Learn how to play the blues while having fun right away!
Table of Contents
- Blues Shuffle Lesson (For Beginners)
- How to Play Bass Lines on Guitar (12 Bar Blues Bass Lines)
- Blues Boogie Woogie Lesson
- What’s Next?
I’m going to show you step-by-step how to start playing the blues…like, today. You won’t have to sit through a history lesson, a music theory class, or make a pilgrimage to the Mississippi Delta.
The blues is as simple as it is complex.
But learning how to play the blues doesn’t need to be complex.
There’s a common misconception when you start learning the guitar:
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wait.
Plain and simple.
Instead, we’re going to dive right into learning how to play the blues.
Furthermore, you’ll be learning plenty of technique and basics along the way. As you go through this lesson, you’ll start to feel more like a guitar player…
Let me explain what I mean by that.
I’m going to teach you three different variations on a song. As you move through the different variations, you’ll feel more comfortable picking, fretting, and playing in time.
In addition, you’re going to learn how to play a blues bassline. This can be a little uncomfortable at first — since you’re picking a single note on your guitar. But don’t worry, you’ll gain confidence quickly.
If you’ve already gone through the primer and you’re ready to start playing songs, let’s get started!
Blues Shuffle Lesson (For Beginners)
I NEED to tell you something.
If you want to learn the blues, one of the best places to start is with learning how to play a blues shuffle. By learning how to play the blues shuffle, you’re accomplishing a ton.
To get started, let’s talk about what exactly the blues shuffle is. You might not have heard the term “blues shuffle,” but I can guarantee you’ve heard it before.
By practicing the blues shuffle, you’re going to be learning fretting mechanics, the basics of rhythm, pattern recognition, and plenty more.
Fretting and Strumming Pattern
A blue shuffle can be intimidating when you first hear it. There’s movement, different strings, and a structure to remember.
I want you to know that it isn’t as hard as it seems.
Learning this shuffle is all about recognizing fretting patterns and applying them to different parts of the neck. What do I mean by that? I’ll show you!
(Don’t forget to maintain proper posture and don’t hold tension! Visit the guitar essentials primer if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about.)
To start the shuffle, know that you’re only going to be using your index finger and your ring finger to fret the strings.
You’re going to start by strumming just the low E string and the A string.
Here’s how to play the first part of the blues shuffle.
Time needed: 15 minutes.
How to play the blues shuffle
- Place your index finger on the 2nd fret of the A string.
Ensure that your fretting fingers are arched. Place your finger just behind the intended fret.
- Strum only the low E and A string two times using downstrokes with your pick.
Keep a steady rhythm when picking the strings.
- Place your ring finger on the 4th fret of the A string.
Maintain the arch in your ring finger. This will stop accidental muting of strings.
- Strum the low E and A string another two times
Again, make sure to use downstrokes with your pick. Keep a steady rhythm
- Repeat until you feel comfortable playing it at a consistent tempo.
It’s not a race! Make sure you feel confident playing just the E and A strings while also fretting the 2nd and 4th fret.
Now, I want you to stop reading. Spend some time getting comfortable switching fingers and keeping the rhythm consistent between the two notes. Remember, you’re not in a rush.
Don’t be concerned with how fast you’re playing. Instead, focus on proper fretting technique (see the primer for more information on that) and keeping a consistent rhythm.
You want to build confidence in both your picking and fretting hand, so don’t skip over this exercise.
Once you feel comfortable playing that part of the shuffle, you can apply this fretting pattern to other parts of the guitar. Specifically, the parts of the guitar that will allow you to play a 12-bar blues.
Practice Fretting and Learning the Fretboard with the Blues Shuffle
To start forming the 12-bar blues, I’m going to assign names to 3 different sections of the fretboard.
Our first position is going to be using the A and D strings. Now, do you remember the fretting pattern from the earlier exercise?
Apply that same pattern to the D string. Don’t forget to only play the A and D string, and place your first finger on the 2nd fret of the D string and then the 4th fret of the D string. It’s the same exact pattern as earlier, except you’ll move it one string up.
This is the first position you’ll use to play the 12-bar blues shuffle. Let’s call it the A section (since it starts on the A string).
Next, you’re going to be playing the D section. The D section starts on the D string and uses the same frets as the A section. But there is one small catch: it’s going to be played on the D and G strings only. Make sure you are fretting the G string for the D section.
