I've been creating lessons for some years now and some of my courses are quite big. For example, my main course from 'Texas to the Delta' contains 40 lessons. Inevitably, people ask me which are the easiest lessons, which are the easiest videos to watch, and the easiest guitar styles to play?
So I created some notes for guidance. Generally I tell people that it all depends on what you want type of blues guitar you want to play and the fingerstyle that you're interested in, but also of course, it depends on your expertise. What level are you?
Ideally, to begin finger-picking blues guitar you should be an intermediate fingerpicker, so you should know a basic fingerstyle pattern, be comfortable with changing chords and with basic chord progressions in the normal keys, such as E, of course, which is a very common blues key. Many of the easiest acoustic blues songs to learn are in the key of E and A.
The key of A is almost as common and then the more complex chords that tend to be used for Piedmont, Ragtime and swing, which are C, G and to some extent, D 2. To continue with a post such as this, where I want to specify five easy blues lessons to start fingerstyle blues guitar, I would have to say really we need to talk about keys and tunings.
Blues Chord Progressions - The Blues In E
So before we move on to the easiest songs to learn, let's do it. What do I mean by tunings? If we're looking at standard tuning, whereby we tune the six strings of an acoustic guitar to E,A,D,G,B and E, then the key of E is a great place to start.
Any slow blues in the key of E will put you well on your way to to learning some real blues. It's the root of the blues. The basic code structure for a blues song ending in E, is E and A and B7. What are the biggest challenges when playing a blues in E?
It is that the structure is so simple that it's quite difficult to make it sound interesting. In giving variety, variation in style and also in melody and picking pattern is very important for the blues. It's to be comfortable with the cliche which a blue structure is.
Basically, the listener knows the cliché and knows where it's going but wants be pleasantly surprised from time to time with variations, so we can move out of that structure if we want to, to try and create variation and generate interest in the audience. As long as it's within that structure and doesn't wander too far into unknown territory, it works.
The other good thing about paying a basic blues in E is it tends to have a structure that we recognise such as a 12 bar or an 8 bar structure. Some very great blues players, like Lightning Hopkins, Big Bill broonzy, used the chord structure in the key of E for many, many songs of course.
They place more importance on the feel of blues guitar, rather than the complicated finger-picking patterns of ragtime or jazz, although Broonzy's swing style can get complicated. We find the feeling and overall effect is much more important than the actual technical complexity of what's happening, how we're picking the strings.
In my early career I played almost nothing but Ragtime Blues Guitar, and sometimes Scott Joplin ragtime piano pieces. It was relatively late, maybe 20 years after I began to fingerpick, I heard a song by Lightnin Hopkins. Hopkins played a very simple Blues in E He hit one or two bass notes with spaces between and the effect was the stunning.
In fact, I felt a tingle run down my spine and I realized that I've been missing a lot, because when I played ragtime, if there was a space in the music, I wanted to fill it with a note, the more complex the better. I realise that this is a just a way of showing off, which comes with being young, I guess.
But to get back to the real feeling of the Blues, you need to move a little more slowly, which is great when you're learning to play the blues guitar. Think of the acoustic blues in the Mississippi Delta Style, even the style of Robert Johnson. These style are accessible but the intensity of emotion, his feeling, is what is difficult to grasp, and to try and copy, and also to bring to an audience.
So then this became my goal to take a Blues in E or A and create something very, very simple and give you that authentic feeling. This is hard to do. We're living in modern times, in a faster-paced time. How do I make this very simple Blues into something that feels right, feels like belongs, feels authentic?
You should be able to close your eyes and imagine somebody playing the guitar in rural Mississippi or in a bar, or a speakeasy somewhere. Trying to give you that authentic feel is by far the hardest thing you ever do when you learn to play Blues guitar.
The next thing I would recommend for people starting to learn blues guitar is to experiment with tuning the guitar down to the open G, dropped D or open D. Open G, of course is popular to use for play bottleneck in the Delta Style. Robert Johnson played in open G and also Son House and many others.
It has been said the bottleneck blues guitar in the Delta style is very easy acoustic blues to learn but very difficult to master. This is true. Normally it's a very simple code structure. If you use a bottleneck and slide it up to the 5th fret, then the 7th fret and then the 12th fret, then you have the three basic chords and you can sing most Blues with these three formations.
Which is basically just resting the bottleneck lightly on top of the strings, not touching the fret-board, vibrating the bottleneck and rolling it backwards and forwards, so that there's a lovely whining sound comes out of the the guitar.
It's also necessary to place one finger on top of the strings behind the bottleneck, between the bottleneck and the nut of the guitar. If not, then the strings vibrate on both side of the bottleneck creating horrible sounds. Of course it is very possible to create nasty metallic scraping sounds, so you have to be accurate when you place the slide like on the strings and be careful with the finger that is damping the strings behind the bottleneck.
Once you have the basic technique then you can spend many weeks and months perfecting it, so that you can hit the notes very clearly and accurately. Luckily, with the bottleneck technique you can take the bottleneck up to the fret, vibrate it around, so that you can make final adjustments while you're in the vicinity of that fret. You can listen to it and make the adjustments so that it becomes accurate.
The bottleneck song in open G is almost exclusively played with a monotonic base, which means that the bass strings are hit with the thumb and they're usually damped with the palm of the picking hand. The thumb does not alternate between two or three strings, such as in Ragtime guitar. A very accessible song to learn in open G in the bottleneck style is 'Walking Blues' by either Son House or Robert Johnson.
My third pick would be to tune the guitar to drop D. Drop D tuning is really easy to do. Drop the Bass E down to D. Now I can play a D chord without bothering with fretting the bass, the bass E. Then you have a lovely droning sound and if you alternate between the bass E string and the D string, string it produces a really good droning sound. It's a rhythmic, alternating sound.
Using this alternating sound, this alternating bass, you can create some some really nice melodies on the higher strings without having to worry too much about the bass notes. Of course, when you want to play a normal progression and used chords like C and G, you need to adapt the chord fingering a little. For the C chord you wouldn't play the bass note at all, and for G, you need to fret the first bass string on the 5th fret.
If not, it sounds discordant. There are many folk songs and many easy blues songs for beginners that are played in drop D. My final choice would be to move on from drop D and tune to open D. You can see how to do this in the diagram that I posted here.
Drop D is interesting to me because you can either play in alternating bass style and play lightly in a Ragtime style, or you can use the monotonic bass. It is also quite a good choice for playing a Slow Blues. I'd recommend checking out a song called 'Down the Country' by Blind Blake, as a good way to begin playing blues guitar in open D tuning.
A list acoustic blues songs to learn suitable for the beginner:
- Woman Called Mary by Lightnin' Hopkins
- Me and The Devil Blues by Robert Johnson
- Statesboro' Blues by Blind Willie McTell
- Down The Country by Blind Blake
- Walkin' Blues by Robert Johnson