What’s so great about the key of A major? For blues guitarists, it’s the only key where the three open bass strings—E, A, and D—happen to be the roots of the I, IV, and V chords (A7, D7, and E7, respectively). As heard in classic Delta blues tunes like Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” and “Me and the Devil,” playing the blues in A allows you to move chords or notes up the neck without having to worry about fretting the root notes. Whether you pick an alternating bass or a dead thumb (also called a monotonic bass) pattern, this is a real plus when fingerpicking and moving out of first position.
In the following exercises, you’ll find some great phrases and chord patterns that make extensive use of the dead-thumb approach. For solo players, this should let you expand the treble beyond first position while keeping
the bass steady. Understand that all four weeks of study also work with alternating bass. After you’ve completed the workout, you should have plenty of moves to draw from whenever you play the blues in A.
Begin this week by refreshing yourself with the basic 12-bar blues form, as shown in Example 1. Strum the chords, or play just the bass notes on the open A, D, and E strings, for the I, IV, and V chords, respectively.
Now move on to your first pattern. In Example 2, measure 1 shows an open-A chord requiring a bit of a stretch. Play the second-fret C# with your first finger and the fifth-fret A with your fourth finger. In measure 2, stop the third-fret G with your second finger to form an A7 chord. You might try keeping your second finger on the G throughout the A and A7 measures; that way all you have to do to move between the A and A7 chords is lift your fourth finger from the A note.
For each D9 measure, stop the second-fret A with your second finger and the first-fret C with your first finger, lifting it to play the open B in the second half of the bar. As for the E7 chord, play the third-fret notes with either your third or fourth finger, nudging the string slightly toward the ceiling wherever you see the indication for a quarter-step bend—an essential blues move.
Beginners’ Tip #1
To keep your thumb steady, tap your foot as you strike each bass string. Now you have two parts of your body moving downward together. This should strengthen your rhythm so that typical blues syncopations will not shake your solid beat.
This week, realize the power of two-note chords and see how easily they move. Can you recognize the origin of the compact chords shown in Example 3a? Measure 1 comes from the A7 shape, while bars 2 and 3 are derived from the D7 shape. Notice that all three shapes fall within a three-fret range.
Now try some different voicings. In measures 4–6 of Example 3b, you’ll see a similar chordal approach at the eighth fret. Notice that the dyads (two-note chords) on strings 1 and 2 come from the moveable chord shapes D7 and A7. Also, syncopation is added here by moving the chord one fret lower on beat 4 and then back up on the “and.” Referring back to Ex. 1 if needed, apply these patterns to the 12-bar format.
These simple shapes, by the way, echo the brilliant playing of Freddie Green, the late, longtime guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra. Green, known for his masterly, understated accompaniment work, tended to focus on three-, two-, and even one-note chords on the lower strings. Remember: less is often more.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Remember the term ‘dead thumb’? Actually deadening the sound is part of this technique. Use the heel of your picking hand to mute the bass strings by putting a slight pressure on them. This creates a percussive sound while letting the melody, played on the higher strings, jump out.
Now that you’ve become comfortable picking out bass lines with your thumb, throw a riff that is reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” into the mix. Example 4 demonstrates how one such riff works over all three chords in the 12-bar progression. Start by learning the riff, shown in the upstemmed notes of each bar, on its own. Play it by fretting the second-string notes with your third finger, the third-fret G with your first finger, and the second-fret A with your second finger. Pick the notes with your index and middle fingers, and make sure the slid notes sound clear and even. After you can play the riff cleanly at a moderately fast tempo, add the open-string bass notes, and then, as before, plug the patterns into the 12-bar progression.
Beginners’ Tip #3
When delving into Example 4, learn the treble-string phrases before adding bass notes. Easy does it—nice and slow!—and concentrate on the slides and the fingering. When you put it all together, don’t let the upper-string syncopations distract you from playing those steady quarter notes on the lower strings.
This week’s challenge involves a two-note chord shape on strings 2 and 3, as shown in Example 5. Notice that the dyads alternate between those with notes one fret apart and those at the same fret. There are a number of ways you can fret these little chords, but I prefer to keep my second finger down on the third string throughout, adding my first finger to each “slanted” chord shape (bar 1, beat 1, etc.) and my third finger to each “straight” shape (bar 1, beat 3, etc.).
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This same fingering concept will guide you through the whole example. The D7 measure does venture pretty high up the neck, but with a bit of practice it should be playable on a guitar without a cutaway. Play Ex. 5 first with the chord shapes on their own, and then add the open bass notes. There’s no need to insert these patterns in the 12-bar form, since, as you probably noticed, the example is already in that format.
Beginners’ Tip #4
To tackle an example with as many different dyads as Example 5, play one shape per measure for starters, ignoring the progression as you simply learn to move the shape. Then, play a second shape where applicable, and bring everything together by adding the bass line.
Take it to the next level
Put aside your dead-thumb technique to work up a piano-style boogie-woogie pattern. In bar 1, barre strings 4 and 3 with your first finger at fret 2. Try strumming these dyads with an upstroke of your index finger, and pick all the other notes with your thumb. In the second bar, fret strings 3 and 2 with your first and third fingers, respectively. This leaves your second and fourth fingers free to add the third- and fourth-fret notes. The first half of the E7 bar is fingered the same way as the A7 bar, but on strings 6–4 rather than 5–3. Since you’re probably not on a seven-string guitar, you won’t be able to play the bass line one string lower in the second half of the measure like you did in bars 1 and 2, but you can still keep that boogie rhythm going strong.
Mary Flower is an award-winning instrumentalist, writer, and teacher based in Portland, OR. maryflower.com