Many guitarists talk about finding their own voice on the instrument. This is a noble concept, but how does one go about doing so? Producing something unique out of thin air can seem like a daunting task. However, it’s a blues tradition to combine licks and phrases from other players to produce personalized musical statements. If you look to the masters for inspiration—without copying them note for note—you can produce blues verses and solos that sound fresh and exciting. The more sources you can quote, the more original you will sound.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
In this lesson we will use the classic 12-bar blues form in the key of A major to explore phrases from players like Robert Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as ideas constructed from scales and chord shapes. Putting the phrases in this context will not just provide great guitar workouts but spur your exploration of blues tropes.
Week One: Starting the 12-Bar Blues
The structure of the 12-bar blues can be seen as three distinct four-bar sections. In the simplest form of the first four bars, the I chord is the foundation. The second four measures offer a combination of the IV and I chords, and the final four introduce the V to the mix. This week, we’ll focus on the first four bars.
Example 1 lays out a very basic two-string shuffle rhythm that should sound very familiar, as it has been played by countless blues and rock guitarists over the years. Play this pattern—as well as the other examples in this lesson—with a swing feel: Think of each beat as having a long-short feel to it, where the first eighth note of the beat is about twice as long as the second.
In a different direction, Example 2 shows how Robert Johnson approached these four measures on songs like “Preachin’ Blues,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” and “32-20 Blues”—all of which used a similar style of rhythm. Pay attention to the decreasing distance between the A7 and Adim7 chords as the section progresses.
Inspired by the work of Mance Lipscomb, Example 3 shows how the Texas bluesman often used a monotonic bass in conjunction with a long A chord shape, fretted with the first finger barring the top four strings and the fourth finger reaching up to the fifth-fret A on string 1. This phrase involves lifting the fingers off the strings and placing them back down and sliding into the chord shape.
In Example 4, a series of dyads (two-note chords) is used to negotiate the A7 chord. The first dyad consists of the notes C# and E; this shape is moved chromatically down the fretboard until it reaches the second fret, landing on the A–C# dyad, which you might recognize as a fragment of an open A chord.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Make sure to listen to as many blues guitarists as you can and copy their moves. Then, try combining phrases from different players in the same song.
Week Two: Finishing the 12-Bar Blues
This week, you’ll work on the second section of the 12-bar form (bars 5–8), which features the IV chord (D7) for the first two measures and the I for the last two. Since you have already practiced several different ways of handling the I, the examples focus on bars 5–6; to form the complete second section, just borrow two measures of any of the approaches from the previous week to play after the D7 bars.
The pattern of Example 5 is identical to that of Ex. 1, but transposed up a fourth, or shifted over one string pair, for the D7 chord. In Example 6, which is inspired by Robert Johnson and other blues guitarists, placing the D7 chord’s third (F#) in the bass lends a cool flavor. I recommend wrapping your thumb around the neck to fret this note, freeing up your fingers for embellishments.
With a more lick-based approach, Example 7 is inspired by what Mance Lipscomb played on his song “Captain, Captain!” Fret the D chord with your second and third fingers on strings 1 and 2, respectively, leaving your first finger free for the quick hammer-on/pull-off move on the high E string. In this and other D chord examples in this lesson you will notice that the bass note is A rather than D. Many blues players used the fifth (A) in the bass for D-chord sequences, perhaps because the open A string has a little more thump to it than the open D.
In Example 8, which is inspired by Lightnin’ Hopkins, the third is once again played as the lowest note, with triplets above based on the D7 chord’s flatted seventh (C) and fifth (A). End the week with Example 9, similar to the pattern you learned for the I chord in Ex. 4, but played higher up the neck with dyads that imply D7.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Identify several different ways to play a I–IV–V progression in a given key. If needed, consult a chord dictionary for some new shapes to incorporate in your playing.
Week Three: Harmonizing the 12-Bar Blues
The harmony moves more quickly in the last section of the basic 12-bar blues form (bars 9–12): V–IV–I–V, one chord per measure. The last two bars of this section usually constitute what is known as a turnaround, as the V chord brings it all back to the I at the beginning of the repeating form.
Example 10 uses the shuffle pattern from previous weeks on the V, IV, and I chords. For a contrasting flavor, the last measure of this sequence is a simple single-note walkup, from A to E, on strings 5 and 4. The Robert Johnson–style sequence played in Example 11 starts with an E7 chord, played by simply fretting the second string at the third fret, followed by the D7/F# chord. For the final two bars, which contain a typical Johnson turnaround, fret the high A with your fourth finger, using your other available fingers for the descending bass line.
Example 12 shows how Lipscomb tended to approach the last four bars of the 12-bar form. Note the use of both the bluesy minor third (F) and the major third (F#) on the D chord. On beat 1, fret the F with your first finger, hammering on the F# with your second finger. The last two bars of this example stay on the I chord (A), rather than finishing with the V (E), a common harmonic variation.
Using chord shapes preferred by players like Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Example 13 kicks off with a dyad, B–D, that implies an E7 chord. Move that shape down two frets, add a low F#, and you’ve got a D7/F# chord. Play the A7 chord by barring strings 3 and 4 with your first finger at fret 2, and grab the third-fret C and fourth-fret C# with your third and fourth fingers, respectively, for a John Lee Hooker–style boogie move.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Break up larger chord shapes into two- or three-note voicings. Try moving chromatically (i.e., in half steps) between different shapes to create cool chord phrases.
Week Four: Exploring 12-Bar Blues Combinations
Once you’ve worked through the various phrases for each four-measure section of the 12-bar blues form, you can pick and choose which ones you like best, and explore different combinations. I’ve done just that for Example 14, which starts out with a Robert Johnson–style A-chord pattern before switching to a Mance Lipscomb–inspired phrase in the third bar.
The Lipscomb influence continues through the IV chord in bars 5–6, but then moves to a dyad-based phrase for the I in measure 7. The last four bars return to Lipscomb territory, and then back to the chord-based phrase for the turnaround. How does this exercise sound and feel to you? Feel free to make some tweaks to the phrases or add a note or two here and there to make it your own.
Beginners’ Tip #4
When playing against a steady quarter-note bass line, try mixing up different rhythms—quarter notes, eighths, and eighth-note triplets—in the melody.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area–based guitarist, author, and educator who specializes in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.