The final section is the E section, which — you guessed it — starts on the low E string. Again, you’ll use the same frets as the other sections (2nd and 4th fret), but you’ll only be playing the low E and A strings. Make sure to fret the A string for the E section.
Did you notice that the E section is the same as the first exercise?
Putting the Blues Shuffle Together
As you start practicing the different sections of the blues shuffle, don’t let your technique slip up.
You’re going to need to be precise with your pick to ensure you aren’t picking other strings than the intended ones. In addition, you’re going to be building strength in your fretting hand.
As far as you’re posture goes, feel free to look down at the strings and fretboard as you play. I want you to feel comfortable playing these patterns. However, I don’t want you to make a habit of having your neck craned over the guitar at all times.
As long as you take it slow, focus on your technique, and learn each section of the blues shuffle, you’ll have the keys to success.
Learning the blues doesn’t happen in one day or overnight. The most important part is that you’re having fun, playing confidently, and playing cleanly.
Later on, I’ll show you how to put all these sections together to play a 12-bar blues soon, but I want to talk about playing bass lines first.
How to Play Bass Lines on Guitar (12 Bar Blues Bass Lines)
Learning how to play bass lines on guitar is all about learning pick direction. Once you feel comfortable with your pick direction, you can use these bass lines for a lead guitar part in a 12 bar blues or as a tool to better understand the blues.
You know those infectious grooves on classic blues songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor?” What if I told you that you could start playing those lines today?
The cool part about blues bass lines is how they are found in tons of music. It’s like buying a new car you’ve never seen before: once you are aware of the model, you start seeing them all over town! Blues bass lines are no different
The important thing to remember with 12 bar blues bass lines is the pick direction. That being said, this lesson will focus on pick direction.
I am going to frame the lesson within the context of learning a 12 bar blues bass line on guitar.
Playing Bass Lines on Guitar
I know what you’re thinking. You just started guitar — and if that wasn’t enough already — and now you’re learning bass lines.
I’m here to tell you that just because you started playing guitar that doesn’t mean you can’t play something fun. And let me tell you, blues bass lines are extremely fun to play on guitar.
This lesson will focus on learning a blues bass line. In addition, we’ll focus on fretting mechanics and pick direction. At the end of the day, there’s no reason we can’t play something fun while still learning the basics!
The blues bass line I’ll teach you today starts in the middle of the fretboard. It may seem like scary territory, but I’ll walk you through each section.
Keep in mind that all of the fretted notes will either be on your index finger or your ring finger. Meanwhile, your pick is going to maintain a constant down and up motion.
- Place your index finger on the 5th fret of the low E string. Do a downstroke and an upstroke on that string.
- Then, use your ring finger on the 7th fret of the D string. With your pick, do a downstroke and an upstroke on the D string.
- After that, fret the 5th fret of the D string with your index finger. Perform a down and upstroke on the 5th fret of the D string.
- Finally, place your ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string. And yes, you guessed it, do a downstroke and an upstroke while fretting the 7th fret of the A string.
Before you continue with this lesson, make sure you practice this pattern. I want you to feel comfortable fretting this pattern and maintaining proper pick directions.
The Full 12 Bar Blues (Same Pattern, but Different Places)
Now that you feel comfortable with the basic blues bass line, we can talk about playing the full 12 bar blues bass line.
Fortunately, the pattern is the same throughout the 12 bar blues. The only difference is that we change where we play the pattern.
The pattern that we learned just before this part of the lesson is the first part of the 12 bar blues. Let’s call this section the A section. In a 12 bar blues, this is played for 4 measures (complete the pattern 4 times since each time through the pattern is a measure long).
The next section is called the D section. The pattern is going to be exactly the same, except the pattern moves over one string. So, instead of starting on the 5th fret of the low E string, start on the 5th fret of the A string.
- Place that index finger on the 5th fret of the A string. Then, downstroke and upstroke.
- Ring finger on the 7th fret of the G string. Execute a downstroke and upstroke.
- After that, fret the 5th fret of the G string with your index finger. Downstroke and upstroke.
- Finally, place your ring finger on the 7th fret of the D string. Downstroke and upstroke.
