Acoustic Blues Guitar Basics
Despite the inroads made by the electric guitar into every area of modern music, acoustic blues guitar playing still has the power to stimulate the interest of audiences all over the world. The origins of this style of music lie in church gatherings of rural America in the early 1900’s. From these modest beginnings, Reverend Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and other self-taught masters improvised their way into the hearts and minds of blues fans all over the world.
Guitar students usually choose the style of a teacher or a famous guitarist to model their playing on, but a look into the history of blues guitar will show that a distinctive style has its own rewards. Growing up in an isolated location, Lightnin' Hopkins, another pioneer acoustic blues guitarist, had to devise his own method of playing guitar. He devised a way to play bass, lead and rhythm all on one guitar while he sang, emphasizing each part as the spirit moved him. Notwithstanding his unconventional approach to playing, he was invited to sit in with many established blues players of the 1930s and '40s.
A choice the blues player needs to make is whether to use a plectrum, bare fingers or fitted finger picks. The pioneers of the genre used bare fingers, often using the thumb to maintain the rhythm of the song, and the first and second fingers to play melodic solos.
A plectrum held between the right hand thumb and index finger gives a brighter, sharper sound than bare fingers but the guitarist is not able to use the index finger for plucking the strings. Metal or plastic picks fitted to the fingers solve this problem, but many guitarists find that finger picks hamper their technique. Obviously, this would not be a problem for players who learned to use finger picks from their very first lesson. This method also has the advantage of saving the guitar player from the chore of constant fingernail maintenance.
An acoustic blues guitar player wanting to try fingerstyle playing could benefit by beginning with Travis Picking. This is a finger picking technique named after country singer Merle Travis, who played using his thumb and first finger. This technique was the basis of the style of Nashville guitarist, Chet Atkins, who used both first and second finger to pick because he simply did not believe that Travis could play the way he did with just the thumb and one finger! There are numerous books available containing simple Travis Picking patterns, as well as video tutorials on sites such as YouTube.
All blues songs use similar chord sequences. A beginner blues guitarist need only learn a few chords and practice one or two songs to get the hang of how it feels to play the blues. Twelve-bar blues is based on the one-four-five chord progression. In each key there are seven notes, the first being the note that the key is named after. So, in the key of C major, the scale starts with C and progresses through D E F G A B.
The term “one-four-five” refers to the notes that are used in the progression. In the key of C, one will be C, four will be F, and five will be G. Of course, chord progressions do not use single notes: they use chords. A blues one-four-five progression in the key of C will consist of the C major, F major and G major chords.
The same principle applies to any key you happen to be playing in. When guitarists want to write about chord progressions in general, without referring to a particular key, they simply use Roman numerals. A one-four-five major chord progression would be written as I IV V. If the guitarist wanted to refer to minor chords, he would use lower case Roman numerals, so i iv v would designate a progression of minor chords. In the example of the key of C, the chords would be C minor, F minor and G minor.
You can see the idea better if you relate the notes to numbers:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B
In twelve-bar blues, the first four bars are the I chord; the second four consist of two bars of the IV chord and two bars of the I chord; the third four bars consist of one bar of the V chord, one bar of the IV chord, one bar of the I chord and the final bar is the V chord.
In the key of C the one-four-five chord progression looks like this:
C / / / C / / / C / / / C / / /
F / / / F / / / C / / / C / / /
G / / / F / / / C / / / G / / /
An effective way to end a twelve-bar blues is to substitute the major chord for the seventh chord, which in the above example is G7. When you play it, you will recognize it.
There are video lessons on YouTube on acoustic blues chord progressions, as well as lessons on the playing styles of the great blues guitarists of the early twentieth century. If you feel you need advice on basic topics such as how to hold the guitar, tuning or picking technique, making the effort to look for a guitar teacher in your local area will be a great benefit.