HERE to listen to it, and see below for the tab.


That, on it’s own would be a pretty good way to put some rhythm guitar into any blues tune, but next, I’ll show you what a second guitar player could do to compliment this. If you’re playing in the key of A (as we are here) then the three chords in the song will be A7 D7 & E7, and each of these chords has a very special interval contained within them. Let’s look at A7 as an example. The notes in this chord are A C# E & G. Now, the distance in semitones (frets), between the C# & G notes is six steps (known as a “tritone”). It is this pair of notes which give A7 it’s “bluesy” sound, so we can simply play this two-note chord in place of A7 and (over a bass-line) it will sound like a cool sounding version of the A7 chord. That’s not all though… first of all you can move this chord up/down 6 frets and you will get the same two notes – the C# moves 6 frets and becomes a G & vice versa.

Secondly, if you move the C# & G notes down a fret, they become C & F#, which is the pair of tritone notes found in a D7 chord. So… to change from an A7 to a D7, simply move the two note, tritone chord you’re using for A7 down a fret & hey presto: you’re now playing D7 – this too can be moved up/down 6 frets and remain the same. Take the C# & G in an A7 up a fret and they become D & G#, the “magic” pair of notes from an E7 chord. Essentially, you can take a 2 note chord shape for A7, move it down a fret and you’ll be playing D7, move it up a fret and you’re playing E7. Plus all of this can be replicated 6 frets away from your starting point.

Another little trick to add a touch of bluesy tension is to use “sidestepping”. This simply involves moving the tritone shape up or down a fret momentarily as you play. You can hear me doing this in the demonstration which follows. See the diagram below for the shape to use, and click HERE to listen to how these tritones sound over the bass line.

tritone diagram


Another way to play a blues accompaniment is to call upon the venerable 9th chord. This is essentially the same as a 7th chord but with an added note. Take the notes of an A7 (A C# E & G) and add the 9th note of the A major scale which is a B note. You’ll see a diagram below showing how to finger a 9th chord shape. All I did here was track the 12 bar blues sequence on 9th chords using this shape. Click HERE to listen to it over the bass line.


And click HERE to hear how all of these parts sound together. It all begins with the boogie shuffle pattern, then the tritones fade in, followed by the 9th chords. You should be able to hear how all of these layers site together to create a pretty cool sounding part as a whole.

Next, lets examine how to play a cool blues solo. We’ve looked, in the past, at note targeting, adding speed, and a touch of jazziness & all of those things are useful, but the most essential part of any blues is the phrasing: where to leave gaps, and where to play notes. There’s actually a bit of a clue when you hear someone compliment a lead guitarist by saying their playing is “lyrical”. If you want to sound good, make your guitar solo sound like the lyrics to the song. Click HERE to listen to the finished backing track we layered up earlier with some lyrics sung over it – I used the 1st two verses of Crossroads Blues, but the vocal phrasing for most blues songs follow a similar format. I apologise for the slightly below-par vocals, but I don’t claim to be a singist. This is for demonstration purposes only. Notice how the 1st line, which takes up the initial 4 bars of chords is repeated? You can make use of this when putting a solo together – when the backing goes up to the IV chord in bar 5, play the lick you began that particular 12 bar cycle on & it will achieve the same effect as a singer reiterating the first line. You don’t have to play exactly the same notes – just use the same rhythmic “shape” for both phrases – as though the singer is singing the same syllables.

That effectively takes care of 8 of the 12 bars of the blues solo sequence. The remaining 4 bars (where the chord changes up to the V chord – E7 in this case) consist of a question/answer couplet: two phrases of roughly similar length and “shape” which (often but not always) ascend for the 1st phrase and descend for the 2nd one. If you’re playing an extended solo and want to add to the excitement, as you get further into your solo, you can run both of these phrases together. This creates a real sense of “Keep your lug-holes pinned open… I’m not stopping yet!” and is the kind of thing that a good rhythm section will pick up on and ramp up their parts accordingly – listen to the way Ginger Baker & Jack Bruce react to Eric Clapton’s playing on Cream’s version of Crossroads to hear this kind of thing done brilliantly.

Click HERE for a solo I improvised in a single take using the principles outlined above, and click HERE for the backing track. I hope you found this useful & until next time… Have Fun!



John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project


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