The D section is played for two measures. This means that you play the pattern at the D section two times through. After that, return back to the A section and play it for two measures, or two patterns through.
After that, you’re going to play the E section. The E section starts on the 7th fret of the A string. Now that you’re familiar with the pattern, I’m going to simplify how I write it. Don’t forget to perform even downstrokes and upstrokes for each note
- Index finger, 7th fret of the A string.
- Ring Finger, 9th fret of the G string.
- Index Finger, 7th fret of the G string.
- Ring Finger, 9th fret of the D string.
Be aware of the pattern. It’s the same pattern, but I’m moving it to three different sections of the fretboard.
Blues Chord Progression (Explained)
Like I said earlier, playing the 12 bar blues on guitar can be simple or as complex as you want it to be. Here’s the breakdown for the 12 bar blues chord progression.
(Note #1: I’m using the section names instead of chords to make things easier.)
(Note #2: The measures — or bars — are represented by the corresponding number…so, by the end, you should see 12 bars representing the 12 bar blues)
If you play the blues bassline pattern I showed you for each section in the prescribed order, congratulations — you just played the 12 bar blues!
To further develop your confidence, make sure you play through this 12 bar blues. You should be able to loop it over and over. The goal is comfort and confidence rather than speed.
Make sure your pick direction alternates between downstrokes and upstrokes. Also, focus on accurately fretting the guitar while maintaining an even tempo.
Blues Boogie Woogie Lesson
It’s time to boogie. I know you just started playing guitar, but I think it’s time to start boogie-ing (is that a word?).
You’re going to learn how to play something that sounds really, truly cool. But just like our other lessons, you’re also going to practice pick direction, pick accuracy, and fretting hand strength and confidence.
As far as how the blues boogie improves your fretting hand, it works out every single finger — even your pinky!
Similar to how we learned blues bass lines to play a 12 bar blues, the blues boogie is another pattern that is applied to different sections of the fretboard. Also, like the blues bass lines, the boogie uses alternating downstrokes and upstrokes.
To start, let’s focus on the pattern. I’ll denote (1) pick direction, (2) fretting finger used, and (3) which fret to play and string.
- Downstroke, open low E string
- Upstroke, middle finger, 3rd fret of the low E string
- Downstroke, ring finger, 4th fret of the low E string
- Upstroke, first finger, 2nd fret of the A string
- Downstroke, ring finger, 4th fret of the A string
- Upstroke, pinky finger, 5th fret of the A string
After getting to the 5th fret of the A string, you’ll descend the same way you went up the pattern. Don’t forget to alternate your pick direction!
Again, make sure you feel comfortable playing this pattern. In the next section, you’ll be playing the pattern in different places on the fretboard.
Applying the Blues Boogie to Create the 12 Bar Blues
The boogie pattern you just learned started on the low E string. For that reason, we are going to call that section the E section.
The next part of the 12 bar blues starts on the A string. It’s the exact same pattern but moved up one string. We’ll call this the A section. See if you can figure it out without me telling you.
Now, do you remember how there were three sections that made up a 12 bar blues? The exact same concept applies to the blues boogie.
You’ll have three sections, organized in a certain way so that it adheres to the 12 bar blues progression.
Oh, and I almost forgot — there’s one more section: the D section. Again, this is going to be the same pattern, just starting on the D string. It uses the same frets and fingers as the other patterns, just starting on different strings.
Finally, here’s the 12 bar blues progression using our different sections.
- A section
- A section
- A section
- A section
- D section
- D section
- A section
- A section
- E section
- D section
- A section
- A section
And just like that, you have played the 12 bar blues progression on guitar! More importantly, you’ve gained valuable confidence and experience with both your fretting hand and picking hand.
In addition, you have two blues bass lines you can play on guitar through an entire 12 bar blues.
And don’t forget to show this to your friends and family. After all, this might be the first blues song you learned! Give yourself a pat on the back!
Remember, if you are ever unsure about how to hold a pick or any technique questions, be sure to visit my guitar essentials primer. As always, you can also return to the start of The Ultimate Guide to Learning Guitar.
My goal is always for you to have fun while learning and playing the guitar. If you are having trouble with the exercises or you need more guidance, there’s an expanded version of this entire guide available here.
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Now, if you’re ready to continue with The Ultimate Guide to Learning the Guitar, click here to go to the chords lesson.