How To Play Blues Guitar – A Journey Into The Soulful World of Blues

The Blues. That raw, emotional sound that has been the foundation of countless music genres. Dive deep with us as we venture into the expressive realm of the blues guitar, where every note has a story to tell.

Table of Contents

1. What is Blues, Anyway?

Blues is more than just a genre – it’s a feeling. Originating in the Deep South of the United States among African Americans, it has roots in African musical traditions and spirituals. Over time, it has evolved, and its influences can be seen in jazz, rock, and even hip-hop.

2. Anatomy of a Blues Song

Typically, a blues song revolves around a 12-bar progression. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The 12-Bar Blues: This is the backbone of most blues songs. You have three chords, usually the I, IV, and V of a key. So, in the key of A, those chords would be A7 (I), D7 (IV), and E7 (V).
  • The Blues Scale: The blues scale is a modified pentatonic scale with an added “blue” note, giving it that distinctive sound.

3. Getting Started: The Basic Blues Shuffle

This is where the rubber meets the road. The blues shuffle is the rhythm you hear in countless blues tracks. It’s a swingy, jumpy pattern that adds depth and groove to the 12-bar progression. Start with a simple two-string shuffle in A and then expand to other chords as you get comfortable.

4. Lead Playing: The Magic of Bends and Slides

Blues lead guitar is expressive and soulful. It often uses bends and slides to squeeze emotion out of every note.

  • Bends: Push a string up or down to raise its pitch. This creates a crying sound typical of blues solos.
  • Slides: Move from one fret to another while keeping the string pressed down, creating a smooth transition between notes.

5. Essential Blues Techniques to Master

To genuinely sound like a blues master, there are a few techniques you should have up your sleeve:

1. Vibrato: This involves rapidly bending a note back and forth, giving it a rich, singing quality.

2. Hammer-ons and Pull-offs: Quickly pressing down or releasing a fretted note for a smooth sound.

3. Double Stops: Playing two notes simultaneously. Think of it as a mini chord adding some depth to your solos.

4. Turnarounds: These are little licks that signal the end of one 12-bar progression and the start of the next.

6. Some Blues Legends to Learn From

If you want to play the blues, you’ve got to listen to the masters. Here are some legends and a signature song from each:

  1. B.B. King – “The Thrill Is Gone”
  2. Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man”
  3. Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Pride and Joy”
  4. Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
  5. Eric Clapton – “Before You Accuse Me”

Dive into their music, listen to their phrasing, their tone, and the stories they tell through their guitars. Remember, blues is all about expressing emotion.

7. The Art of Call and Response

A critical aspect of the blues is the “call and response” technique. It’s a conversation between the singer and the guitar, or between two instruments. One “calls” with a musical phrase, and the other “responds.” This dynamic gives blues its conversational and emotive tone.

How to Master It:

  • Listen to the Greats: The best way to understand this technique is to listen. Turn on some B.B. King or Muddy Waters and listen to how the vocals and guitar interact.
  • Practice with Backing Tracks: Play a phrase (the call) and then respond with another phrase. This helps in building your improvisational skills too!

8. Exploring Open Tunings

While standard tuning is all well and good, there’s a world of unique sounds you can explore with open tunings, commonly used in Delta Blues.

Some Popular Open Tunings:

  • Open D: D, A, D, F#, A, D
  • Open G: D, G, D, G, B, D

With these tunings, strumming all the strings open will give you a major chord, creating a unique resonance and allowing for new slide guitar possibilities.

9. Slide Guitar: The Voice of the Blues

Slide guitar is synonymous with the blues. Using a slide (often a glass or metal tube) over the strings creates a continuous, vocal-like sound.

Tips for Slide Playing:

  • Choose Your Slide: Glass slides give a mellow sound, while metal slides are brighter.
  • Intonation: Ensure the slide is directly over the fret for accurate intonation.
  • Muting: Use your fingers to mute the strings you aren’t playing to avoid unwanted noise.

10. Blues Licks: Building Your Vocabulary

Licks are short musical phrases, the building blocks of solos. The more licks you know, the better your solos will be.


  • Start Slow: Learn a few basic licks and practice them slowly.
  • Modify and Make Them Yours: Once you’re comfortable, start tweaking these licks. Add a bend, change the rhythm – make them unique!

11. Practice Makes Perfect: Building Your Blues Routine

Like any skill, the blues guitar requires consistent practice. Here’s a sample routine:

  1. Warm-Up (10 mins): Finger exercises and scales.
  2. Technique (20 mins): Focus on a specific skill – bending, slide, vibrato.
  3. Learn a Song/Lick (20 mins): Pick a classic blues song or a new lick.
  4. Improvisation (10 mins): Jam over a backing track.
  5. Cool Down (5 mins): Play something slow and melodic or just noodle around.

12. Wrapping It Up: The Essence of the Blues

At its core, blues isn’t about the scales, the chords, or the licks. It’s about raw emotion and storytelling. Whether you’re playing to an audience of thousands or just for yourself, always play with heart.

Video: How To Play Blues Guitar

Remember, blues guitar is a journey. There’s always something new to learn, a new emotion to express, a new story to tell. So, keep those blues tunes rolling, keep practicing, and most of all, enjoy every moment of this soulful musical adventure!