If you’re a beginner, learning how to play blues guitar is one of the best ways you can learn guitar. Blues is truly the genre that started it all, and its rich history continues to influence music today. In this post, we’ll cover how to learn blues guitar as it relates to rhythm playing and soloing so you can start shredding right away.
Blues is the musical precursor to so many different genres of music, and it continues to be the starting point for many beginner guitarists (for good reason). As Keith Richards said, if you want to play rock guitar, you had better learn how to play blues guitar first.
In its most basic form, some simple chords and one trusty scale can tap into the age old blues tradition of translating emotion through music. Let’s dive into that cool blue pool and learn a few easy strokes – you’ll be swimming in no time.
Beginner blues guitar chords
One of the simplest ways to play a 12-bar blues is by using power chords.
- These two-note power chords only contain essential notes: the root of the chord and the 5th.
- Power chords don’t contain the 3rd of the chord, which is the note that determines whether a chord is major or minor
- Omitting the 3rd means you can use these chords to take place of major or minor chords.
How to play a 12-bar blues for beginners
The 12-bar blues, as the name suggests, consists of a repeating 12-bar chord sequence. Here’s a chord chart that illustrates a basic 12-bar blues chord progression in the key of A.
In this 12-bar blues, we have:
- 4 bars of A
- 2 bars of D + 2 bars of A
- 1 bar of E + 1 bar of D + 2 bars of A
There are also various forms of what is known as the ‘turnaround’ in blues chord progressions. In this case, an E chord would be played somewhere in the last bar before turning around to the beginning of the progression.
Tips for playing a 12-bar blues
It’s always a good idea to start slowly and gradually work up to a faster tempo.
- Make sure that you can transition smoothly from chord to chord before you ramp up the speed!
- Once you've played all 12 bars, go back to the beginning and start the sequence again.
Know your blues guitar history:
The blues can be strictly formatted or extremely random.
- Although the 12-bar blues is most common, there are other, lesser-known forms, such as 10-bar, 13-bar, even 9-and-a-half-bar blues!
- Listen through some older blues recordings, and you’ll find tracks where the band were waiting to change chords based on where the singer decided to start singing.
How to play blues guitar solos
Even if you’re a complete beginner, it’s easy to learn how to play blues guitar solos.
Step 1. Learn the minor pentatonic scale
If you’re looking to learn how to play guitar solos, the minor pentatonic scale will be your new best friend. It’s used in every style of guitar, and blues is no exception.
- The diagram above shows two octaves of the Am pentatonic scale
- The blue circles represent the root of the scale: A (5th fret on the low E string)
- The black circles represent scale notes
If someone plays a 12-bar blues in the key of A, you can play any notes in this scale, and they’ll all sound great. It’s like a cheat code to soloing.
Step 2. Learn the blues scale
Once you learn the minor pentatonic scale, you only need one extra note to tap into the blues soloing sound.
Follow along as resident blues expert Jamey Arent breaks it down.
- This diagram shows a two octave blues scale in the key of A.
- Note: there’s only a one-note difference from the A minor pentatonic scale here.
- The addition of the flat 5 note (turquoise circle) is what makes this scale blues.
Step 3. Practice with blues backing tracks
Once you learn the blues scale, you’re off to the races! The great thing about blues guitar is that you don’t need to know much of anything about theory.
As long as you’re using a blues scale in the same key as the 12-bar blues progression that’s being played, you can start shredding.
The best way to learn blues soloing is to dive right in.
- Initially, just playing each of your blues-scale notes in a row is plenty to begin soloing.
- Any of these notes played on its own will sound bluesy and in keeping with the blues style.
- Once you’re comfortable playing through the scale, start mixing up the order of notes and try to create phrases or licks.
- A great way to do this is by singing the lick you want to play and trying to mimic it on your guitar.
Step 4. Change keys
You won’t always encounter blues progressions in the key of A. Luckily, it’s easy to adjust your soloing to a new key. Here’s how:
- Find out which key your blues progression is in. (Ex. Key of C)
- Shift the root note of your blues scale to the key of your blues progression
- In the key of C, your root note would be on the 8th fret
That’s it! You’re ready to shred in a new key. You can do this for any key, you just need to memorize the notes on your low E string. Try out this backing track in C below:
Step 5. Take it further
At a certain point, simply playing notes in a scale will only get you so far. Blues guitar is all about making your guitar sound like a human voice. To do that, you’ll need to learn some expressive soloing techniques.
The following techniques will breathe life into your soloing, though it will take practice to integrate them smoothly into your playing.
- Sliding into notes
- Hammer ons and pull offs
- Bending strings
- Pre-bending strings
- Using the volume knob to cut the front off the note
If you’re looking to shred like the blues greats, our step-by-step Blues Learning Pathway will take you from zero to blues hero in three months. Start your blues journey with a 14-day free trial today.
Blues Learning Pathway
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