You can trace the roots of most modern music back to the blues. For this reason, learning how to play blues guitar chords will help you quickly learn other styles of guitar. Blues chords lay a fantastic foundation for so many other styles. Plus, these chords are super fun to play! In this article, we’ll cover the basics of blues and the 9 most important chords.
The chords we’ll cover:
- Open-position dominant chords
- 6th-string root 7th chords
- 6th-string root minor 7th chords
- 5th-string root 7th chords
- 5th-string root dominant 7th bar chords
- 5th-string root minor 7th chords
- 5th-string root 9th chords
- Rootless 9th chords
- 6th-string root 13th chords
We’ll start with something for the complete beginner by showing you how you can achieve a blues sound on guitar with some small changes to the chords you already know.
For intermediate players who are ready for more unusual shapes, we’ve broken down the lesson into two categories – 6th-string root and 5th-string root chords. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with this vocabulary yet, you’ll know it in no time!
What makes blues unique
Blues is special because it typically incorporates dominant 7ths for each chord in a progression.
- The most common progression in blues is a I-IV-V or 1-4-5.
- You’ll hear this referred to as a 12-bar blues
- That means, if you want to play a C blues, you’d play a C7-F7-G7 chord progression
- Outside of blues guitar, you’ll rarely play every single chord in a progression as a 7th chord.
Open-position blues chords
Let’s look at the most common blues chords in an open position. If you're a beginner guitarist and want to add a little excitement to the chords you already know, these will be perfect for you.
Give these chords a strum. until you’re used to how they feel and differ in sound compared to the natural chord versions.
As you can hear, playing a dominant chord compared to a standard major chord creates a significant difference in mood and feeling.
A few blues songs that utilize dominant 7th chords are:
- Mustang Sally by Wilson Picket
- Thrill is Gone by B.B King
- Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughn.
One example of a non-blues song that creates tension with a dominant 7th chord is Metallica’s, Nothing Else Matters.
- The verse plays Em, D, and C until the last bar when they play G, B7, and Em.
- Listen to the song and follow the chords and you’ll see what kind of tension it creates when they land on the B7.
- In the context of this song, the B7 functions as a “secondary dominant” – but that’s a story for another day.
A great exercise to understand how a dominant chord changes the feel of a song is to take a chord progression you like and substitute some of the chords with their dominant versions.
In the next section, we’ll leave the open chords behind to focus on movable blues chords.
The purpose here is to give you tools you can immediately put to work. A movable chord will enable you to create chord progressions from just one chord shape.
Essential blues chords for intermediate players
You don’t need music theory knowledge to learn this next set of chords, but some basic knowledge of chord construction and scales will be useful to understand how these chords work.
6th-string root dominant 7th chord
This rich-sounding chord will be tricky for beginners. If you’re new to bar chords, don’t expect to nail this in one sitting..
- Press the strings down firmly, using your index finger as a bar across all six strings.
- Adjusting your fingering until the chord clearly rings out and you don’t hear any string noise.
The root note, as the name suggests, is on the low E string (the 6th string).
- This makes it quite easy to remember what chord you’re playing.
- Simply identify the note on the bottom string, and voila! That’s your chord.
You can change the sound of this chord by adding one note. To do that, place your pinky finger on the B string, like this:
- The chord tone that makes a chord a dominant 7th is a flat 7th (b7)
- In this variation, we’re adding a second b7 to the chord to give it some extra flavor
When you get the hang of the above chords, move on to the next one.
6th-string root minor 7th chord
- This chord is one of the easier ones to play once you get a hang of using your index finger as a bar. As before, this chord is movable and this exact shape works all over the neck.
- Just look at the bottom note of the chord on the sixth string to figure out which chord you’re playing.
5th-string root dominant 7th chord
This chord has its root note on the 5th string.
- You’ll be able to identify which chord you're playing by looking at which note you’re fretting on the 5th string.This shape is the same as the open C7 chord we looked at earlier.
- This chord is movable, so you can play it anywhere as long as you keep the shape.
Take note that unlike with the open chord, you’re not playing the high e string.
- To play this chord, rest your index finger lightly on top of the E string, muting it.
- For beginners, it’ll take a bit before you develop the feel for muting strings this way.
- Keep practicing this, and it’ll soon feel natural.
5-string root dominant 7th bar chord
Here’s another useful bar chord that you can easily shift around the fretboard.
- As before, make sure your finger is firmly placed across the five strings to avoid unwanted string noise and muddiness.
- Remember: You don’t want to play the low E string when you’re strumming 5th-string root chords.
5th-string root minor 7th chord
The minor 7th chord is very handy. Just like the 6th-string dominant 7th chord we looked at, this one is movable. The shape of the chord remains the same, and the 5th string will tell you which chord you’re playing.
5th-string root 9th chord
This is a 9th chord. It means we’re stacking another note on top of the 1-3-5-7 dominant chord.
- Since there are only 7 notes in a scale (the 8th being the octave), the 9th note is the same as the 2nd, but an octave higher.You can also move this chords shape up and down the neck.
- The tricky part of this chord is using your ring finger to cover three strings.
- Once you’ve built up strength and finger dexterity, a chord like this will be easy to play.
To build your finger strength and dexterity, we recommend you to exercise your fingers on a frequent basis!
Rootless 9th chord
This next chord is a 9th chord, but it doesn’t have a root note.
- Often in blues and jazz, the guitarist can omit the root note to achieve a cleaner and higher sound.
- Of course, there needs to be a root note somewhere for the chord to be a specific chord.
- This is where orchestration and instrumentation come into play.
- Your bass player, or second guitarist, can cover the root note while you only play the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th.
6th-string root 13th chord
Depending on your musical background, a 13th chord might be something you’ve avoided playing when you look up chords to a song. It may seem too advanced to play, but these chords are worth learning. They produce a beautifully-rich sound when voiced properly.
The trick with this particular chord shape is to properly mute the 5th string.
- In a previous chord, we had to gently rest the index finger over the high e string.
- This time, we’ll rest the index finger over the 5th string and make sure it’s muted.
- You also need to mute the first string using your pinky finger.
It will take a while to get used to using two fingers to mute two different strings. We encourage you to go slowly and take your time. Soon, you’ll be a pro!
Dominant 7th chords and their variations have a ton of uses in blues music and beyond. Whether you’re just grabbing a few open-position dominant chords or are diving deep into the pool of dominant 7th voicings, these colorful chords are a powerful tool for your harmonic vocabulary.
If you know each fret by name and have a very basic understanding of chord construction, you can produce any chord you want, anywhere on the neck. Just remember, one chord shape can take you a long way.
While these chords are essential for blues guitar, you can use these chords across genres to enhance the music. A dominant or extended chord breathes life into your music the way natural chords simply can’t achieve.
If you’re looking for more guidance on how and when to play chords, check out a 14-day free trial to Pickup Music. We have ultra-guided Learning Pathways for every step of your guitar journey so you know exactly what to work on.
Blues Learning Pathway
Your step-by-step guide to the fundamentals of blues guitar.Learn more
Featured Pickup Music InstructorExplore Lessons