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The Saint Louis Blues - published 1914.


The blues is an American form of music. Its development started in the African-American communities of the southern states in the early 1900s. Where does the blues come from? The most commonly held belief is one of African culture meeting head-on with European culture. African rhythms and vocal inflections are self-evident in the blues but how much of this is mixed with European ideas is still being investigated. Some historians point out that after the American Civil war there was a small boom in music-making due to the fact that soldiers who had formed the regiment bands were allowed to keep their instruments. It is also known that the banjo was developed from an African stringed instrument though musicologists cannot be precise about its origins. There is also a strong link to the work songs of African-Americans with the familiar "call and response" found throughout Africa. All the above reasons and many more probably contributed to the development of the blues. The origins of the blues may be lost, due to no early records detailing its birth, but later records show its journey across America with each regional area developing distinct styles; such as the Mississippi Delta blues of the 1940s and the Chicago electric blues of the 1950s. "The Saint Louis Blues" (1914) by W.C.Handy was one of the earliest blues sheet music to be published and sold well; introducing the genre to a wider audience. This long history and the acceptance of the blues into popular culture means that the blues is a starting point for a lot of popular Western music from the 1920s onwards. Many guitarists will feel a sense of familiarity when they play a blues scale for the first time.

These lessons are designed to teach a player with basic guitar knowledge how to master the blues.

The twelve bar blues structure[edit]

The 12-bar blues is the basis for the majority of classic blues songs along with many other popular rock and pop songs. It's a simple chord progression that can easily be transferred between different keys. Each box represents one bar or measure with four beats; count the boxes and you will know why it's called the "twelve bar blues". The roman numerals refer to the chords that can be used and in which bar they will appear.


Below is the key of C major. The I is the tonic chord from which the key derives its tonal name.

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim C

I is a C major chord, IV is F major and V is G major. If we apply this chart to the key of C it would look like this:


Note that the minor chords and diminished chord of C major are not used in the exercise above. The twelve bar blues exercise above uses only the primary chords of C major.

Basic blues shuffle rhythm[edit]

This exercise is a twelve bar blues shuffle in A. Observe that the lower note in each bar is always an open string and will be one of the roots of the primary chords I, IV or V.

Twelve Bar Blues In A

The minor pentatonic and blues scales[edit]

The minor pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that is very widely used in both blues and rock. It can be derived from the natural minor scale by removing the second and sixth notes. Here it is in the key of A:

   A, C, D, E, G, A
A minor pentatonic

In any key, the pattern of intervals in between the notes of this scale is (in half-steps, or guitar frets):

   3, 2, 2, 3, 2

So the second note, in this case C, will always be 3 half-steps, or 3 frets, higher than the first note, A. The third note is 2 half-steps or frets higher than the second, and so on. If you were to play it all on the low E string of a guitar, it would look like this, in tab:

A minor pentatonic scale played on the E string

Here are two octaves of the A minor pentatonic scale, in tab, in 5th position:

A minor pentatonic two octaves

The blues scale consists of six notes, the most important of which is the blue note. The blue note distinguishes the blues scale from a standard minor pentatonic scale, and makes the blues sound very distinct. It comes in between the 3rd and 4th notes of that scale, making 3 notes in a row in the middle of the scale.

The vast majority of blues and rock solos consist almost entirely of notes in the blues scale.

This is a blues scale played from the fifth fret. The scale starts with the note "A" and therefore takes its name from the first note: Blues in A. You can change the key by changing the starting note of the scale and using the same pattern. Move the pattern up two frets (7th fret) and you are playing a Blues in B. Move it up one fret more (8th fret) and you are playing a Blues in C. Memorize the pattern by playing it repeatedly.

A minor pentatonic including "blue" notes

Exercise 1[edit]

Twelve Bar Blues In A

Exercise 2[edit]

Twelve Bar Blues In A using Sevenths

Exercise 3[edit]

Playing The Blues Using Only Seventh Chords

You can use seventh chords when playing the blues. Try the 12 bar blues in A using the chords below. No fingering has been given for the D7 and E7 since they have the same fingering as a C chord.

Further blues exercises can be found in the appendix Blues Exercises

Getting Started: Different Types of Guitars | Anatomy of a Guitar | Buying a Guitar | Buying an Amplifier | Tuning the Guitar | Tablature | Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar
For Beginners: The Basics | Intervals and Power Chords | Open Chords | Muting and Raking | Learning Songs | Song Library
Lead Guitar: Picking and Plucking | Scales | Arpeggios and Sweep Picking | Slides | Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and Trills | Bending and Vibrato | Harmonics | Vibrato Bar Techniques | Tapping
Rhythm Guitar: Chords | Barre Chords | Chord Progressions | Alternate Picking | Tremolo Picking | Rhythm
Playing Styles: Folk Guitar | Blues | Slide Guitar | Rock Guitar | Country and Western | Metal | Jazz | Classical Guitar | Flamenco
General Guitar Theory: Tone and Volume | Singing and Playing | Writing Songs | Playing With Others | Recording Music |Tuning Your Ear | How to Continue Learning
Equipment: Guitar Accessories | Effects Pedals | E-Bow | Cables | Bass Guitar | Harmonica and Guitar Combo
Maintenance: Guitar Maintenance and Storage | Adjusting the Guitar | Stringing the Guitar
Appendices: Dictionary | Alternate Tunings | Chord Reference | Blanks