Blues Chord Progression - The Roots Of The Blues Chords
It's probable that the first blues chords were not even in standard tuning, given the first tentative attempts to make music were almost certainly tried on home made instruments with less than six strings. Of course, the typical blues chord progression would still follow the basic rules, but the shapes and way of playing would have been very different.
For this post I'm going to be talking about blues progression chords that are pretty standard fare for a six string guitar in regular tuning, that is E, A, D, G, B & E. Early stringed instruments were probably very low quality to start with. It's probable that the first roots music came out of the Mississippi Delta, so the hot and humid weather conditions would have made it very difficult to keep any kind of instrument in tune.
This is why the first sounds were bottleneck or slide in open G, or open D. Open tunings were more intuitive and the slide technique of playing, where the bottleneck 'slides' up to the note, meant that the guitar didn't have to be precisely tuned.
It's a long page, so please review the content menu below - I start from the very basics, so if you already know these, then use that menu to navigate to the section that interests you, if you are at a more advanced level.
Blues Guitar Chord Progressions
Of course, you can play the blues in any key (if you really wanted to!) and the complexity would depend on your style, but I'm going to focus on the keys of E and A for the most part. Although not couched in technical terms (because I don't really know any) the same chord groups work for the 8 / 12 bar blues progression, although in slightly different configuration. Inevitably, I'll draw heavily on the work of the classic acoustic blues men such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson.
The basic blues chord progression in the key of E
First off, let's take a look at the basic chords and then examine the blues guitar chord progressions for 'Woman Called Mary' by Lighntin' Hopkins, and 'Key To The Highway' Big Bill Broonzy style. These early pre-war blues songs generally started out with an intro that was an embellished form of the verse, to generate interest and set the stage, so to speak, for the lyrics, or story, to follow.
Many songs also featured one or two musical breaks during which the basic chords might be converted to chord inversions higher up the fret board to provided variation. Often, half chords were used, so that basic chords, full inversions and single string runs adapted from both were combined for that extra exciting appeal. Bear in mind that these guys were fingerpicking sometimes complex patterns which tended to be 'dumbed down' while they sang. However, during the musical breaks, they could really go to town with their techniques without worrying about singing.
The sound can sound quite complicated, but the same basic chord progressions are behind it all, even if the fingerstyle patterns and the rhythm changes. In the video below, I start with an E chord and jam along trying techniques form famous blues men, and also surprising myself with completely new sounds! The fundamental chord progression is E, E7, A, A7 and B7.
The Basic E Chord Shape
Starting with the basic chords shapes, we of course have E major, which is the root and we come back to it again and again. As with all chords, there is more than one way to play it, and we'll look at that later, but for now let's stick to the basics.
The first thing you'll notice is that it's not a complex chord shape - just cluster of 3 strings across 2 frets held down by the index finger, second and third fingers. The chord can either be strummed or fingerpicked, and when applying more advanced left hand techniques like pulling off and hammering on, the effect becomes very ' bluesy'.
As with any chord, you can either let the strings ring, or damp them off with either hand. A common blues picking pattern in many States was to hit the open bass E string with the thumb and then mute it or choke off the note with the palm of the picking hand. This is called the 'monotonic bass' thumb style.
A 'hammer-on' is when you strike an open string, such as the G string in the case of the basic E chord shape, and then drop the forefinger back on to the first fret to form the E chord. A 'pull-off' is the opposite to this, where your hit the string fretted and then lift off the finger. Both techniques can be done with any of the fretted strings, and others, to make the sound more varied and interesting. All blues men used these techniques extensively, together with string bends, which we'll cover later.
Turning The E into E7
It's quite rare to find a blues song with an E that doesn't eventually become and E7, mostly at the end of the second line of verse, or as a lead into the A chord. The basic form is to keep the E chord and then fret the B string with your pinkie on the 3rd fret, and this really is the sound of roots blues. That 7th makes all the difference and speaks directly to the soul.
In many songs the pinkie slides down one fret to turn the chord into E6, often siding back up to create a kind of a 'swing' effect, or used as part of a short single string run featuring the B and the high E string. The trick with the blues in E, as with any chord progression guitar based, is to do you best to vary the techniques and chord extensions so that the listener enjoys the experience.
