There’s a common misconception that you need to suffer to play the blues on guitar. You have to be poor, broken hearted, or a victim of one bad circumstance or another if you can possibly hope to play the blues. While bad luck and hard times can certainly lend themselves to some of the emotion behind playing the blues, living a broken, destitute life is not a requirement for playing blues guitar.
Learning how to play blues guitar for beginners isn’t that difficult. There are plenty of websites, instructional materials, and guitar teachers who can show you the way. If learning from a book or a teacher isn’t your bag, you can purchase blues progression jam tracks and do what a lot of blues players do—improvise your own blues solos and blues licks.
Before you get started, however, it’s good to know the basic structure of the blues. There are several variations of the blue scale, but the major and minor blues scales are the scales most often used by musicians, even if they are playing by ear and don’t understand the theory behind what they’re doing.
A major blues scale is a major pentatonic with a flatted (lowered 3rd). The flatted third used in this scale is called the “blue” because it is the note that gives the characteristic sound of the blues when applied to a blues progression in the same key.
The minor blues scale is a six-note scale that contains a minor 3rd, minor 5th, and a minor 7th, meaning these notes are lowered, or flatted, in the scale. The pattern you use for a major or minor blues scale remains the same regardless of the key you play it in (determined by the root, or first, note of the scale you choose).
This seems like a lot of theory, but it isn’t that difficult to grasp once you get a handle on it. Start with a simple C-scale and write it out, making the notes flat at the appropriate degrees. This will give you the notes indicated. Now do this in another key and follow the same pattern to get the blues scales in that particular key.
Of course, you don’t have to analyze all of this theory in order to play the blues. In fact, some people believe that overthinking it takes away from the actual playing aspect of the blues. Think about B.B. King for a moment. Better yet, if you have the opportunity to listen to some of his stuff, do it. He wasn’t a technical player at all, but he could hear the notes and he could feel them. B.B. King could play one note and squeeze the life out of it to create a blues sound on his guitar that would bring a tear to your eye. The lesson in that is simple really. Train your ear to hear the sound of the blues and practice playing. Blues, at its most basic, is simple, emotional music.
Of course, in addition to the notes you play, you’ll want to work on some playing techniques that will help you deliver those notes. String bending is one technique you’ll hear used over and over again in blues guitar playing. Slide playing is another technique many blues players use to lend atmosphere to their playing. Practice using these techniques while you improvise (make up as you go along) solos and licks over a 12-bar blues progression and you’ll soon find yourself skillfully making your guitar sing the blues.
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