You want to combine the bass and treble voices in your fingerpicked blues to add complexity.
Establish an alternating bass with your thumb and then use various patterns to create the treble/melody voice. A few exercises will establish the muscle memory that will help you keep track of the bass patterns played with melody. Take that pattern and turn it into a basic 12-bar blues.
Here are a few ideas for those of you who love the sound of players like Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, or any number of Delta and Piedmont blues players, but have struggled to keep the solid alternating bass lines these players employ to give their music the drive that we all love.
1. Establish the bass
First off, you will want to feel comfortable using your thumb to play an alternating bass pattern. In Ex. 1 through Ex. 9, you will be playing an open G chord. Start out by just playing the bass notes on the sixth and fourth strings with your thumb as demonstrated in Ex 1. Play those notes on the downbeat; you should be counting “1, 2, 3, 4,” and tapping your foot. Every time you play a bass note, your foot will be striking the floor. This shouldn’t give you too much trouble, but if it does, try tapping your foot while tapping out a rhythm with your fingers on your guitar or your knee.
2. Dedicate each pick-hand finger to a particular treble string
Many original country-blues guitarists fingerpicked with just their thumb (p) and index (i) fingers, but for this lesson you’ll also use your middle (m) and ring (a) fingers. This will give you more flexibility for playing other styles and help you with techniques like banjo-type rolls. Assign your index finger to string 3, middle to string 2, and ring to string 1. There will be times when you will want to alter which finger plays which string, but in the beginning it’s helpful to establish this particular framework.
3. Play on the beat
In Ex. 2 to Ex. 9 keep the alternating bass, but incorporate the top three strings. Ex. 2 has us playing the first and sixth strings simultaneously on the first beat—we call this a “pinch.” In Ex. 3, add another note in the treble voice on the third beat with the second string. And in Ex. 4, pinch notes on every beat.
4. Play in between the beat
Now that you have warmed up with pinches on every beat, it is time to play treble notes in between the beats. In Ex. 5 you will still be playing the alternating bass between the sixth and fourth strings, but adding in the first string between each bass note. Count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” as you play this exercise. In Ex. 6 play the same rhythm but switch between different treble strings.
5. Combine pinches and between-the-beat notes
In Ex. 7 you come to the nitty gritty of fingerpicked blues, in which you combine pinched notes and treble notes played between the beat. Remember, you are still keeping the same alternating bass pattern and everything else hangs on that. Count the rhythm: “1, 2, 3, and 4.” Pinch on the second beat and then play in between the beat on the third. Ex. 8 has you pinching on beat 1 and playing in between on 2 and 3.
For Ex. 9 through Ex. 12 you will switch to a C chord and try out the same techniques as you did for G. Ex. 9 establishes the bass pattern; Ex. 10 incorporates pinches, Ex. 11 plays in between the notes, and Ex. 12 combines pinches as well as in-between notes.
6. Put it all together
Now you can play a complete 12-bar blues (Ex. 13). I have written this out so that you are playing repeating two-bar rhythmic patterns. For example, look at the first two bars of the verse, and count out the rhythm: “1, 2, 3, and 4 … 1, 2, and 3 and 4.” That pattern repeats every two bars.
This should help anchor you as you make your way through the progression. The D chord in Ex. 9 though Ex. 12 should not give you a problem—you will be alternating open-string bass notes between the fifth and fourth strings. Keep in mind, this is a very basic pattern and as you make your way into playing songs there will be many other techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and rhythmic variations that are based on melody and not patterns.
As you progress and start learning alternating-bass blues songs, try to break them down into the essential elements; warm up the left hand by just strumming the chords. Then try playing just the bass notes for a given 12-bar verse. Think of the bass pattern as the glue that holds everything together and you will be on solid ground.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.