How To Play Great Fingerpicking Guitar--Even If You're All Thumbs!

Chapter 9


Any trouble with the tablature below? Go To Chapter 3

[But First, A Lecture On 12 Bar Blues Form]

The “twelve bar blues” is the most common blues form, and most improvisers start with it.

It is so universal that it bears a bit of explaining.

The twelve "bars" are MEASURES. They almost always follow this pattern:

The 12 Bar (measure) formula for Blues

What's all this? Why Roman Numerals?

They represent the CHORD LEVELS in a key. There are seven notes in a major scale. Any of these could be a "root" note to build a chord on. Thus there are seven chords naturally in a key. Each root can have a chord built on it.

For example: in the key of C, there are seven notes in the C Major scale:

The chords in the Key of C>

Each one of these notes could be the root for a chord:

Cmaj Dmin Emin FMaj GMaj Amin Bdim

In a "12 Bar Blues" you'd usually use chords built on the I, IV, and V Roots.

Most of the time they'd be "Dominant Seventh" chords--often called "Seventh" Chords. However, this "Seventh" is not what root they're based on, but the last of the four separate notes that make them up Root, third, fifth and Seventh.

Still there? Yes this is confusing. You don't have to absorb all of this to play the blues...

Most 12 bar blues use I7, IV7, and V7 chords. "Seventh" chords have a tension to them: they want to "resolve" or go to another chord. This means they won't "stand still." Usually a I7 wants to go to the IV7, and the V7 wants to go back to the I (or I7).

Because they're all "7ths" they lead us into expecting change, and the music keeps jumpin'.

The number of a chord in a key depends on what key it is. For instance, the first note of "the key of C" is C. This comes from the scale associated with that key.

Thus in the key of C, the I7 chord is C7, the IV7 chord is F7, and V7 is G7.

Twelve bars of such a blues in the key of C would be:

12 Bar Blues in C7 and E7

Let's take another key, such as the Key of E (a popular blues key): I7 becomes E7, IV7 is A7, and V7 is B7, based on the notes of the E scale.
The 12 Bar blues pattern for this key is the third row above -- it starts with E7.

Had enough? Well, if you use the chart I began the chapter with, you can dig out the chords for a 12 bar blues in any key.
Just start with the chord matching the first note of the scale of that key (the I chord), and count slowly.

Of course, Lightnin' Sam Hopkins of Texas didn't bother with any of this. He just played 'em. And played 'em. But since most of us won't be playing 12 bar blues twelve hours a day, every day, it helps to use some music theory, so we can sound like him.

Such as about TRIPLETS, which Lightnin' played unconsciously (but the rest of us aren't so lucky).


Most Hopkins/Lipscomb/James Taylor (ha, fooled ya) styled blues is accompanied by a driving bass in THREE. That is, three counts per beat. Yup, those old bluesmen were plenty crafty.

Imagine the four quarter note bass notes per measure that we've finally gotten used to suddenly mutating into three equal parts each! It can't be blamed on radiation, but you can collect these notes into FOUR equal groups.
Yes, Four groups of Three:

triplets with E bass one

Count it this way:
bass-bass-bass   bass-bass-bass  bass-bass-bass   bass-bass-bass

Give the
FIRST of each of these groups of three an emphasis:

Here's what we end up with:

BASS-bass-bass   BASS-bass-bass   BASS-bass-bass   BASS-bass-bass

But Wait! Real blues players DROP the MIDDLE BASS!

That is, they COUNT it but DON'T SOUND it.


Triplets E bass no middle played

So we end up with:
BASS(rest)bass   BASS(rest)bass   BASS(rest)bass   BASS(rest)bass

Better yet, LET THE FIRST BASS NOTE RING THROUGH THE REST on the second count. That's what the bluesmen do.

Now it'll comes out:

LOOONG short   LOOOONG short   LOOOONG short   LOOOONG short
(1 2 3,   1 2 3,   1 2 3,   1 2 3)

Counting it out, as all good musicians should, you would count:
1 (silent 2) 3 1 (silent 2) 3; and so forth.

