....I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie....

The Shuffle (aka The Boogie) is the most important rhythm in blues. Every note, every chord, every everything should be played with the shuffle at its base.

Tap three times. One Two Three That’s one beat. Now tap out four beats.

One Two Three One Two Three One Two Three One Two Three That’s a bar.

Take out the middle tap in each beat. One – three Change the three to an ‘and’. One – and

Now tap a whole bar without the middle tap of each beat, and count the beats.

One – and Two – and Three – and Four – and

That’s the Shuffle.

....while I played the blues in twelve bars....
The 12 bar blues is the most common chord progression in blues. As the name suggests, its a chord progression lasting 12 bars that is repeated all throughout the song.

It is built solely on the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of a scale. It doesn’t matter if it’s minor or major – the 1st 4th and 5th are the same. A quick bit of theory. There are 12 notes in music that are repeated in higher or lower pitches. A scale is a sequence of some of these 12 notes that harmonise. When writing a scale you usually start on one note and end on the same note a pitch high (or lower). So the last note in one scale is the first note in the same scale an octave higher. Major and minor scales are said to have 8 notes, but the 8th is just the higher version of the 1st note.

There are ‘formulas’ to show these scales. The formula for a major scale is tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone. A tone is two notes (or frets on a guitar) and a semi tone is one note or fret. These tones and semi tones measure the distance between each note in a scale.

So for E major we start with E, then go up a tone to F# then up another tone to G# etc. Each of these notes gets a number based on the order. E is 1 (also called the root note), F# is two, G# is three etc. Written out it looks like this:

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8
E    F#   G#   A    B    C#   D#   E

So F# is the 2nd of an E major scale.

For a twelve bar, we play the 1st, 4th and 5th in a pattern: 4 bars of the 1st, 2 bars of the 4th, 2 bars of the 1st, one bar of the 5th, one bar of the 4th, then two bars of the 1st. These last two bars are called the ‘turnaround’ – they lead into the next cycle of 12 bars so you usually do something special to spice it up, but more on that in a minute.

So a 12 bar in E looks like:

E / E / E / E /
A / A / E / E /
B / A / E / E /
....It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift...
What makes music?

It’s the harmonisation between notes, certain scales make us feel certain ways. Minor is sad, major is happy (or as I’ve heard it said: minor is interesting, major isn’t! That’s not really fair – major is a strong sound.)

What makes the blues?

It’s the interplay between major and minor. It uses the basis of the strong sounding major tones, and adds ambiguity through the use of minor notes along the way. This creates an emotional, lonesome feeling in the music – things don’t get resolved like we think they will, there’s tension and release.

The most common example of this is through the use of the “natural” 7th note. There are 3 common minor scales, which is where I stopped paying attention to music theory! In our major scale above, we see that the 7th note should be only one note or semitone below the 8th (1st) note. In blues, we use a flattened seventh, a note music theorists call a natural minor 7th, but what we call the seventh. It’s a whole tone down from the 8th note – two frets on a guitar.

It adds the blues feeling to chords, and is used a lot with the 4th and 5th notes in the 12 bar. It is also very useful in the turnaround, played in the 11th and 12th bars of each repetition:

E / E / E / E /
A7 / A7 / E / E /
B7 / A7 / E / B7 /

The major 6th is also a really common note – especially in the most commonly heard 12 bar riffs. This was the basis for the Chicago scene in the 40s and 50s when electric guitars first appeared. It is played only using two notes for each chord on the bass strings. You play the root note on one string, and the 5th , 6th and sometimes the 7th on the other string. Here’s how it sounds:
Here’s two bars of it in E.

$6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.5 $6.0.$5.5 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 | $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 ||

For A, simply drop down a string

$5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.5 $5.0.$4.5 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.4 | $5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.2 $5.0.$4.4 $5.0.$4.4 ||

But for B you need to use a barre type chord. I find playing it on the 7th fret on the low E string easiest,then sliding down to the 5th fret for the A:

$6.7.$5.9 $6.7.$5.9 $6.7.$5.11 $6.7.$5.11 $6.7.$5.12 $6.7.$5.12 $6.7.$5.11 $6.9.$5.11 | $6.5.$5.7 $6.5.$5.7 $6.5.$5.9 $6.5.$5.9 $6.5.$5.10 $6.5.$5.10 $6.5.$5.9 $6.5.$5.9 ||

All these notes, you’d think someone would have made a scale for it! Well they have. Actually, there’s a few. But I’m only going to talk about one. It’s called the blues scale. Here it is in E, at 3 different places on the guitar.

$6 0 3 $5 0 1 2 $4 0 2 | $4 2 5 $3 2 3 4 $2 3 5 | $3 9 12 $2 10 11 12 $1 10 12 ||
7 notes, with the 1st and 7th being the same, and all of them are as bluesy as your woman leaving with another man. You could play the blues for a thousand years with just these seven notes. Most blues and rock guitar solos you have ever heard are just these notes.

