I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Blues guitar is a style that either grabs you or doesn’t. Some people simply don’t get it, where others are bitten from the beginning and driven to become the best blues musicians they can be.
When it comes to guitar players, even those who really aren’t into the blues have a fair amount of respect for the genre and some of the amazing guitarists that have come and gone over the years. It doesn’t matter if you like the blues or not, if you’re a beginning guitarist you’ll soon realize that learning how to play some blues can have a huge impact on your playing.
When you think of the blues you may think of the slick style of B.B. King, or the fuzz-infused sounds of Jimi Hendrix, or the shuffling Texas style of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Or, you may go way back to Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson. Music from bands like the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top is largely based on the blues, and even some pop stars like John Mayer are accomplished blues guitar players.
Those are all easy examples, but in reality, the blues is everywhere, and rock music leans on it like a crutch. Blues guitar permeates almost every rock and roll sub-genre, from country to metal and everything in between.
If you want to be a better guitar player, teach yourself some blues. Your improvisational skills will improve, you’ll have a better command of the fretboard and you’ll even improve your ear. You might also have some fun if you're not careful!
This article is a very basic primer to get beginners started with blues guitar.
Basics of the Blues Guitar for Beginners
Blues music is a derivation of jazz and usually based around a 12-bard chord progression. Rhythmically, it’s a very predictable style. Theoretically, there are two basic pieces of information you need to understand to play the blues on the guitar: the 12-bar chord progression, and the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
The 12-bar Blues
This chord progression is the backbone of most blues music. Truly, it is the base of rock music in general. Once you get it down, you can move it around to any key. Whether you’re playing slick Chicago Blues, sweaty Delta Blues or SRV’s shuffling Texas style the 12-bar blues chord progression will be the base of your music.
Boring? Maybe a little, but think of it as a foundation of a house that everything else is built upon. This foundation might be basic but it is strong, and there have been some incredible musicians over the decades who made their careers soloing over the 12-bar blues.
You can worry about the theory behind it later. For now, just get an idea of what the 12-bar blues progression is supposed to sound like.
Super-Easy 12-Bar Blues Introduction Lesson
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
There are many important scales to learn as a guitarist, but none more important than Pentatonic Minor. The minor pentatonic scale is a derivative of the natural minor scale, excluding the 2nd and 6th tones. This makes it a 5-tone scale (octave makes 6 tones) rather than 7 tones like a diatonic scale (octave makes 8 tones).
Don’t understand what I just said? That’s okay. Don’t care? Even better.
Your poor attitude toward music theory won’t stop you from being a good blues guitarist. In fact, many blues musicians throughout history couldn’t even read music.
But that doesn’t mean they’re clueless. Every one of those guys knew the Pentatonic Minor scale patterns like the backs of their hands. There are five positions of the scale, as there are for most scales.
For the sake of your sanity, all five positions aren't going to be presented here. But you can take a look at the diagram below to get an idea of what Pentatonic Minor looks like on the fingerboard. In this case, F Minor Pentatonic.
The root notes are in red (F). Remember that a Pentatonic scale is only five notes, not eight, so the actual scale is one red dot and the four black ones that follow. The scale begins again with the next red dot.
This is only one of five patterns you should learn to use around the fingerboard, but it is a great place to start learning blues guitar for beginners.
The Blue Note
There is another side to Pentatonic Minor, a one-note addition that makes a world of difference. It is played the same as Pentatonic Minor, with the addition of a flattened 5th tone. The addition of the flat-5 or “blue” note gives the scale that bluesy feel that’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you hear it. This scale is sometimes called the “blues scale” and again there are 5 patterns to learn.
As with the Pentatonic Minor scale, don’t kill yourself trying to understand the theory. What is important is to know the patterns and what key they are in. Again, many blues players learned by ear, and eventually developed an instinct for theory rather than a book-learned perspective.
Remember when we talk about a flattened 5th tone we are referencing the major scale, not Pentatonic Minor. Here is the same F minor Pentatonic scale as above with the addition of the "blue" note. (In blue, of course.).
Wrapping Your Mind Around Music Theory
Can’t stand the weather? Feel like you’re in a purple haze? Is the thrill gone when you start thinking about music theory and all these scales?
