Getting a handle on the myriad styles of prewar blues guitarists such as Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, and Blind Blake can be daunting, to say the least. Each player had a signature sound, created by idiosyncratic right- and left-hand techniques, requiring careful study to master. While these players all used their picking-hand thumbs to some degree to create chugging rhythms, some would occasionally drop the bass pattern to emphasize the melodic phrases. These breaks were opportunities to create single-note runs that would have been difficult while fretting chords.
In this lesson we will look at three ways to play a 12-bar blues in the key of C major, through the lens of the old blues masters, so that you can ultimately incorporate more nuances into your playing. Along the way you will work on alternating-bass patterns, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and explore when and where the steady bass pattern—a staple of early country-blues guitarists—can be interrupted and replaced with single-note runs.
Week one: Get a Grip on 12-Bar Blues
In C, the 12-bar progression consists of three familiar chords: C (I), F (IV), and G7 (V). The version of F shown in Example 1 may be different from what you are used to. You will need to wrap your fretting hand’s thumb around the neck to fret the low F on string 6. This grip works better here than a standard six-string barre chord, as it frees up the fourth finger for chordal embellishments.
Example 2 gives you a two-bar fingerpicking pattern for a C chord, which you will use throughout the lesson. Note the characteristic syncopation—in the first measure, there’s a melodic note on the “and” of beat 3, while in the second bar there are notes on the “ands” of both 2 and 3. Pick the bass notes on strings 5 and 4 with your thumb (p), and use any combination of your index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers on strings 1–3. I tend to dedicate my index finger to string 3, middle to 2, and ring to 1. Many blues players, however, only used one or two fingers, plus the thumb, for fingerpicking.
Example 3 applies the same picking pattern to the F chord. If you have never used your thumb to fret string 6, this might prove a bit challenging. Pretend like you are gripping a shovel or rake; applying the proper amount of pressure to the strings is as much a matter of finding the grip that works for you as it is about developing strength. Both take time.
Example 4 applies the fingerpicking pattern to a G7 chord, while Example 5 takes you through the last four measures of a typical 12-bar blues. In this version, the chords change every measure. You should be able to move between chords without losing the bass pattern or timing. If you find this difficult, go slow; set a metronome at around 60 bpm and make sure you can keep the bass going as you move from chord to chord.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Try making the chord changes, but just play the bass pattern along with the metronome. This will give a you feel for the correct timing of the chords, without being overly concerned with getting all the picking down immediately.
Week Two: Keeping an Active Fretting Hand
It’s one thing to get the alternating bass down, but it takes another level of gymnastics to maintain an active fretting hand as you fingerpick. The next hurdle is to add chord extensions, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, which were used extensively by players such as Robert Johnson and John Hurt. This week’s examples will maintain the same rhythmic makeup as the previous patterns, but will add new notes to the chords.
The C chord in Example 6 has you using your fourth finger to grab the D note on string 2, fret 3. In the second measure of this example, notice that the fourth finger will come off the string and back on. Example 7 uses a hammer-on for the second-string D. Since you will be performing this maneuver with your fourth finger—the weakest digit—you might need to practice it a bit before it sounds good. I would advise “flicking” your finger onto the string, but don’t raise it too high, since the increased distance can lead to inaccuracy.
In Example 8, return to the F chord and use your fourth finger for a pull-off right off the bat. It helps to bear down on the strings you are playing and not worry as much about the other notes of the chord you are fretting. That being said, make sure that your first finger is barring the top three strings, so that you can perform the hammer-on in bar 2.
Example 9 once again takes you through the last four measures of a 12-bar sequence. You will need to move quickly between the chords as you play various hammer-ons and pull-offs. The pull-off on beat 1 requires a fairly challenging spread of the fingers. If it’s too difficult, try simply fretting the sixth string with your thumb and using your third and first fingers for the pull-off. This might also ease the transition to the F chord, which should be played with the thumb fretting the sixth string.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Practice hammer-ons and pull-offs independent of the song you are playing. For instance, take Example 7 and focus on the first two beats of measure 1. Keep repeating the two-beat segment until you can play it with confidence.
Week Three: Drop (Out) the Bass
Now that you have established a solid bass and created some interesting additions to the chords, it’s time to look at ways of letting the bass drop out to create breaks in the music. In Example 10, use double-stops to navigate a chord. You can hear phrases similar to this in Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Shuffle Rag.” Moves like this can be performed on any two strings between any two chord shapes, as shown in Example 11.
You can also use the chord shape as an outline for single-string runs. The lick in Example 12, for instance, implies an F7 chord. The third-fret D is bent a half step to Eb, which is the flatted seventh of the F chord. The hammer-on at the end of the first measure proceeds to spell out an F6 chord (F A C D). Similarly, the run in Example 13 descends through a G7 chord. Blind Blake would use runs like this throughout his playing.
Beginners’ Tip #3
If you take common chord shapes and break them up into pairs of adjacent strings, you will discover some interesting navigational tools that you can move up or down the fretboard to find new chord shapes.
Week Four: Evolving to the Final Form
Let’s put it all together in a piece I call “Evolution Blues.” Start out with the normal alternating bass over a C chord. Then, use your fourth finger to grab the second-string D. The second time you perform this maneuver, slide from the third to the fifth fret and play a descending run similar to Ex. 10, culminating in a C7 chord in measure 4. Break up the two bars of F into an alternating bass and single-string run, setting you up to do the same descending run over the C chord that you played in measure 3. Then, do some single-note runs over the G7 and F chords before playing a turnaround that toggles back and forth between C and G.
Since “Evolution Blues” ends on a G7 chord, you are invited to play subsequent verses until you are ready to resolve to a C chord. Try to invent some single-note runs based on chord shapes, as well as some ideas for navigating between two chord shapes using double-stops. Keep in mind, however, that you don’t want to fly up and down the fretboard. It’s better to stay in one place and find the shortest navigational route to the intended chord tones.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Use chord shapes as templates for single-string runs. For example, think of the top three notes of an open C chord as starting points for a run, and then walk to and from the chord tones with chromatic or scalar runs.
Take It to the Next Level
Since you have been working with I–IV–V chord changes, a logical next step would be to incorporate other changes, like this example’s ragtime blues progression: C–A7–D7–G. Start off with some basic alternating bass, add hammer-ons and pull-offs into the mix, and then try some single-note runs that allow you to maneuver from chord to chord.
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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 May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.