The first notes to get accustomed with are the 3rd 4th and 5th notes – A, A flat and B when in E. Play these as triplets (all in a row, ignore the shuffle for a beat) as a lead in for when you are about to play a B chord. Instant turnaround that sounds awesome! Play this in the last bar of a 12 bar to lead into the B7 (in E). Here’s how it sounds in our “Chicago” style 12 bar, followed by the tab of just the last 2 bars:

$6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.5 $6.0.$5.5 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 | $6 0 $5 0 1 2 $5.2.$4.1.$3.2.$2.0.$1.2 ||

One last thing I want to cover – the second note of the scale. 3 frets up from the root note. That’s called a minor third – there’s that minor/major interplay again – and it gets even more pronounced. The major third is just one fret higher. So by going from one to the other we really focus on the minor/major interplay and make the bluesiest of sounds. Either as part of a melody riff, or part of the rhythm, this little minor to major third trick is in just about every blues and rock song ever. Don’t forget about the major 6th – while not part of the ‘official’ blues scale, it is such a sweet note to add in there. Try these, both featuring the minor/major third trick and the major 6th. One is a Chicago rhythm, the other a finger picked melody line and the bluesiest thing I know.

$6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6 3h4 $5.2 | $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.4 $6.0.$5.2 $6.0.$5.2 $6 3h4 $5.2 ||
$6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 $6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 $6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 $6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 | $6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 9 7 $6.0.$2.8h9 $1 7 $6.0.$3.9 ||

The plug in I use to show the tabs doesn’t allow me to show bends, but if you bend the minor third up a note, it becomes a major third. Play the 3rd fret low E string, bend it hard and release to the open E. You’ve heard that sound a million times.

So, with that blues scale, playing around with the minor to major third trick, and adding in the major 6th every now and then, you’ve got the basics covered, and a whole lot more. The shuffle rhythm, the 12 bar and the blues scale (with those 2 extras) is everything you need to play the blues. There’s a million other little tricks – there are a thousand variations of the turnaround – but hopefully you’ll try to learn a few of these songs and see how different artists use these basic techniques to speak their version of the blues.

14 thoughts on “The Basics

  1. I was looking for Taj’s Fishing Blues tab to learn some more finger picking and found this site! Great educational resource. I’m 65 and basically a chord streamer so this should keep me busy for the rest of my days haha!

    • Taj’s Fishing Blues is the single reason I’m into this music. The first time I heard it was an epiphany. It took me a good 10 years of fairly half arsed playing to get to a standard where I could even think about playing it, but it’s the single reason I only play acoustic finger style nowdays. It’s a perfect song, and my goal in life is to get good enough to play it perfectly! Thanks for the message, and I’m happy you are getting something out of the site!

  2. I’m a novice guitarist who loves the blues. I’ve just discovered this site — thank you! — and will definitely be exploring it.

    I would love to be able to sort these songs by difficulty as I try to play them. Any guidance on that, or at least a pointer to several easier ones to start on?

    • Hi Tim,

      I probably should sort them by difficulty but they are all kind of hard! I’ve been planning t do some kind of rating, but can’t rally work out how to classify them.

      Fingerpicking is about doing two (sometimes three) things at once. It’s hard enough to do one thing properly on a guitar, so be prepared that it’s going to take a fair bit of practice just to be able to play for 2 or 3 minutes without making mistakes big enough to make you start over. Just be patient, concentrate on getting your thumb hitting the bass on the beat. In a little while that will become automatic and you can start thinking about playing melodies over the top. Most of these guys were in their 30s or 40s when they were recorded and had been playing this kind of music every day for decades before they got good.

      Fingerpicked blues can generally be broken down into two main styles – Piedmont style, which features a bassline that alternates strings on the beat played by the thumb on your right hand; and Delta which has the thumb playing just one string for the bass.

      To start, I’d recommend looking at some of the delta songs – Robert Johnson, guys like that. I can’t believe I’m saying Robert Johnson is the place to start because you can play for 20 years and still not sound like him! But in terms of the songs on the site, his music is a bit more simple – his main strength is just how clean his technique was. If you look at a song like “Love in Vain” it’s really just G7, C, A7 and D7 chords. It’s a bit easier to strum along to while you build up your timing and touch. “Kindhearted Woman Blues” is similar – A7, E7 and D7. He plays around with chord shapes and his note choice is impeccable.

      I’m planning on doing a few ‘easier’ songs, so I’ll shoot you an email when I’ve done them.

      Good luck and thanks for checking out the site!

  3. The amount of work and ease of instruction are incredible! Wonderful job and attention to detail, there’s no other site like yours! I do have one request. Could you do a lesson by Son House? My slide needs work and “Death Letter” would be ideal! Thanks so much for your effort and skill. Stay cool man! Jim

  4. DAMN! I was messing around today at work and a link to this site off of reddit. This is a great site. Going home and getting the acoustic out tonight and playing along.

    Splendid job.

  5. Is there a way to donate to this effort? This is wonderful work. I have been developing my ear and I have just started transcribing some of my favorite blues songs, mostly Big Bill Broonzy, Taj Mahal, Blind Blake, and I was very pleased to find this gem of a website. This definitely speeds up the learning process and features a lot of cool tunes too. Thank you.

    • Hi Josh,

      It started off the same for me – just working on my ear and started the site as motivation to keep it up week in week out. Thanks for taking a look!

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