Blues Chords and History for Guitar

The word blues brings that juicy, heart-swelling feeling just upon hearing it. You think ache, sorrow, celebration, surrender and hope. It’s no secret that the plethora of emotions upon hearing the word blues, makes you feel a variety of so many things. In fact, the blues chords on your guitar were designed to bring out those very emotions. The swell, the ominous feeling, the depth. Each note, each chord and each chord progression is finely crafted to echo the feeling that the blues singer is having. When you think of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Father of Texas Blues, singing from the pit of his stomach or Lead Belly wailing out “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” you can imagine very clearly that each chord was cherry-picked to match that specific ache.

If you’re picking up a guitar and want to experiment with classic blues chords, the good news is there’s a very clear structure and formula to play with. Blues guitar doesn’t use different chords than any other style of guitar playing; you just use them in different configurations to create different effects.
You’ll want to understand the basics of your guitar, chord structure and scales first. From there, it’ll be easier for you to identify the patterns in blues chords. The open and moveable chord structure is the base of playing blues chords; Open position refers to chords that use open strings, most commonly chord forms down at the first few frets. Most people commonly learn open chords as beginners (e.g. E, A, D, C and G major). In the context of blues, you’ll want to explore the vibrant, emotional openness that’s created through the dominant 7th variations of these open chords. E major is the most common blues key on guitar.

How to Practice

There are variations of exercises you can practice when you’re writing your blues songs, or experimenting with blues chords on your guitar. For instance, 12 bar blues, “quick’ change, blues turnarounds, 8 bar blues, minor blues, bridge, and so on.

The Definition of Blues Structures

  • 12 Bar Blues: The 12-bar blues or blues changes is one of the most popular chord progressions in popular music. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics and phrase and chord structure and duration. It is, at its most basic, based on the I-IV-V chords of a key. Song examples: “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and T-Bone Walker, “Stormy Monday”
  • Quick Change: It’s very close the the standard Twelve Bar Blues format, except that you go to the “IV” chord (or “IV7″ if you prefer) for the second measure of the first phrase, then right back to the “I” chord in the third measure.
  • The Blues Turnaround: the V-IV-I turnaround, moves from the tonic to dominant, to subdominant, and back to the tonic. In a blues song in A, the turnaround will consist of the chords E7, D7, A7, E7. B.B King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton are all blues artists that use the blues turnaround quite prevalently in their music. Song example: “Jesus Just Left Chicago” Billy Gibbons
  • Eight Bar Blues: Eight bar blues progressions have more variations than the more rigidly defined twelve bar format. The move to the IV chord usually happens atbar 3 (as opposed to 5 in twelve bar.) Song examples; “”Key to the Highway,” “Worried Life Blues,” and Howlin Wolf’s version of “Sitting on Top of the World”
  • The Chord Number System: Blues musicians often refer to chord changes by Roman numerals after the steps of the scale. Examples: A (the key of the song), II Bmi, III C#mi, IV D , V E, VI F#mi, VII G#dim

Explore These Progressions

MAJOR BLUES PROGRESSION
/ A7 / A7 / D9 / D9 / A7 / A7 /
/ E9 / D9 / A7 A#dim7 / Bm7 E7#9 /

MINOR BLUES PROGRESSION

/ Gm7 / Cm7 / Gm7 / Gm7 G#dim7 / Cm7 / Cm7 / Gm7 / Gm7 /
/ Eb9 / D7#9 / Gm7 Cm7 / Gm7 D7#9 /

BLUES JAZZ PROGRESSION

/ B7 / E9 / B7 / D#m7b5 / E9 / E9 /
/ B7 / D#m7b5 / C#m7 / F#9 / B7 / F#9 /

Tips and Tricks

  1. Learn the basic blues chord progression- the I, IV, V chord progression.
  2. Understand the various blues time signatures- shuffles, straight 4/4 beats, and slow 12/8 or 6/8 beats.
  3. Explore blues licks and riffs- Artists like Chuck Berry are great for studying.
  4.  Try playing Slide Guitar- the techniques used with slide guitar are very dominant with blues music. The more you understand, the better your playing will be.
  5. When you have your solo moment, play less notes. It’s easy for the sound to get muddled otherwise.
  6. Imitate- if you’re just learning your licks and riffs, the best way to learn is to copy. You’ll build hand strength, sharpen your ear and have a structure to play with when you start playing riffs of your own.
  7. Listen, Listen, Listen. Blues music has to be in your heart and in your head, throw on a record and study.

The Best Way to Learn is to Listen

No matter the type of music you’re studying, the best way to learn how to play it is to study the classics. In order to be able to play freely and explore the endless world of chord options, you want to be intimately aware of where you can go with your guitar and your creativity. Studying the godfathers/mothers of blues who inspired many Rock and Roll bands is a good place to start. Dust off your record player and pick up old vinyls from artists like; Charlie Patton, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy.

Knowing the history and ache that these blues artists were channeling when they were writing and playing their music makes the listening even more raw. Often the classic blues sounds you’re hearing were rooted in African-American communities in the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century. The music started as a form of release, from spirituals to work songs, field hollers and shouts and chants. From the lyrical content and song structure, you can hear the call and response aspect and begin to understand the way singing was used a therapeutic form of release from those who were suppressed. Traditional song verses often have a single line that is repeated four times, making the song easy to memorize and sing along to in a group setting. The feelings in blues music were just that “blue,” in heart and experience. Blues went onto evolve into various forms like Delta, Piedmont, Texas, Chicago Blues and later from acoustic to electric blues.

Once you’ve sharpened your ear by listening to the wide array of blues music above, you’ll be able to pick out turnarounds, minor blues songs, and other subtleties that you wouldn’t have been able to before. As a guitar player, or vocalist knowing the structure through and through will make it easier for you to explore the possibilities. When you’ve “expanded your vocabulary,” and depth of knowledge you have the freedom to fearlessly create, since you’ve mastered your craft. You can make a fun exercise out of listening for common blues progressions in current music as well. Artists like John Mayer, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Johnny Lange were all heavily influenced by these great blues guitarists.

In closing, Turn up Your Speakers and Take a Listen:

  1. Dust My Broom by Elmore James
  2. She Moves Me by Muddy Waters
  3. She’s Gone by Hound Dog Taylor
  4. First Time I Met the Blues by Buddy Guy
  5. Cocaine by Eric Clapton
  6. A Million Miles Away by Rory Gallagher
  7. Red House by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  8. Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson
  9. Why I Sing the Blues by BB King
  10. Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughn

Are there any blues songs that you’d add to our playlist?