Beginning Fingerstyle Blues Guitar

beginning fingerstyle acoustic blues guitar lessons with pdf tabs
At one time fingerstyle blues songs almost always meant that the musician was playing some kind of acoustic instrument, but a couple of things happened along the way that blurred the distinction between various style of blues fingerpicking.

When the genre was in it's hey-day, in Chicago for example, players such as Big Bill Broonzy and others were happily making acoustic music, even when playing with bands. 

Of course, this must have been a hell of a strain, because most other instruments are inherently louder due to their construction and design. You need to remember that the predominant guitar playing style at that time was fingerpicking, unless you leaned more towards jazz and the Django Reinhart sound. 

The blues fingerstyle was the name of the game both for Mississippi blues, but also the ragtime variety and most things in between.

Before you move on, please check out my blues lesson course called 'From Texas To the Delta'. Basically, these 40 lessons present just about everything I know about acoustic blues guitar picking, gathered over 30 years of performing - it's my life's work!

A little bit later on, greats like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins pushed the boundaries even more, until finally a guy like Tommy Emmanuel in our day has emerged as probably the finest guitar fingerpicker of all time. However, it's relatively easy to follow and build on what other people have done, and that's how the techniques are becoming more and more complex. Muddy Waters, who was a contemporary of Robert Johnson, quickly adapted his blues fingerpicking patterns to the electric guitar, and played many of the classic blues standards in a new way.

In modern times, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits brought fingerpicking blues songs right up to style with classics like 'Romeo and Juliet', picked on a National Steel resonator guitar. Mark also plays electric guitar fingerstyle, and very rarely uses a plectrum, nor does he use fingerpicks.

Mark Knopfler talks about his guitar fingerpicking patterns in the video below:

Beginning Fingerstyle Blues Guitar - The Two Basic Fingerstyle Patterns

The big difference between the basic patterns used in fingerstyle acoustic blues guitar is how the thumb moves. Take a look at the many Youtube videos of the old blues guys, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis and you should quickly get the idea that the thumb is King! Of course, the fingers do some fancy stuff and create unforgettable melodies, but without that solid and inventive picking thumb, it all falls apart.

It's a big mistake to skimp on basic thumb training - it needs to become almost completely independent of the fingers, so that it can move anywhere and pick any string at will. Maybe the best way to check out the different style is to look at some master blues pickers and how they did their stuff. 

All blues fingerpickers have a style that fits into one of two broad categories, although many guitarists do mix up the two styles in their songs.

The Monotonic Bass Blues Fingerpicking Pattern

Any fingerstyle blues guitar lessons should really cover the very roots of acoustic blues, which probably originated in the Mississippi Delta after the end of slavery. This style tended to be more basic than later picking patterns, and the main characteristic was how the thumb moved. Basically, it tended to strike just one string, or two, without moving between two or three in  a regular fashion.

Many blues men tended to move to a different bass string when changing to another chord, but this wasn't always the case either! Some players, such as Big Bill Broonzy and Mance Lipscombe in particular, didn't even bother to change to a different bass string, they just muted the note with their hand. 

If you look at the picking hand of an accomplished fingerstyle guitar player, you notice that the heel of the hand is either resting on the bridge of the guitar, or very close to it.

fingerstyle blues guitar tabsIf the heel or palm of the hand is dropped onto the bass string just after it is struck, you don't get a note but more of a 'thunk' a bit like a drum beat. 

It's OK to let the note ring when it fits the chord that's being fretted, but if the note is not included in the chord structure, and it sounds discordant, then the note is choked off with the hand.

This technique has a couple of advantages. First off, it provides a solid beat a little like a drum, which accentuates the sound and provides stability. Secondly, it allows for a lot of flexibility for the finger work - if you don't need to worry so much about what the thumb needs to do, the fingers can be more inventive with the melody. 

