12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar — Lesson 4: Accenting the Backbeats

Learn how to improve your blues playing by accenting the offbeats and keeping rock-steady bass notes, all on a one-chord groove.

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 last lesson, I demonstrated ways of improving your blues playing by accenting the offbeats on a one-chord groove in A. This time I’ll do something similar, but emphasizing the backbeat—or beats 2 and 4—on an E7 chord. 

Start by playing an alternating thumb on the bass strings, root-root-fifth-root, using your first finger to rock back and forth between strings 4 and 5 at the second fret, as shown in Example 1 You might recognize the pattern as that typically used in Travis picking. However, you will be using this foundation to create something quite different.

Next, dampen the note on beat 2 by relaxing your first finger’s pressure on the string, while also adding a hammer-on, from the open D string to the second-fret E, on beat 4 (Example 2). For extra credit, try tapping your foot on beats 2 and 4, which will help you put weight on those backbeat notes.


Once you’re comfortable with Ex. 2, try picking additional damped notes on the offbeats with your index finger, first on beat 2.5 (Example 3) and then adding beats 3.5 (Example 4) and 1.5 (Example 5). And so now you’ve got the bones of the groove—the feel behind a lot of those 1950s, barely electrified Muddy Water tunes and some of the Howlin’ Wolf stuff, too.  

The next thing you want to do is put some licks on top of the groove. Start with a basic minor-pentatonic move, as notated in Example 6. It looks simple enough, but the trick is figuring out how the lick falls over the bass groove. If you take things slowly and break it down, beat by beat, you’ll arrive at Example 7. Some parts might be tricky—on beat 4 of the first full measure, for instance, you’ll have to coordinate hammering on the second-fret E while picking the top two strings, so take things slowly at first.


There’s one more thing you can do on the end of beat 1 in the groove, which is to add the top two open strings as a kind of a stab on the “and” of beat 1, before immediately choking them off (Example 8). And now, as shown in Example 9, try playing that idea, as well as this lesson’s other concepts in an extended groove.

I hope you have fun working on these country-blues patterns. In the next lesson, I’ll take things in a different direction, introducing the concept of playing chords up the neck.

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

David Hamburger
David Hamburger

David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. He is the author of our best-selling Acoustic Guitar Method.


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