Guitarists who get a little itchy whenever they try to understand theory should check out the book Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards. Edwards explains in refreshing and easy to understand terms how to find any chord or scales anywhere on the guitar neck.
Think of this as a shortcut for finding your way around the guitar. Of all the lessons I've read over thirty years of playing, this book helped me put things in perspective more than anything else.
Putting the BluesTogether
While the importance of theory has been downplayed in this article, you can’t get around knowing the basics. Memorize the 12-bar blues in different keys, learn the different scale patterns, and know the notes of the fretboard. In time you’ll start to see how it all fits together.
Eventually, you should be able to hear a chord progression and solo over it without much thought. Learning to improvise is an enormous part of being a good blues guitarist. This skill doesn’t come overnight, but only from hours of the right kind of practice.
The Right Kind of Practice
In the old days, blues musicians learned from jamming with other musicians, trading tips and watching others perform. If you want to be a good blues guitarist, you have to do it the same way. Fortunately, today we have many resources to help connect with other musicians and learn the ropes.
Jamming with other musicians is probably the best way to hone your chops. Get together with anyone you can tolerate and play. Even if they aren’t blues-oriented musicians, you can still work out your scales and chords and get some experience playing with others.
Playing along with recordings is another great way to improve. Not so long ago, the thing to do was record yourself playing a chord progression, then play it back and work on your solos. Today, there all kinds of tools out there that can provide backing music and help improve your playing.
The Next Step
To be a good blues guitarist you have to play, practice, listen and start back over again. But it’s more than that. Leon Redbone said the blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling bad. When you think about it that way, it’s not really about music at all. It’s about expressing what’s inside you – whether sadness or joy – and putting your experiences out there for others to relate to.
If you spend the time learning the basics of blues guitar your playing will improve, even if you are not a blues guitarist. Lead guitar players in country, rock, and metal are hugely influenced by blues, and if you specialize in one of these genres the time you spend on the blues will be well worth it.
Good luck and have fun!
Learn More About How to Learn Blues Guitar for Beginners
No matter your style as a guitar player, you always have to keep learning. This even applies to the irreverent bluesman! And, if you play other styles, working on your blues playing can help you get better too.
Here are a few more articles that can help:
- If some of the scales and theory in this article seemed a little confusing, check out on this article of the Fretboard Logic Series. This is a book that really helped me put the fretboard together in a way I could grasp. If gives you a system for finding your way around, and understating how scales and chords fit together.
- Here are some suggestions on the best ways to learn about the nuts and bolts of guitar playing. Every player needs to find their own path, but there are some tried and true methods you should consider before heading off into uncharted guitar territory.
Your Opinion: Music Theory and the Blues
Barbe Sarachman on August 02, 2019:
Thank you so much for the basic blue scale diagrams it's what I have been looking for!
Atad Atzmon on June 30, 2019:
calvinpassal on November 30, 2017:
theory is good for a start but actual is the best if you want to learn.
Ddog666 on October 19, 2015:
You're welcome, Guitar Gopher. It's an uphill struggle, but worth it. Because the incremental improvements seem so few and far between, I can see why so many give up at this stage. I'm loving it though, particularly that I'm re-engaging with great music, but from a more analytical perspective.
Thank you for the valuable content you provide!
Michael James (author) on October 19, 2015:
Very encouraging, Ddog666! Thanks for adding your comment! I can't imagine my life without guitar, and I agree that nothing can beat that feeling you get from playing music.
Ddog666 on October 17, 2015:
@loveofnight; I see your comment is a couple of years old, but I will comment anyway. I am 46 and only started learning guitar a few months ago. I'm not sure how old you are, but just go for it! It's frustrating at the start and will probably continue to be frustrating for some time, but when you start hitting the right notes, nothing can beat that high (for me anyway)... It's so worth it! Get yourself a guitar and just take it one step at a time... Good luck :)
Michael James (author) on October 11, 2013:
Thanks loveofnight. You're never too old to learn something new, and guitar is very rewarding. If you want to learn you should do it! You won't regret it.
loveofnight from Baltimore, Maryland on October 10, 2013:
This is an instrument that I have often wanted to learn how to play. I was going to say that I am too old now but you make it look and sound so easy. A well developed hub indeed, thanks for the info.