From the July/August 2022 issue acoustic guitar | By Peter Madsen
Many guitarists talk about finding their own voice on the instrument. It’s a noble concept, but how do you deal with it? Producing something unique from scratch can seem like a daunting task. However, it is a blues tradition to combine licks and phrases from other players to create personalized musical statements. By taking inspiration from the masters—without copying them note for note—you can produce blues verses and solos that sound fresh and exciting. The more sources you can cite, the more original you sound.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises consisting of interesting technical workouts that get your fretboard and plucked fingers working in different ways, and musical studies to help you visualize and explore the fretboard.
In this lesson, we’ll use the classic 12-bar blues form in the key of A major to explore phrases used by musicians like Robert Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as ideas constructed from scales and chord shapes. Putting the phrases in this context will not only provide you with great guitar training, but also stimulate your exploration of blues tropes.
Week one: starting the 12-bar blues
The structure of the 12-bar blues can be viewed as three distinct four-bar sections. In its simplest form, the first four bars are based on the I chord. The second four bars offer a combination of the IV and I chords, and the last four introduce the V into the mix. This week we’ll focus on the first four bars.
example 1 specifies a very simple two-string shuffle rhythm that should sound very familiar, having been played by countless blues and rock guitarists over the years. Play this pattern—like the other examples in this lesson—with a swing feel: Think of each beat as having a long-short feel, with the first 8th note of the beat being about twice as long as that second.
in another direction example 2 shows how Robert Johnson approached those four bars on songs like “Preachin’ Blues,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” and “32-20 Blues”—all of which used a similar rhythmic style. As the section progresses, notice the decreasing distance between the A7 and Adim7 chords.
Inspired by the work of Mance Lipscomb, Example 3 shows how the Texan bluesman often used a monotonic bass in conjunction with a long A chord shape, with the first finger excluding the top four strings and the fourth finger reaching to the fifth fret A on string 1. This phrase involves lifting your fingers off the strings and putting them back down, sliding into the chord shape.
in the example 4, a series of dyads (two-note chords) are used to negotiate the A7 chord. The first dyad consists of the tones C# and E; This shape moves chromatically down the fretboard until it reaches the second fret and lands on the AC# dyad, which you might recognize as a fragment of an open A chord.
Beginner tip #1
Be sure to listen to as many blues guitarists as possible and emulate their moves. Then try combining phrases from different players in the same song.
Second week: Completion of the 12 bar blues
This week you’ll work on the second section of the 12-bar form (bars 5–8), which includes the IV chord (D7) for the first two bars and the I for the last two. Since you’ve already practiced different ways of using the I, the examples will focus on bars 5–6; To make the complete second section, simply borrow two bars of one of the approaches from the previous week to play after the D7 bars.
The pattern of Example 5 is identical to that of Ex. 1, but transposed up a fourth or shifted a pair of strings for the D7 chord. in the Example 6, inspired by Robert Johnson and other blues guitarists, placing the third (F#) of the D7 chord in the bass adds a cool touch. I recommend wrapping your thumb around your neck to fret this note and free your fingers for embellishments.
With a more leak-based approach Example 7 is inspired by what Mance Lipscomb played in his song “Captain, Captain!” Grab the D chord with your second and third fingers on strings 1 and 2, respectively, and free your first finger for the quick hammer-on/pull-off motion on the high E string. In this and other D chord examples in this lesson, you’ll notice that the bass note is A rather than D. Many blues players used the fifth (A) in the bass for D chord progressions, perhaps because the open A string has a little more hit on it than the open D.
in the example 8, which is inspired by Lightnin’ Hopkins, the third is again played as the lowest note, with triplets above it, based on the flat seventh (C) and fifth (A) of the D7 chord. End the week with example 9, similar to the pattern you learned for the I chord in Ex. 4 but played higher on the neck with dyads implying D7.
Beginner tip #2
Identify different ways to play an I–IV–V progression in a specific key. If needed, consult a chord dictionary for some new shapes to incorporate into your playing.
Week three: Harmonizing the 12-bar blues
The harmony moves faster in the final section of the 12-bar blues base (bars 9-12): V-IV-I-V, one chord per bar. The last two bars of this section usually represent what is known as a turn, as the V chord brings everything back to the I at the beginning of the repeating form.
Example 10 uses the shuffle pattern from previous weeks for the V, IV, and I chords. For a contrasting flavor, the last bar of this sequence is a simple single-note walkup from A to E on strings 5 and 4. The Robert Johnson-style sequence was recorded Example 11 begins with an E7 chord played by simply fretting the second string on the third fret, followed by the D7/F# chord. For the last two bars, which contain a typical Johnson inversion, fret the high A with your fourth finger and use your other available fingers for the descending bass line.
Example 12 shows how Lipscomb tended to approach the last four bars of the 12-bar form. Note the use of both the bluesy minor third (F) and major third (F#) on the D chord. On beat 1, grab the F with your first finger and hammer the F# with your second finger. The last two bars of this example remain on the I chord (A) and do not end on the V (E), a common harmonic variation.
Using chord shapes favored by players like Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Example 13 begins with a dyad, B–D, implying an E7 chord. Move this shape down two frets, add a low F#, and you have a D7/F# chord. Play the A7 chord by locking strings 3 and 4 with your index finger at fret 2, and fingering the C on the third fret and C# on the fourth fret with your third and fourth fingers, respectively, for a boogie-style move by John Lee Hooker.
Beginner tip #3
Break up larger chord shapes into two or three note voicings. Try moving chromatically (i.e. in half steps) between different shapes to create cool chord phrases.
Week 4: Exploring 12-bar blues combinations
Once you’ve worked through the different phrases for each four-bar section of the 12-bar blues form, you can choose which ones you like best and try different combinations. I did just that for Example 14which begins with a Robert Johnson-style A chord pattern before switching to a Mance Lipscomb-inspired phrase in the third bar.
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The Lipscomb influence continues through the IV chord in bars 5–6, but then moves to a dyad-based phrase for the I in bar 7. The last four bars return to Lipscomb territory, and then back to the chord-based phrase for turn around. How does this exercise sound and feel to you? Feel free to make some changes to the phrases or add a note or two here and there to make it your own.
Beginner tip #4
If you’re playing against a steady quarter-note bass line, try mixing different rhythms—quarter notes, eighths, and eighth-note triplets—in the melody.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area guitarist, writer, and educator specializing in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of acoustic guitar Magazine.