Blues 101

Got a good one for you for you here,  In fact, we’ll be taking a look at the blues over the next few weeks…so strap your self in and let’s go!

Here’s a frequently asked question; who ranks as the greatest guitarist the world has ever seen?

Well if this question is asked in the company of one or more guitarists, chances are it’ll turn into a pretty intense argument. Could even end up in a fight. Happily, there are many reputable publications that have tried to answer this question for us all.

Rolling Stone, Guitar World and TIME are three magazines which have reached their own conclusions about the top 100 players in the world, either through genuine expert opinion (and having people like Kirk Hammett and Brian May on your judging panel basically makes it a peer review) or democratic voting by their readers. So, we can safely assume their published results can’t be described as ‘fake news’. What a refreshing change in this day and age.

So – who is the best?

We’re sooooooooo not going to answer that! Partly because if our answer doesn’t match yours then this may be the last time you read our articles. And mostly because opinion is divided – even between the three prestigious journals mentioned above. But a few names do crop up more than once in their different top 10s…

Eddie Van Halen, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton all feature twice. Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix (James seems to be a popular name for guitarists) score a perfect three each.

What links these heroes of the guitar, these musical giants, these inspirations to us all? Well, to a lesser or greater extent, either directly or through their own main personal influences, they are ALL blues players.

Really? Hendrix was a blues guitarist?

If you want to be entirely accurate, Hendrix was a genius. That’s why there are statues of the man in Seattle and on the Isle of Wight. But yes, his style of playing owed more to the blues than anything else. It was louder, faster, more distorted, and involved a much greater fire risk (the early blues players tended not to burn their instruments on-stage at the end of a gig) but it was still blues playing at the core

B.B. King was a blues player. Clapton and Beck are still blues players. Chuck Berry invented rock n’ roll by listening to the blues. Keith Richards and Jimmy Page developed their sound from listening to people like Chuck Berry (along with the blues players that HE listened to). Van Halen – well actually he began his musical journey playing classical piano. But then he picked up the guitar and started playing along to Clapton.

So, the blues is a big deal?

Some would say it’s the biggest of deals – particularly in the history of popular music. Blues originally led directly to both jazz and rock n’ roll, and onward through rock, metal, funk, you name it. The incredible diversity of the sounds pumping through our world today genuinely owes more to the blues than any other basic concept in music.

And it’s a style of music perfectly suited to the guitar, which played just as important a part in blues development as the piano, banjo, trumpet and all the rest. Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other early blues guitarists were among the pioneers that would shape our radio waves for decades to come.

So, it’s worth learning, right?

Absolutely. And if you need an excuse then try this; it’s actually pretty easy to nail the basics.

Like all styles of music, a comprehensive study of the blues could take as long as you want. There are hundreds of books and online resources covering everything from the history to the harmony – you can even work towards a postgraduate qualification at a number of colleges and universities around the world. Just imagine being able to legitimately call yourself a “Blues Professor”.

Or you could just decide to keep things nice and simple by concentrating on how to play a blues melody and how to strum through a blues chord sequence. And these basics might be all you ever need.

Melody: The Blues Scale

Mentioning ‘scales’ to many beginning musicians can result in facial expressions ranging from boredom to panic. But this really isn’t necessary with the blues scale – it’s just so simple.

First, we start with a standard minor pentatonic scale – in this case starting on E.

Very straightforward – and it already sounds pretty ‘bluesy’ if you walk up, down and all around it. The one magical ingredient that gives you the blues scale is a flattened 5th added to the mix…

Delicious! You’re still not moving beyond the third fret, you can manage the whole thing with only three fingers, but this one subtle addition has made all the difference to the way it feels. And look at it on the TAB – how much easier could a scale actually get? The blues could almost have been custom-designed for guitarists.

And here’s the truly beautiful thing; these are basically the only notes you need for an E blues solo. Spend some time riffing up and down all over it and you’ll see what we mean.

Chord sequence: The 12-bar Blues

“12-bar Blues? I’m sure I’ve heard that term used somewhere?” Yeah, we’re sure you have as well. It’s without a doubt the most common structure for popular music tunes EVER, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

One of the characteristics of blues music is that it tends to feature a repeating pattern of chords throughout. None of your ‘intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro’ pop-song construction nonsense here, but a simple sequence over and over, using lyrics and solos to keep the interest alive.

The 12-bar is definitely the most typical tune structure in blues, and (as its name suggests) just means you’re working through a pattern of chords over 12 bars of music. We’ve got two versions of that pattern right here, expressed differently. The example on the left shows a 12-bar structure displaying chords as degrees of the scale. The example on the right shows the exact same thing, but spelling those chords out for you.

 V V I I B A E E


Is this sounding a bit too much like music theory? Thought so.

So, let’s write it out properly, using chord slashes. We’ll keep it in E but throw in a few 7th chords as well.

Run through that over and over, and hey presto, you’ve played the blues. Told you it was simple, didn’t I!

The school bell is ringing

Ok, that’ll do for the moment. As mentioned earlier, this is the absolute basics. But for this truly wonderful kind of music, the basics might be all you ever need.

Blues 101 is concluded for today. Class dismissed – until next week, that is!

As always, stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

Editor's Picks


  • Jim

    Scrapper Blackwell..?Listen to him,and you’ll hear bits and pieces of literally everyone..

  • Bob
    Where are the pictures?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing