Blues Guitar Rhythm Lesson 1

How To Play Blues Rhythm Guitar Lesson 1

The blues is a distinctly American style of music with roots in the African-American gospel and work song tradition.  Its unique harmonic progression is based around dominant seventh chords arranged in a standard twelve-bar chord progression.  There exist many variations on the twelve-bar blues, but by first mastering this simple progression, we can build a firm base from which to confront the style.  The following diagram shows the twelve-bar blues with the roman numeral indicating root of each chord relative to the key, while the Arabic numeral following represents the chord’s quality (exclusively dominant, a major triad with a minor 7th):

| I7   | I7   | I7   | I7   |

| IV7 | IV7  | I7  | I7 |

| V7  | IV7 | I7 | I7  :||

We can begin making sense of this progression by applying it to a key.  Let’s begin with A, a comfortable guitar key.  The roman numeral “I” indicates the first dominant seventh chord is built off the root of the key.  Hence it would look like this on paper:

| A7   | A7   | A7   | A7   |

To finger this chord, use the dominant seventh shape with root on the sixth string pictured at the top left of this page, fretting the root on the fifth fret of the Low E.  We can practice this four-bar section by playing it in whole notes against a drum track.

The roman numeral “IV” in the chord progression indicates that the next chord is built off the fourth scale degree of the key.  To find the fourth scale degree, we can count up the A major scale (using your one-string major scale sheet for help), remembering to count the the root “A” as “one”.  We will end counting up four notes like this: A-B-C#-D.  Therefore D will be note from which we will build the IV chord in A.  We can fret this by using the dominant 7th shape provided at the top right of this page, fingering the root at the fifth fret of the A string.  Now let’s practice switching from IV7 to I7 by playing the middle four bars of the progression in whole notes with a drum track:

| D7 | D7  | A7  | A7 |

By using the same method we used to find the fourth scale degree, we can count up the A major scale five scale degrees to find the root of the V7 chord.  We end up counting: A-B-C#-D-E.  Thus, the E is root of our V7 chord.  We can finger this chord by using the same shape from the top right of the page that we used for D7, instead fretting the root at the seventh fret of the A string.  Let’s practice the switch from E7 to D7 by playing the last four measures of the progression in whole notes with a drum track:

| E7  | D7 | A7 | A7  :||

Now let’s put the whole thing together by practicing the entire progression in whole notes with a drum track:

| A7 | A7 | A7 | A7 |

| D7 | D7 | A7 | A7 |

| E7 | D7 | A7 | A7 :||

The twelve-bar blues is an ever-present progression endlessly applied in every genre of music.  Thus there exists an infinite number of rhythm pattern that can be applied to it.  In order to begin practicing comping over a blues progression, let’s begin with one of the most common and most simple: a downstroke on beat one followed by an upstroke on the “and” of 2.

D          U     

1  +  2  +   3  +  4  +

Now let’s apply that strum pattern to the twelve-bar blues in A with a drum track.

After we have mastered this progression in A, we can begin to apply it to other keys.  Let’s experiment with building and playing a twelve-bar blues in at least five other keys.