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Acoustic Blues Guitar - How To Write Acoustic Blues Songs

OK, so you’ve been playing blues guitar for a long time now.
Jim Bruce writes his own blues compositions

 You know all the blues chord progressions and the blues scales. You can copy the best of the pros and even add some little blues riffs that are really quite new (although you must know that there is nothing really new in the blues). Your chord turnarounds are slick and your end tags leave the audience drooling. Still there is something missing – what’s going on?

For the last twenty years or so, you’ve been quite happy nailing down the most complex songs out there and content to be able to reproduce the guitar sounds of your heroes, but now it’s just not enough. Face it – you are bored playing the same old blues guitar.  This can happen at any time, and sometimes occurs just before you step up a level, so don’t despair. I often turn to other styles of playing guitar in these times, such as Irish, folk or swing jazz (I can’t play the real stuff).


Video - Guitar Boogie written by Jim Bruce

I put this tune together, later adding some lyrics about 'leaving this dirty old town', after watching Mark Knoppfler fingerpicking an acoustic guitar. The basic idea is a shuffle in the key of A, but I wanted also to use an alternating bass thumb pattern in the key of A. The only solution was for the thumb and finger to 'share' the D string - here's how it happened:


However, inevitably, you come back to your big first love – you play the blues, so you just have to deal with it.

When you know all the stuff out there and are very adept at what you do, it’s often sufficient to hear a song and instinctively know how it is fingerpicked. You just know that you can play just about anything on guitar, once you analyze it and apply yourself for a few days, so where’s the challenge? You suddenly realize that it’s time to write a blues song and that’s when the fun really starts! Writing original material is never easy, and sometimes it comes all by itself

How To Write A Blues Song !

Elizabeth Cotton - Ragtime Blues Guitar SongsAfter studying the old blues guitar players for some years, we often find that anything we create leans towards a particular style, and often our first songs are a pale imitation of an old classic blues. How do we try to make the guitar playing and words unique, that's the 64 thousand dollar question.

Another problem with writing straight blues songs is coming up with something new in the way we pick the chords. Take a blues in E, for example. The basic acoustic blues song has just three chords - and chords that are not very complicated at all!



Original blues is Good, but it's not that easy. Let's see why that is ...

What about your words? Perhaps you want to tell a story, but this is a difficult trick to accomplish - it often turns into a kind of cheesy country 'poor me' style of thing. Another certainty is that yet another 'Woke Up This Mornin'' song most definitely will not cut it. No there's nothing else for it, you just have to come up with something of your own. Look into your own life and try to express your hopes, desires and fears. We all have them and it will have the ring of truth, which is what blues guitar music is all about. 


The song below came done and dusted in 10 minutes, and I didn't even mean to write it. I was watching a movie about the mafia, and the words just flowed out. It isn't a classic, but I like the feel of it - it just 'fitted' the mood.

johnny southside.mp3

The basic idea of Johnny Southside is that he isn't just one man, but a stereotype of the hard, practical criminal that live by a tough code which is heavily biased. The rules are quite simple - you do as you're told, or you suffer! For this reason the words, like so many songs born of the blues, has several verses which tell short stories of why people get hurt or disappear. I tried to make it matter-of-fact, but also convey the feeling that it's this banality that makes it all the more frightening.

Key of E - Great for writing blues songsThe vast majority of acoustic blues tunes are played on guitar in the keys of E or A. I looked at E, but it didn't give me the quiet urgency i wanted for the lyrics and style, so I went for A. Of course, there are loads of keys to choose from, but they all give a particular flavor to the sound. For example, C is particularly good for playing ragtime blues, which is a happy song - definitely not needed for this subject matter!

I wanted the song to move along without being too fast, and I chose the monotonic bass thumb style of playing for the fingerstyle pattern. In this technique, the thumb hits one (or two) bass strings and doesn't alternate between two or more strings, as in Travis picking, for example.

The chord structure is pretty standard moving from the root chord A to D7 and E/E7. Sometimes I use the basic D7 and other times I slide up the fret board to play the inversion, which gives a little more flavor and interest for the listener. Throughout the song I'm rhythmically damping the bass strings to give a sense of throbbing almost, a kind of undercurrent of energy that is a bit menacing. Johnny Southside is one guy to keep away from, but great to sing about!