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 how to add motion and color to your blues using Freddie Green–inspired chord voicings. This time, we’re going to look at how to play into the downbeat to create momentum in your fingerstyle blues soloing.

In this case, the downbeat means the beginning of each measure. So if the thumb is playing bass notes on those strong beats, 1, 2, 3, and 4, then we’re going to think of playing in to the downbeat as running a lick that starts before a measure and lands on that downbeat. This creates a little bit of suspense and mystery because the listener will hear something that’s going somewhere and wonder where it will land.

Try the concept for yourself in Example 1, which starts on the “and” of beat 3 and is built from the fifth (B), flatted seventh (D), and root (E) of the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D). Example 2 is similar, but adds a bluesy slide, from the flatted seventh to the root, on the downbeat. We could take those same notes and try them a bunch of different ways. Example 3 shows an approach with slightly busier rhythms, and Example 4 starts a bit earlier, on the “and” of beat 1, setting up a longer resolution. 

Now let’s look at the first three measures of the 12-bar blues form in E. One way to create a nice call-and-response is to play a short resolution into the downbeat of the first measure, and then, starting on the “and” of beat 1 in the A7 bar, do a longer resolution into the downbeat of the third measure, as shown in Example 5. This is a way that you can start to create some sense of logic and order in your solos without memorizing a bunch of licks or feeling like you’re completely winging it. Example 6 extends the concept to the first eight measures of the 12-bar structure. 


The last four bars of the form see the introduction of the V chord, B7, as shown in Example 7. If you want to resolve to the note B on the B7 chord, you can conveniently find it on the open second string. In this case, the resolution of the starting lick is delayed a bit, landing on the “and” of beat 3. The next lick starts a little earlier, on the “and” of beat 1 in the A7 measure, resolving to the E7 chord in the third bar.

So far you’ve played along with different kinds of resolutions—short, long, and delayed, coming to a rest on the third measure of four-bar chunks of the 12-bar form. But there’s all of this space at the end of the line, and you can fill it up to echo the answer heard in the third bar—see a couple of different possibilities for this idea in Examples 8 and 9, as well as a more elaborate move in Example 10.


These exercises give us a way to use a very small amount of information in constructing a solo that’s got a sense of momentum and some logic to it. Everything is connected, and you don’t feel like you need to make things up from scratch. Now string it all together over the full 12-bar form (Example 11), while adding some bluesy double stops in measures 3, 7, and 11–12.

In the next lesson, I’ll show you how to begin creating contrast by combining single-note licks with chords in the blues.

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

We hope you enjoyed the ninth lesson in 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar. We’ll be releasing a new lesson in this series each month. Can’t wait? Support Acoustic Guitar on Patreon and you’ll get access to all twelve video lessons right now!