How To Play the Blues

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by State Library and Archives of Florida

Ah, the blues. One of the most well known forms of music. There’s no other music style quite like it, that has carried such an influence on other music styles and that has such a rich heritage. Surprisingly, though, the Blues isn’t that difficult to play.


The Blues as an oral tradition can be traced back to the mid 1800s, and finds its roots from Europe and Africa. However, the Blues as we know it today is purely an American style of music. It first began to be popularized in the early 1900s, with guys like WC Handy writing songs such as “Memphis Blues” & “St. Louis Blues.”


In the 1920s and 1930s, guitarists used slides from broken bottle necks to create the slide sound (which is something any guitarist should learn when wanting to play the Blues) and in the 1940s Big Band began to take over. This meant that guitars moved primarily into the rhythm section. Then, the 1950s arrived, where piano blues and guitar blues began to develop into rock and roll and other forms of music. This is also when amplifiers and electrified guitar music became more and more common.

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The Blues is primarily guitar and piano focused, but it can be played on other instruments too. To play the Blues, there are a few tips and tricks that can get you started quickly. Firstly, the Blues must be played with FEELING. It’s a very less technical style, which you will especially find once you get used to a few progressions, chords and scales. Secondly, get comfy with a Blues rhythm when practicing (most blues is in 4/4 time signature.) Then, learn to play the Blues Scale and a Blues Progression, and you’ll find yourself soon able to play the Blues with feeling and ease.


Let’s look at the Blues Scale. It’s actually quite easy to play and works off the major scale. All it is, really, is the major scale with an added flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th. So, if you were playing in the key of C, the Blue Scale would look like this : C D Eb E F Gb G A Bb C. That’s it. The scale is ideal for improvising over a blues progression, which you should also practice and learn to play.


Typically, Blues progressions are done over 12 measures (bars) – which is why it is known as 12 bar blues. If you were playing in the key of C, for instance, you would play the first 4 bars in the root chord (C), the 5th and 6th bars in the 4th interval (F), the 7th and 8th bars back to the root note (C), the 9th and 10th bars in the 5th interval (G) and end off the last two bars in the root note again (C.) If you wanted to play chords over this progression, you would stick to dominant 7th chords- and to improvise you would just play the Blues Scale as above. Guitarists can add a few tricks – using a slide, or “wriggling” notes for some extra feeling.


Blues has this marvelous ability of getting you addicted to it very quickly. It really is a unique style for jamming and improvising, and one song can carry on for (literally) hours. Not only that, but since other forms of music find their roots in the blues, learning to play the blues will increase your ability in those styles as well.

Kevin Sinclair is the publisher and editor of MusicianHome.com, a site that provides information and articles for musicians at all stages of their development.


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