Many acoustic fingerstyle blues players use a big plastic thumb pick to amplify this sound and produce some very exciting music. Other pages such as Broonzy, made this big thumb sound with his bare thumb, and late on we'll discuss the merits of using bare fingers or picks.

Blues fingerstyle tabs don't always show this bass string muted, but rather just demonstrate how it's done and perhaps mention it at the beginning of the tab. It's really up to the student to listen to the old players, and also use some common sense - if it doesn't sound good - mute it!

Alternating The Basses When Fingerpicking Blues Guitar

If you take a look at the section of fingerstyle blues tab below and you can see that the thumb is moving between three bass strings:

fingerstyle blues tabs alternating picking

Holding down a basic C chord and starting with the B string, the thumb simply set up a steady rhythm repeating the pattern as long as we remain on the C. Of course, if we change chord, we (may) need to change the string or the order. ZAs with the monotonic bass style of picking, the palm can be dropped onto the strings if we need to mute the sound at any time. 

In Practice, we also use the left hand finger to damp as well, so damping, or muting, becomes  a function of both hands, depending on the song and the chord we use.

To be fair, it's this second style of thumb technique that really opened up the possibilities and allows for super syncopated arrangements to be created, as the thumb can create it's own melody, either augmenting the melody created by the fingers or by playing something completely different (within reason!)

Travis Picking - blues fingerpicking guitar patterns songs and tabsThe method itself became known as Travis picking, named after Merle Travis, who used just his thumb and forefinger to make incredibly lovely guitar sounds. 

The secret to it all is that solid alternating thumb rhythm, which need to be the corner stone of any fingerstyle blues lessons. 

The style has since been developed and used for rock, folk, blues, swing, ragtime and jazz, but originally it was played almost exclusively by the first black blues guitarists such as Blind Blake, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt

Although the technique has it's origins in roots of acoustic blues, it has been employed effectively by artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and many others.

Before we leave our discussion about the alternating bass fingerpicking style it's worth taking a look at how one the early ragtime blues players, Blind Blake took the form and syncopate the movements to a whole new level that hasn't really been beat or even copied properly to this day. 

Take a look at the fingerpicking blues tab section below, and particularly what's happening with the basses. We are using the C chord once again:

blues fingerpicking tab pdf - blind arthur blake ragtime guitar king

Once again we start on the B string, but Bake slips, or rolls, the thumb onto the G string producing two notes to the beat - 'bum-bum'. He does the same thing from the E string to the B, plays the next one straight (the G string) and then rolls that thumb again to complete the sequence. 

Try it very slowly at first until you can do it with a good rhythm, and then gradually speed it up.

blues fingerpicking tabs - blake's west coast blues
Of course, this is only one part of the story. In the MP3 clip below you can hear how he uses the thumb roll fingerpicking technique in his famous piece 'West Coast Blues'. 

Listen how the basses and trebles act together to produce an incredibly complex sound that just makes your feet tap! It takes a huge amount of practice to get to this level, but it can be done with the right fingerpicking blues tabs. The trick is to start really slow and build up speed over a period of months.

West Coast Blues - Blind Blake Ragtime Guitar.mp3

For the rest of the post I'm going to take a look at the fingerpicking techniques of two great blues men - Lightnin' Hopkins, who used the monotonic bass technique, and Blind Boy Fuller, who was a Piedmont ragtime guitar player who used the alternating bass technique.

The Fingerstyle Technique Of Lightnin' Hopkins

The video below is a preview of one of the many lessons available  from my sales page and features a useful quick close up of the palm mute technique use by Lightnin' Hopkins and many other blues men using the monotonic bass thumb technique. The full lesson is supported by blues fingerstyle tabs that can be downloaded for printing out.

