Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series that will give you a solid foundation in this essential style. In this lesson, we’re going to talk about syncopation—playing around with a melody’s rhythmic placement over the bass notes to make the music sound cooler. Written melodies, such as lead sheets or the official sheet music versions of published songs, tend to keep everything as squared-off and on-the-beat as possible. So if you learn a melody from the printed page, it often doesn’t sound the way you’re used to hearing people play the same song on recordings. As guitar players, we tend to learn things by ear anyway, but even then, knowing the difference between when a melody’s being played on the beat and when it’s being played with more syncopation can help you figure out what’s going on and how it relates to the overall groove.

When you play fingerstyle, understanding syncopation is an essential part of lining up those slippery blues phrases your fingers need to play with the steady on-the-beat pulse your thumb is laying down. If you take a melody that’s on the beat, playing a series of pinches with your thumb and a finger (Example 1), nothing is syncopated. But if you simply move that first high E to the “and” of beat 1, instead of playing it on 2, then you’re introducing syncopation (Example 2). You can move up the next two notes as well, so that you’re picking all of the higher notes on the “ands,” leading into the bass notes. So that’s the feeling of syncopation, and you don’t have to use it on everything. In fact, it’s often best when you use it just some of the time.

Let’s take something a little more complicated. In Example 3, you have a melody note that’s on the “and” of beat 2—the only one you’re not playing with a pinch. Nothing’s really syncopated yet, because there’s no emphasis on a weak beat. But as before, by moving the first high E to the “and” of beat 1, as shown in Example 4, things become syncopated.


Now take Ex. 3 and add a bar, with the final melody note landing on beat 1 (Example 5). In the previous figures, the syncopation has occurred in the first half of a given measure, so now try syncopating on the back end (Example 6). After that, syncopate the front end as well (Example 7). Notice that all of the melody notes are on the offbeat except that on beat 3. And it’s having that moment where you do actually play on the downbeat that gives some context for the syncopation. Again, if everything’s syncopated, it doesn’t sound as effective as if even most of it is syncopated.

Once you’re comfortable with these basic patterns, you can add some more melody notes. Example 8 is based on the exact same rhythms as Ex. 7, but adds a blue note—G natural—on the “and” of beat 1 and beat 3. You might recognize this as the melody to the blues standard “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” (See a transcription of the Big Bill Broonzy version in the November 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar.) Example 9 follows through with the rest of this classic melody. So that’s how to take the basic coordination of the thumb and fingers and move the melody forward to create syncopation and a more swinging—and musical—time feel.

David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. www.fretboardconfidential.com