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, the focus was rhythmic, different ways of accenting the backbeat. This time, I’ll help you take your blues to the next level by playing chords up the neck.

If you’re doing a blues in E, what you mostly need are lots of E7 (E G# B D) and A7 (A C# E G) chords, and with just a few different chord shapes you can move all the way up the neck. Example 1 shows common voicings of E7 on strings 1–4, and Example 2 does the same with A7—basically the same shapes as for E7, but five frets away. In context, I often play just the top three strings, so I’m always leaving a note out, but those three notes are enough to give the basic sound of the chord. So these eight shapes will give you a bunch of different possibilities for voicing E7 and A7 chords and switching between them.

Now let’s place the shapes in context. Example 3 ascends through several of the E7 voicings, played in eighth-note triplets against a steady low E in quarter notes. Characteristic of blues guitar, the chords on the downbeat are slid into from a half step below. In a similar vein, Example 4 moves through E7 voicings, but this time in descending order.


You can also use chord shapes to play single-note patterns, as seen in the last half of Example 5. On beat 3 of bar 2, drag your index finger across strings 1–3 to articulate a classic blues move. Example 6 shows a similar idea—answering an E7 chord higher up the neck with a single-note lick in the open position. And expanding on the concept, Example 7 is a four-bar pattern you can use for the first four measures of the 12-bar blues, comprised of two call-and-response phrases.

Now transfer the above moves to the A7 chord, as notated in Examples 8–13. Here you’ll find a number of cool ways to use the chord shapes in Ex. 2. Note that Ex. 12 introduces a new idea—using double stops to imply an A9 chord (A C# E G B).

The 12-bar blues is of course built from the I, IV, and V chords (E7, A7, and B7 in the key of E). On guitar, you have the advantage of using an open string to play the bass notes on the E7 and A7 chords. The same cannot be said of the B7 chord, which requires a fretted root note, usually on string 5, fret 2 or string 6, fret 7. Based on an open B7 shape, Example 14 demonstrates one possibility for negotiating the V chord on a 12-bar blues in E.

Once you have mastered all of the licks in this lesson, try stringing them together in Example 15, a complete solo on the 12-bar blues (plus a final measure of E7). And so there you have it—a bunch of different ways of playing E7 and A7 chords up the neck, plus a good solution for the B7 chord, and ways of combining these ideas with single-note licks for a cohesive statement. In the next lesson, we’ll work on harmonizing a scale.

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