How To Play Blues Guitar – An Essential Beginner’s Guide

Blues guitar is a very popular style that many guitar beginners want to learn to play. The blues is fun, sounds great and gives plenty of opportunity to express your creativity. But just what do you need to learn to play blues guitar? In this post we’ll answer that question as we take a look at the different things you need to learn to become a blues guitar player.

In summary the blues guitar skills you need are:

Now this might look like an impressive list, but don’t be put off. You don’t have to master everything in one go and you can enjoy exploring all these topics for a long time to come. To get started let’s take a brief look at these elements one by one…

1. Blues Chords

First thing on your blues guitar learning plan should be blues chords. With only a few chords you’ll be able to start playing real blues songs and they’ll provide you with a foundation you can use no matter how far you progress in your blues playing.

The blues uses chords called dominant chords, often known as 7th chords too. Dominant blues chords can be played in many ways including easy open chord positions if you’re a beginner. Later you may progress to play more exotic sounding chords such as dominant 9th, 13th and minor 7th chords.

2. Blues Chord Progressions

The blues chords you learn are put together in standard patterns – called progressions – that are the basis of blues songs. The most common progression used is the 12 bar blues and its variants. You can also learn to play blues in 8 and 16 bars as well as minor blues and maybe some jazzier progressions as you become more advanced. Good knowledge of blues chord progressions will help you easily understand and play many blues songs in different keys.

3. Blues Scales

The most commonly played scales in the blues are the pentatonic minor and pentatonic major scales as well as the blues scale, which is simply an extended pentatonic minor scale. Blues scales are used to play solos, but also come in handy to create short phrases to link chords and make the rhythm playing more interesting and fun.

4. Blues Guitar Techniques

Blues guitar uses some special techniques that are essential to creating a good blues sound with your scales. Hammer-ons and pull-offs, bends, slides and vibrato skills will ensure you deliver the blues effects of your favourite players.

You will practice these skills regularly to develop them and maintain them. Although the basic set of techniques is not very extensive they can be one of the hardest elements of blues guitar to really master. Pro players continue to work on these to hone and perfect them as they are essential to your blues sound.

5. Blues Riffs and Licks

Armed with your knowledge of the blues scales and playing techniques you can start to learn to play the licks and riffs of the blues masters, as well as make up some of your own. Licks and riffs are the building blocks of blues guitar solos and are also widely used to add spice to rhythm playing.

A good vocabulary of popular blues licks and riffs will give your sound a characteristic blues flavour familiar to blues fans everywhere. You should learn as many of these cliche licks as you can and incorporate in your playing. As you begin to understand how they are made you can have endless fun as you make up your own new and original licks and add them to the mix.

6. Turnarounds

At the end of 12 bar blues the turnaround sets up the return to the beginning of the cycle and launches another verse or solo. It’s important to understand how turnarounds work and to build yourself a library of turnaround licks to play.

7. Intros and Endings

Similar to turnaround licks there are many standard styles used to start or finish blues songs. It’s often hard to get a band started and to finish together elegantly and a good knowledge of blues intros and endings will help you fit in with other blues players in a band or jam situation. Mastery of clean intros and endings will set you apart from the crowd of wannabe players – remember first, and last, impressions count.

8. Blues Rhythm Styles

So what will your style be – Chicago, west coast, Texas, delta blues from Mississippi or Louisiana, or maybe uptown funky blues? Or maybe a little of everything?

The blues has a rich history of styles each with their own characteristic elements. You can study different regions, eras and players to learn to reproduce their styles or blend them together into your own unique “you blues” style. With so many styles there’s always something new to discover, which is part of the fun of learning to play blues guitar.

9. Blues Songs

Of course, the ultimate aim of all these blues skills is to play songs. There are numerous standards – the best known blues songs – that you should learn because they will give you a common language to share with other blues musicians. Then of course you will want to learn to play some of your own personal favourite songs and perhaps one day make up some of your own.

Blues songs are rather fluid and often appear in different forms, no two blues players play the same song in exactly the same way. So when you learn blues songs try to get yourself several different recordings and be aware of the different styles the song is played in. Then take the elements you like the most from each and play the song in your own way.

Phew, that makes for quite a lot of things to learn, let’s review what we’ve discussed.

  1. Blues chords, the foundation of the blues rhythm sound
  2. Blues chord progressions, put the chords together
  3. Blues scales, used to create blues licks, riffs and solos
  4. Blues guitar techniques, bends, hammers, slides for authentic blues phrasing
  5. Blues riffs and licks, the vocabulary of blues soloing
  6. Turnarounds, when it’s time to start all over and do it again
  7. Intros and endings, get off to a good start and finish with style
  8. Blues rhythm styles, for sound rhythm playing
  9. Blues songs, put it all together and play the blues!!

Now you know what you need to go and learn if your dream is to play blues guitar. Of course, with so much to learn you can have fun exploring and discovering for a long time to come. But don’t worry if that all seems a bit daunting, you don’t need to master all of these topics in detail to get started.

Here’s a challenge for you if you want to learn. Get yourself a guitar and learn these easy beginner blues chords to get yourself started. Before you know it you’ll be hooked and working your way through this list all the way to number 9.