How to Play Blues Guitar

Photo credit: Chris Moseman

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 3 – Ladies Rock the Blues – June 2018

Do you get inspired by blues artists like Sue Foley, Jackie Venson, Ana Popovic or the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Do you want to experiment with blues sounds in your guitar playing and songwriting, but don’t know where to start? I will help you make that happen in this video lesson and article. I am an Americana recording artist, guitar instructor, and author of the book, Women’s Road to Rock Guitar.  

Three Ways to Get a Bluesy Sound

Here, I am going to show you how to play dominant seventh chords and the blues scale and share some great tips on how to do string bends — these are the three most essential parts of blues guitar playing.    

Dominant Seventh Chords

The heart of the blues sound is rooted in ‘‘7th chords’’ (their formal name is dominant seventh chords). You’ll hear them in blues songs like ‘‘See See Rider’’ by Ma Rainey or the Sippie Wallace/Bonnie Raitt duet “Women Be Wise.’’ 

Without going into music theory, 7th chords are like major chords with one specific extra tone that give them a very distinctive color. 

If you know how to play some basic open chords like A, D and E, it’s easy to learn A7, D7 and E7 — see the chord diagrams below:

You can look up more of these 7th chords online or in a chord book. If you’re comfortable with playing barre chords, you’ll easily learn the dominant seventh versions.  

The Blues Scale

In the blues, many of the song melodies, guitar riffs and solos are based on the blues scale. In the video lesson, I will show you how to play the blues scale in the key of A. I start it on the fifth fret of the low E-string (the 6th string). Pay close attention to which finger I use to play each note:

5th fret notes: index finger

6th fret: middle finger

7th fret: ring finger

8th fret: pinkie

Note: I am right-handed, so I use my left hand to fret the notes and right hand to hold the pick. If you use a regular guitar, do the same. But if you play a lefty guitar, use your right hand to fret the notes.

Here’s a TAB showing the same blues scale in A that I play in the video: 

Blue Notes and String Bends

String bends are easier to learn by watching my video lesson. Bends are the guitar player’s way of mimicking a singer’s voice. It’s a very expressive technique that adds a lot of color and emotion to your playing. Some of these bent notes are often described as ‘‘blue notes.’’ 

By bending a note, you’re raising its pitch — how much depends on how widely you bend the string. There are quarter step, half step, whole step and even larger bends.

If you’re totally new to string bends, it’s easiest to try a quarter step bend on the low E string or the A string. 

When you bend notes on the two lowest strings, you want to do the bend downward, away from you (otherwise you might push the string off the fretboard).

In blues soloing, you’ll often bend notes on the higher/thinner strings. Because these strings are tighter, you want to use three fingers to do the bend (instead of just one). On these strings, you’ll bend the string upward, towards you. 

If you have the digital version of our magazine, watch the video as I walk you through these different bends. If you have our print version, check out our website under our Lessons tab to view this and other videos.