Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series designed to give you a solid foundation in this essential style. I previously showed you how to build some call-and-response patterns using Western swing chords. In this lesson, we’re going to look at how to add motion and color to your blues using Freddie Green–inspired chord voicings.
Green was the rhythm guitar player in the Count Basie band for over 50 years, and he used three-note chord voicings that he would strum in a style known as four to the bar. We can take these voicings and adapt them to fingerstyle blues with some really great results. So we’re going to just learn a handful of chord shapes, then use them and some single-note licks in a call-and-response way.
Let’s start with an open-position E7 chord on strings 3, 4, and 6, as shown in Example 1. Move up the neck on those same three strings to arrive at E/G# (an E major triad with the third, G#, in the bass) and then E7/B (E7 with the fifth, B, in the bass). Then you have three different chords you can use for the I (E/E7) in the key of E major.
If you move the first E7 shape up to the fifth fret, you’ve got the IV chord (A7), notated in Example 2. And because we’re playing fingerstyle guitar and we want to use open strings when available, we can play the root note (A) on the open fifth string, rather than on string 6, fret 5.
Now take the E7/B chord and shift it down to the first fret to arrive at the V chord (B7), as depicted in Example 3. Without getting into too much theory, if you move that same shape up by one fret, it can function as a Gdim7 chord (Example 4), which you can use for additional color in the context of the blues in E.
The whole idea behind these compact chords is that you can use them to create these cool harmonized bass lines. For instance, in Example 5, the bass notes E, F#, and G#, or the first three notes of the E major scale, are supported by an E7–B7/F#–E/G# progression, which is harmonically more interesting than just sitting on a plain open E7 chord. Example 6 works similarly, but with an A7 chord connecting E/G# and E7/B, and Example 7 shows how you can move the top two notes of the A7 chord up one fret to grab the E7 chord. The Gdim7 voicing comes into play in Example 8, where it is used to connect the E/G# and B7/F# chords.
So now you have ways of climbing up or down to connect all of these voicings, and you can start using them in response to single-note licks when playing the blues, as shown in the first four measures of the 12-bar form in Example 9. In this figure, maintain a steady quarter-note bass line, while adding more syncopated licks and chords above.
At the end of the pickup bar in Example 10, land on the IV chord (A7), answered by a single-note lick in the open position. The figure ends with the Gdim7 chord, which you previously used in connecting to the V (B7/F#) chord. But instead of playing the V, you can add one more chord into the mix: the jazzy-sounding F#m7, as shown at the beginning of Example 11. This chord works because it is the ii in the key of E major, and it leads neatly to the V (B7). In the second bar, trying playing an F#7; this works because it is the V of the B7 chord, which is in turn the V of E.
Another jazz-inspired blues sound you can use is the descending turnaround of G7–F#7–F7–E7, as shown in Example 12. This works through a technique known as tritone substitution. Instead of playing a C#7 (the V of F#7), for instance, you are playing the chord that’s a tritone (three whole steps) away, G7. And in the place of B7 (the V of E7) you have F7. That all makes for a nice chromatic bass line—G to F# to F to E.
So these are a lot of different things to put together. But the main thing is just to think about these Freddie Green chord voicings, how you can string them together using different combinations and how you can use them in response to single-note licks. Example 13 shows how to do all of this on the full 12-bar blues form in E.
In the next lesson, I’ll show you how to begin improvising by playing into the downbeat, that is, creating momentum through staying ahead of the chord progression.
David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. www.fretboardconfidential.com