The traditional 12-bar blues progression involves a fixed 3-chord progression, a fixed 5-6 note scale, and similar rhythmic patterns. These simple elements serve as the foundation of countless iconic blues guitar songs.
The blues guitar is an influential style of contemporary rhythm guitar typically built around a 12-bar chord progression. Almost every subgenre of rock, from country to metal, incorporates some blues guitar.
To succeed as a blues guitar player, you should internalise the following three elements:
The 12-bar chord progression - The 12-bar blues is the backbone chord progression of not just blues music, but most rock music in general.
The minor pentatonic scale. Similarly, the minor pentatonic scale—a musical scale with five notes per octave, instead of the usual seven—is the most commonly used scale in blues, pop, and rock.
The blues scale. The blues scale is similar to the minor pentatonic scale, but adds one B5 interval for a total of six notes.
Chords are the building blocks in music. The easiest way to think of chords is like words on a page. When put together, the words will form a sentence. In turn, the sentences will form a book. Similarly, when put together, chords create chord progressions, and chord progressions create a song.
Guitar chord progressions are written in Roman numerals, utilising something called the Nashville numbering system, which categorises the scale degree on which a chord is created. For example: The I is the root note, and the base of the chord. The IV is the fourth note in a scale. The V is the fifth note in a scale.
One of the most popular chord progressions is the one-four-five-one progression, or I–IV–V–I. Each progression can be played in any key, which allows for different combinations and sounds.
The blues has its roots in African-American history, on the plantations of the deep South in the nineteenth century. As slaves and their descendants worked the plantations, they sang the music their ancestors had brought with them from Africa: a combination of chants, prayer songs, drum music, and rhythmic dance music.
The blues slowly evolved through the Mississippi Delta and into New Orleans, mingling and intertwining with jazz. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the blues spread past the South to the rest of America, morphing as it did into the different kinds of blues we recognise today: the Chicago blues, characterised by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and rock ‘n’ roll with the likes of Eric Clapton. Eventually, the message of the blues began to shift. What began as a form of lament and longing became something more positive and upbeat, representing hope and change.
Blues pioneers in the 1920s like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Charlie Patton performed solo with a guitar, usually in plantation camps and social gatherings. The idea of a blues band evolved slowly alongside the early jazz bands, adding instruments along the way, including mandolins, banjos, kazoos, stringed basses, harmonicas, fiddles, and washboards.
While the face of blues has changed, at its core, it remains strong in essentials: a storyteller and his or her guitar.