The Basic A Chord Shape
Another easy shape, in fact one of the first ones that most of us learn. It can either be played with three finger, which can be a bit restricting, or with a bar using the forefinger just laid across the 2nd. Needless to say, you wouldn't pick the high E string fretted on the 2nd fret using the bar - that would sound quite weird and is a different chord entirely.
Although this basic A chord shape has it's uses, it's not that common in the old school type acoustic blues, but mostly reserved for folk style picking, and very simple country and western type ballads. No, the A chord really comes into it's own when playing the blues when we fret the high E string high up on the fret board with the pinkie and using a bar for the other strings.
The image on the left shows the same A shape but with the addition of that high E fretted up on the 5th fret. This brings several advantages. First of all, while it's still the same chord, it's got a subtly different flavor. I sometimes also fret the next string (B) with my pinkie as well, which sounds great - if your finger is strong enough! It's a bit of a stretch, but the effect is worth it IMO.
Another advantage is that you can use that pinkie to play scales up and down while keeping the bar and just releasing it when the progression of notes demands it. It's the kind of thing you might do during a musical break and helps to add variation to your sound. Listen to the famous turnaround in Robert Johnson's 'Me and The Devil' to hear this technique used to great advantage - I'm talking just about the A chord run down here - the actual song is in A and not E.
The really big pro for using this long A, as I call it, is that readily turns into A7, just by letting off the pinkie and fretting the high E on the 3rd fret.
B7 Completes The Famous Blues in E Progression
Strangely enough, for reasons we won't go into here, the chord that completes the trio isn't a major chord that turns into a 7th variation , but is already in fact a 7th chord. The form shown on the right has the A string fretted on the 2nd fret, so it's this string we need to use in a monotonic bass pattern, for example, as the bass E string isn't fretted and will sound discordant.
Very often, this shape is used but with the bass E held down on the 2nd fret instead of the A string. As long as we don't pluck the A string by design or mistake, it sounds pretty good. The high E is held down with the pinkie and can be used to fret the B string if we wish. A 'hammer-on' can be used to great effect on the D string, which is fretted by the forefinger - alternate pulling off and hammering on makes a great Delta blues sound.
Basically, that's it! A very convincing blues can be created with the chords of E, E7, A, A7 and B7. It's our job to make it more interesting by introducing extra notes between chord changeovers, and by adding more intricate musical variations as musical breaks between the verses.
Well, what about the chord inversions that I mentioned earlier? Here are some easy ones that I use myself:
Blues Progression Chords - Inversions for the Key Of E
Half-chords are often used, which enables the guitarist to get creative and play lead-type runs high up the fret board. Starting with the E chord, its mostly used in it's basic shape, because it is so powerful, but sometimes in the verse and also the breaks, we want to break away from the chord to make a little excitement. Always remember, the cardinal sin of blues guitar is to bore the audience! This is easily done if strumming the basic chord structure in a 12 bar blues progression, for example.
The chord shape in the left is in the shape of D7, and we form it the same way. Notice that the B string is fretted on the 3rd fret, exactly where the 7th note appears for the E chord. This shape is a great way to play E7.
You can either hit that bass E string with a monotonic bass, or use the thumb to pick one of the trebles, using two fingers to add triplets on the last two strings, if your technique is advance enough. Or just strum across the strings upwards with your forefinger - it all sounds great!
A good way to use this formation is to run it down to the 2nd and 1st fret before going back to the E major, which then becomes E7, or stays as it is depending on where you are in the song - you'll soon get the hang of it! Try and strike the strikes four beats to the bar, running the chord down every bar, and your music will start to swing. Another thing we can do for the E chord is to move right up the fret board and play just strings from an inversion on the 7th fret.
Place the forefinger on the high E string on the 7th fret as shown in the diagram on the right. Now the second finger goes on the next string on the 8th fret, and either strum upwards with the forefinger or pinch the two strings together. Yes, it makes a fantastic train whistle Mississippi Blues sound, but wait - it gets better!