This is now a typical measure of 12 bar blues:

Whaaa? Relax... it's easier to play than to try to explain.
Try counting out the
LOONG short example above,
(1--2-------3 ).

or listen to Me playing it in the 1990s


Well it's about time! For those of you who just skipped the above....I hope you're extremely lucky! Let's start with the FIRST TWO MEASURES:

MEASURE 1 then 2
first two measures Hopkins Blues in E



If a beat only has a bassline, DON'T RUSH IT! Play the basses evenly, or the blues won't groove.

Remember to count each measure:

LOOONG short, LOOONG short, LOOOONG short, LOOOONG short
1   2  3,     1   2   3,    1     2 3,     1   2   3

MEASURE 3 is similar to measure 1, with variations:

Hopkin Blues Measure 3

These are all based on the E7 "sound" that come from sliding the D7 around but they're all different "licks" or musical phrases.

Back to the normal E for Measure 4.

Measures 5 6 introduce a new A7 blues form:

Two finger A blues position

Measure 5 and 6

It's just two fingers on the 3rd string 5th fret (Left Ring) and 1st string 3rd fret (index).

Measure 5:

Measure 6:

Measure 7: based on measures 1 and 3.

Measure 7 Blues in E


Measure 8 Blues in E

This is a terrific bass technique I call the "blues bass." It's the most widely used rhythm sound in blues, early R & B, and guitar based rock, and I'm going to explain it to you atNo Extra Charge (incredible, isn't it--but maybe after the previous 7 measures of this blues I've lost you all anyway).

  1. Keep your Left Index on 5th string at all times.
  2. BRUSH Both 6th and 5th strings twice together using Right Thumb, so it comes to rest on the 4th string (look for the shaded line in the tab).
  3. Leave Left Index on 2nd fret NO MATTER WHAT, while you stretch left hand to play the notes coming up fourth fret (with Left Ring) and fifth fret (with Left Pinky).

Using the above, here's Measure 8:

This is the lick that the Rolling Stones made millions on. I'm letting you have it for practically nothing! The least you can do is practice it a little.

Measure 9: The B7 is played WITHOUT the Pinky on the first string. Use it for the first note in Beat #3 (and pull on it a little); But lift it for the next note.

Measures 9 and 10 Blues in E

Measure 10: Now here's a nifty bass run! This is a classic "Lightnin' Sam A7 lick"--a run to be played on the bass strings, in the space where a rhythm guitarist would play an A7 chord.

Note that you are now playing all three notes of the triplet here in beats number 2, 3, and 4. Emphasize the FIRST of each triplet. This is true of EVERY measure of this blues.

If you've learned this concept, you should have four stressed bass notes in every measure.

Hmmm. That is, if you're not over-stressed yourself by now! Take this piece one measure at a time. It's a great deal more difficult than our previous challenges, but it's the KEY to playing acoustic blues with one guitar. You can play it over and over, once we cover the last two measures--the turnaround.


The final two measures of a chorus of blues is supposed to get you to the Next chorus, to "turn you around" to start over and play another 12 bars. This piece uses the most common blues turnaround:

Turnaround Blues in E

Measure 11:

    1. play 3rd string together with bass
    2. 2nd string alone
    3. 3rd string together with bass again.

Measure 12:

This "turnaround" goes from the I chord in this key (E) to the V7 chord (B7). It leaves you hanging--wanting to hear another "I" chord. That craving is best satisfied by playing the blues again from the beginning.

This is the style of not only 1) old Southern blues, but 2) recent tunes such as James Taylor's Steamroller. It's the basis of other (not necessarily 12 bar) blues such as Dave Van Ronk's (and Snooks Eaglin's) Come Back Baby.

If it seems really hard--well, it is! But it's just about THE major blues style, and well worth your effort. You CAN get it if you go over it in little modules, slowly. I sure had to!

How It Sounds


Hopkins Blues in E

This chapter © 2015 by Andrew D. Polon. All rights reserved.

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