twelve-bar blues

You've made it through nineteen grueling lessons consisting of scales, chords, and music reading. You’ve earned the right to a little ice cream. We're going to learn how to play a 12-bar blues in the key of E, and an easy scale for improvising over the top of it. This progression is incredibly common in many types of contemporary music, including rock, country, folk, and of course blues. It's simple to play, it sounds cool, and it's a lot of fun. I think that the tablature I've provided below is pretty self-explanatory, but I'll provide a few pointers anyway because that’s how I roll.

We're going to be playing a I-IV-V progression in the key of E. Remember
Lesson Seventeen, when we learned about triads? We learned that to find out what chords are in a key, we first spell out the scale. Once you've done that all you've gotta remember is that I, IV and V are major and everything else is minor. So in this case we will begin with the E Major Scale, which is spelled E F# G# A B C# D# E. As long as you can count, you should be able to deduce the the I, IV and V are E, A, and B. Instead of just strumming those chords, we're going to play a riff that sort of “suggests” them. Play this with all downstrokes, as you will get a much more propulsive feel than you would using alternate picking. When you get to the end, don’t stop, just jump right back to the top and continue without hesitation. When you get it together fire up that metronome.

Guitarbuzz Blues

Once you've got that down, you'll want to learn a new scale to go with it. It's called the Minor Pentatonic Scale. If you keep your ears open, simply playing the scale below will most likely sound very familiar. The popularity of this scale has a lot to do with the fact that it’s relatively easy to play, and to employ. Once mastered It can be very easily used to play amazing guitar solos and to write amazing hooks. To explore some of the possibilities this scale presents, turn on your radio and dial in a blues or classic rock station. It’s no exaggeration to say that everybody uses this scale.

The construction of this scale is very simple. It's actually derived from the G Major Scale. You may be wondering how a Minor Pentatonic Scale could be related to a Major Scale. The answer is that inside of any Major Scale there lives a Minor Scale, called it's relative minor. You locate the relative minor by counting up six from the root of the Major Scale. Let me explain:

Looking back we see that the G Major Scale is spelled G A B C D E F# G. Count from the beginning and you’ll find that E is the sixth tone. If we begin from E we get E F# G A B C D E. Exactly the same notes, the only difference being the starting point. This is called the E Natural Minor Scale. Once you’ve done that it’s very simple to turn it into a Minor Pentatonic Scale. Just take out the second and sixth notes (in this case F# and C), and you are left with E G A B D. You are left with
five tones, which is precisely why it's called the Pentatonic Scale; penta meaning five and tonic meaning tone. A big reason for the popularity of this scale is due to the fact that by taking away the second and sixth notes you lose all of the half-steps. Half-steps tend to present a bit more difficulty to work with when improvising, so by eliminating them you're left with a scale that sounds great, and is very easy to work with melodically. Here it is:

E Minor Pentatonic

Once you get this one cooking you’ll have a ball. Use your fretting-hand’s third finger for any note on the third fret, and your second finger for any note on the second fret. As with all of your scales practice it forwards and backwards, paying careful attention to the quality of each note. Be aware that just because this is a relatively simple scale doesn't make it a pushover. The difficulty lies in keeping it clean, since it’s got all of those open strings. As you move from string to string you want to lift each finger very carefully, so that as the finger is coming off of the string it's muting the string that it's leaving. Otherwise by the time you get to the end you're going to sound like a wind chime. Also try using the heel of your picking-hand to mute the strings that are fatter than the one you're currently picking, and your fretting-hand’s index finger to dampen the strings that are skinnier than the one playing. You can read more about this, as well as other matters concerning technique here. Trust me when I say that this will not only keep you very busy, but also make a universe of difference in how you sound. That, by the way is the most important question any musician can ask him or herself. "What do I sound like?". Keep your ears open at all times. Start now by listening to a recording of me playing over the chord progression above. I repeat the progression three times, the first improvising using only the E Minor Pentatonic fingering above, along with some bending, pull-offs and other techniques you can learn about extensively on other sites. I stretched out quite a bit over the next two repeats, but believe it or not pretty much everything I’m doing here can be traced back to concepts I’ve talked about on this website. Keep studying and playing and you’ll eventually gain serious “under the hood” understanding of the guitar and of music in general. This understanding combined with a lot of experience as a player will allow you to become a great improviser in your own right!

Guitarbuzz Blues

Here's another little project for you. In
Lesson Sixteen we learned that scales can be moveable, as long as they don't contain any open strings. So how do we make the Minor Pentatonic Scale into a moveable fingering? Look at the diagram above, and imagine that every "O" is a filled in dot, and the nut is a fret. Voila! You've got a moveable fingering. Start anywhere you want, using your first finger to play anything that used to be an "O". Your fourth finger will play any note that is three frets higher, and your third finger will play any note that is two frets higher. While you're doing this, figure out what key you're playing in by determining the name of the lowest note.

Another thing I'd like to touch on is listening. You should be doing everything you can to seek out and devour great music. There’s an old saying that says “You are what you eat”, and it’s one-hundred percent applicable to music. What you listen to will affect what comes out of your guitar. You’re very lucky, starting out in the era we live. When I was beginning it was tough to find really good music. There was a lot of trial and error at the record store, which in addition to being somewhat frustrating could also add up financially. Nowadays with
iTunes and other great sites there are no excuses. You can preview anything you want for free, so you can be sure of what you’re getting. For blues music, you can’t beat listening to guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, B.B. King, or Buddy Guy. That said, I encourage you to explore. Check out some Robert Johnson to hear some of the possibilities of an open-tuned acoustic and a slide, or Cream to hear what happens when a trio of raucous Englishmen take this stuff and crank it up to “11”. Speaking of which, it’s about time you started trying to find some other humans with whom you can interact musically. Maybe you can even put together your own power trio!

Finally, I want to say thank you for using my site, as I know that there are literally thousands of options available on the web. I have attempted to, and hopefully succeeded in offering something a little different. There are many fine sites out there for learning licks and techniques, so many that I don’t feel that there is really any more need for that. What I wanted to do is provide you with some context and depth, so that going forward you can be more self-sufficient, and make better choices when it comes to finding the right instructor. I've put a tremendous amount of thought and work into this site, but there is no substititue for a good teacher. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be one. It's been an honor.