Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series designed to give you a solid foundation in this essential style. In the previous lesson, we looked at how to play into the downbeat to create momentum in your fingerstyle blues soloing. This time, I’ll demonstrate ways of making your single-note licks pop with chord hits.

When you’re playing these licks over a steady bass, as you’ve done in previous lessons, there can be a certain starkness to the sound, space in the middle register of the guitar that’s not being used. Space can be good, but if you want to create a bigger sense of dimension, adding in chords as responses to single-note licks can give you a new depth and texture, while creating an additional level of call-and-response.

As seen in Example 1, we can answer a short lick with a short chord sequence (as in the pickup measure and bar 1), and a longer lick with a longer chord sequence (measures 2–3). These chords are variations of E and A7. Example 2a shows different E/E7 shapes, while Example 2b gives a smooth way of moving between E7 and A7. Higher up the neck, Example 2c demonstrates how to move between E7 and A in fifth position; the last two chords (Aadd9 and A9) are alternative voicings that can be used to add harmonic color. Examples 3a and b plug the fifth-fret A voicing into the call-and-response pattern, approaching it from below (Ex. 3a) and above (Ex. 3b).

You can treat the second line of the 12-bar form—bars 5–8–much in the same way, as shown in Example 4. For the A, we’re not really jumping around; we’re just grabbing the chord in open position and decorating it with the flatted seventh (G) on top, going down to the sixth (F#) and then back up. When we come to the last four bars of the 12-bar form (Example 5), things are a little more involved, as the chords move more quickly for the last two measures. And so the previous examples give us a shape and a way to play through the whole chorus, as shown in Example 6.


So far, you’ve played the 12-bar blues in E using just dominant seventh and major chords, but you could alternatively use sixth and dominant ninth chords borrowed from Western swing. Three E6 voicings are diagrammed in Example 7a. The cool thing about these shapes is that each one can be slid down two frets to make a ninth chord—see the handful of fingerings in Example 7b. A trio of A9 voicings is provided in Example 7c; move each shape up two frets to get an A6 chord.

Now you have a bunch of different colors for the chord voicings. Try using them in the first four bars of the 12-bar form (Example 8) and then measures 5–8 (Example 9) before tackling the final four bars (Example 10). End by playing the sixth and dominant ninth chords in the full 12-bar form (plus one measure), as depicted in Example 11.


So that gives you a couple of different ways of making your single-note lines pop with chords—you can use mostly sevenths, or a combination of sixths and ninths. And of course you can mix and match those harmonies. The idea is to give yourself a bit of a roadmap so that when you’re faced with playing a couple of choruses on the blues, you don’t feel like you have 24 bars of completely blank canvas to fill up.

In the next lesson, I’ll introduce you to the concept of motivic development. You’ll learn how to establish a few simple rules to come up with all the licks you’ll ever need.

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