You'll notice that my blues fingerpicking tabs often don't include symbols for muting the bass strings or just letting them ring. Often this is a matter of choice, depending on how you want the music to sound. Here again, you would be heavily guided by listening to Hopkins' original sound.

fingerpicking blues style of lightnin' hopkins
His lazy way of playing fools the listener into thinking that his finger technique is easy, but it really is masterful in it's delivery. He doesn't hold  his hand stiffly on the top of the sound board, but it's free to slide up and down the guitar, often lightly picking the strings over the higher frets, which makes a very sweet sound. 

Picking near the the guitar bridge by contrast gives a harsher noise, and the contrast between the two is just another trick used by this Master guitar player to engage your attention.

Listen to a short section of the Hopkins playing a blues in E in the MP3 below:

Lightnin Hopkins Fingepicking 'Mary'- Blues In E.mp3

Although Hopkin's wasn't limited to songs in E, it clearly was his favorite mode of expression. Unfortunately, like many blues men, many songs in the same key are almost identical in their picking patterns, only varying in their tempo and lyrics. 

Nevertheless, the tricks he used within the pattern were very powerful and helped to make his music very appealing for audiences.

His timing was impeccable and often played a fast shuffle ideal for dancing. Another trick was to double up on the timing so that his thumb picked a bass string twice to the beat. 

He called this the 'heartbeat', which spoke to the listeners at an emotional level, particularly if the tempo was generally withing the pulse rate of 70 to 90 beats a minute!

The Alternating Bass Piedmont Fingerstyle Technique Of Blind Boy Fuller

BB Fuller - fingerstyle blues guitarist

Fuller hailed from South Carolina, which was the home of some of the finest blues guitar players ever to make blues music. Blind Boy Fuller learned a lot from Reverend Gary Davis, who in turn was taught by Blind Willie Walker, who was generally acknowledged to be the 'best that ever did it'.

The staple technique he used was the alternating bass, but he could also play monotonic style as well. 

In fact, a characteristic of his style, like Davis, was to move away from the standard Travis style basses and use the thumb in combination with a finger to create stunning runs on single strings, which may be the treble or bass strings, or indeed, all of them!

It takes great thumb control to do this, and it hammers home the fact that for fingerstyle blues, or any other kind of fingerpicking for that matter, the Thumb is King. Fuller was often accompanied by a second guitarist, Floyd Council, whose style was almost identical. Listen to Fuller play Screamin' and Cryin' below:

Blind Boy Fuller Fingerpicking The Blues - Screamin and Cryin.mp3

As you can hear, the effect is very syncopated by using just the thumb and one finger - he also wore fingerpicks to play his favored National Steel guitar. 

Many, many master guitar pickers used just one finger, and they developed strategies to make the sounds they wanted and generally couldn't be done unless two or more fingers were used. 

One of these strategies was a ind of 'crossover pick', where the thumb left it's usual position on the bass strings and jumped over to the trebles. I demonstrate it in the video below:

Monotonic or Alternating Bass For Fingerpicking Acoustic Blues Guitar?

My advice is to thoroughly learn both ways of playing those basses and practice them until it's a part of you, so that you can switch from one to the other at will. 

Both patterns should be covered in any lesson you take and taught in a progressive way, that's to say, building on the simpler techniques using them as building blocks to more and more complex arrangements.

Inevitably, however broad you learning, you'll eventually find that you have a preference for one style or the other, and tend to focus on that one, choosing songs that use that style of playing. 

If you write your own songs, then these too will reflect your fingerstyle preferences. The best way to pay homage to this great blues guitar music is to try and retain the authentic feel of the original fingerpicking techniques, but incorporate the into new and original music.

If you really love the old blues across all styles, then you will want to become proficient at both bass patterns so that you can play the old classic just like the old masters, or was near as we can! It's really important to go as slow as you need to assimilate the basic finger movements before progressing to 'higher' levels. You can't build much on weak foundations - take it easy and have fun.

Author: Jim Bruce 
Date: 2014-06-13
Category: Music

Listen to the complete post here:

Jim Bruce Fingerpicking Acoustic Guitar Article - Fingerstyle Blues.mp3

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