Now, strike the B string pushing over and then let it slide back. It really does create an unbeatable Delta Blues music sound. It's plaintiff and speaks directly to the emotions of the listener. Lightnin' Hopkins used this technique (as well as many others!) to engage the feelings of his audience. In the video below, I play 'Woman Called Mary' showing how Hopkins used this train whistle technique in a blues in E. It also includes all of the techniques discussed on this page, including the chord inversions and instrumental breaks.
Tips for playing a Blues In E From Lightnin' Hopkins
Other ways to play the B7 Chord
Another variation used in common blues chord progressions is the A7 shape on the 4th fret. It lends itself very well to a swinging style blues such as Key To The Highway by Big Bill Broonzy, or Living With The Blues by Brownie McGhee.
Here again, you can also stretch that pinkie up to 7th fret to turn it into a major, in just the same way as with A and A7. The only thing to be careful of is which bass string your thumb strikes. Normally, it needs to be the open A string, but in truth, hitting either or both the bass strings and then muting hard with the palm of your picking hand will work.
In fact, some blues men, like Mance Lipscombe, very rarely fretted any bass notes - he just choked off the notes so that the resulting noise was more like a 'thud', and like a drum beat for tempo.
Blues Chords For A Progression in the Key of A
As you might guess, we start off with A major, and we already discussed the basic chord and the variations. The complete progressions is made up of the chords A (that can morph into A7 anytime you need it to), D7 and E7. We looked at the E7 chord, but we don't use it in quite the same - we don't use inversions, as like the B7 when playing the 12 bar blues in E, it just isn't used very much at all.
So the only chord we haven't looked at for the guitar progression in A is D7, shown to the right. The fingering is fairly intuitive and the thumb is used to fret the bass E string on the 2nd fret. You might find this a bit difficult, but depends on the size of your hands and of course the width of you guitar neck. A classical guitar neck, for example, is just too wide to do this comfortably. On the hand, a Martin 000X1 or Vintage V300 Parlor is ideal.
If you didn't want to bother fretting the bass E string, either damp it heavily with the picking hand palm when you play it, or simple use the A string instead. However, some songs in the style of Robert Johnson, for example, really benefit from having that bass E fretted as shown in the diagram.
The MP3 below demonstrates the use of this progression in the Key of A - How Long Blues. Listen carefully and visualize the chords of A, A7, D7 and E7. You'll hear embellishments and variations but the songs shows how this simple chord structure creates a powerful blues experience.
How Long Blues - Written by Leroy Carr, covered by Jim Bruce
Actually, it's quite rare that the blues men played a full chord for most of the time, and in the song above, the D7 chord is never fully played. The high E string is left open, as it isn't played. This is a kind of unwritten rule - if you don't play a string, why bother to fret it? The only exception being if the string in question rings in sympathy with others and makes a horrible sound.
The B string fretted on the 1st fret is often pulled off, and the hammered on, several times in one bar and the bass E becomes very useful in adding variations to the bass pattern. I often play it open and run up from the 1st to the 2nd fret to complete the chord again.
Chord Inversions For The Blues Progression in A
There are many chord inversions for A major, but there are not that often used for a basic acoustic blues guitar song. It's probably best if you explore them yourself and experiment with the sound to see if it fits in with what you're trying to do. The whole idea of exploring the old style acoustic blues is to find out what the old guys did and try to integrate the techniques into your own guitar music, constantly trying to keep that old flavor that makes the blues what it is.
The same goes for E and E7 chords, which are mostly used 'as is' in their basic form. When playing D7, however, I use one particular inversion quite a lot, sometimes in a verse, but more often as part of an instrumental break.
Slide up to the chord from the 3rd fret to the 5th with the forefinger on the high E string and the second on the B string, which finishes up on the 7th fret. It's tempting to use the pinkie for the B string, but if you use the second finger, the pinkie is free to play the 7th, 8th and 9th frets to create variations.
The contrast of the high notes of this variation compared to the basic D7 chord makes for an exciting sound and is part of that mysterious idea of syncopation, where and unexpected change in tempo or sound pleasantly surprises the listener. Introducing variations without overdoing it (it can quickly become a cliché) is a great way to make a simple blues song more interesting and exciting. An audience wants to be surprised, but also need to feel secure in the correct musical structure.