Blues Guitar for Beginners: Basic Scales and Theory
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 is makes it a 5-tone scale (octave makes 6 tones) rather than 7 tones like a diatonic scale (ocatave 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 through 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 Penatatonic.
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 play, practice, listen, and start back over again. But it’s more than that. Leon Redbone said the blues aint 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!
Your Opinion: Music Theory and the Blues
Will learning music theory make you a better blues player?
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 blues man! 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:
- Here I share my technique for writing guitar solos and improvising. Of course you need to learn some scales, but there are a few other things you can do to get better at soloing. If you play the blues, the ability to improvise solos is an important part of your style.
- If some of the scales and theory in this article seemed a little confusing, check out on 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.