‘Which is the best key for blues guitar?’
It's a very common question for beginners and intermediate players alike. The answer to this question depends on two things. First of all, what level are you at? If you are a beginner, then obviously you want to stick to more simple chord structures. If you're an intermediate player and above, then you want to explore other chord structures in more complex formats.
For the new guitarist exploring the Blues, the key of E is a great place to start. Not only is it less complex than many other chords, but it's also represents the roots of the Blues. To play a basic blues all you need are three chords, namely E major, B7, and A.
Of course, we can make blues music more interesting by sometimes using the 7th, when we're ending a verse, for example. Just by using one extra string, turning E major into a Major Seventh creates a nice bluesy effect. The B7 chord most to keeps its structure but the A chord gives us another opportunity to create variations.
Instead of A major we come sometimes play a 7th. There are also two ways to play A7, so we have more variations. If we think about chord inversions, then we could also add that to our repertoire for playing A or A7, and so we have several ways of playing the same thing.
When playing A major, we can either use just three strings by fretting the the D,G and B strings on the second fret, or we can use what I call the long A, where we bar the first four strings on the 2nd fret and use the pinky, or little finger, on the 5th fret for the last string. If you use the pinky to hold down the last two strings, it produces a really nice effect, a much richer sound.
The best known chord inversion for A major is the F shape on the 5th fret. This can be used now and again, but It suffers from the big drawback that it uses all the fingers, so there is very little room for melodic changes, using the little finger, for example.
Playing the Blues in the key of E gives is another problem. The basic structure of just three chords means that it's a simple music, which also means that is quite difficult to make it very interesting, particularly for a beginner. Paradoxically, it's also good news in a way, because it means that we have to be more inventive and create other ways to keep the audience interest.
Even though the key of E has a simple structure, it can be finger-picked in different ways. Many Delta blues men used a monotonic base style of striking with the thumb. This is also called ‘the dead bass’ technique, as the note is damped with the palm of the picking-hand immediately after it’s plucked, giving the effect of a ‘thud’ or a ‘thunk’, rather than a clean note.
Listen to a slow blues in E by Lightnin Hopkins and compare it with Hey Hey by Big Bill Broonzy. They are both masters at playing blues guitar but the effect is very different. Broonzy uses the monotonic bass technique extensively, in fact, almost exclusively, but his inventive use of his finger strokes turn the blues into swing.
We can also play the blues in E with a Travis picking Style. This way of picking with the thumb alternates between two or three bass strings, producing a rhythmic ‘bum-chick’ sound. it was named after the playing of Master guitarist Merle Travis and is mostly associated with playing in the keys of C or G.
Discovering new ways of playing the Blues in E is essential for you to progress and advance in your own particular style. Developing your own style is also important, but the way to do this is to absorb other people's styles. You need to understand how the old acoustic blues masters played, so that you can copy and then change, and adapt it to your own way of playing.
One of the biggest problems with modern blues playing is technical ability, but emotion and feeling. This is one reason why great blues man are few and far between. There are many technically excellent players around today, but so many players are quite boring, even though that technique is impeccable. There is something missing. You need to find that something in your own style, in your own playing, which basically comes from the heart. When an audience feels that you're playing and talking to them from your heart, then you’ve found the Blues.
No one can question the excellence of the playing of Tommy Emmanuel, but it isn't just Tommy’s playing that makes us hang on to every note. The man is so passionate about guitar playing in general, that it just shines through his music. When you have this combination of marvellous technical ability and an emotional feel, plus a rare connection with the audience, this is very special indeed. It's what we should all be aiming for.
Blues guitar keys for the intermediate and advanced fingerstyle player.
Whatever your style of playing, once you get past the beginning stage, inevitably you want to explore a more complex way of making music. You begin to understand that you can use different keys for different styles and for conveying different emotions. The key of A is great for the Blues in the old style, such as delta blues, as is the key of E.
Some other styles of Blues music and particularly fingerstyle acoustic guitar music are pure ragtime, Piedmont, swing and gospel. Each one requires a slightly different approach to finger-picking the guitar. Real masters of the acoustic guitar, like Big Bill Broonzy and Reverend Gary Davis, can play any style in any key, but for most guitarists the keys of C and G are best suited to the more complex arrangements.
Many old style guitarists use the key of C for Ragtime Blues, and there's a couple of reasons for this. First of all, because most strings are held down we have more variations. We can add to the code structure by lifting a finger, bending a string, hammering on or pulling off, and by using various damping techniques.
A great example of this might be West Coast Blues by blind Blake. Blake's finger-picking was very fast and also very accurate. His style is playing made it necessary to have very tight coordination between the left and right hands, in fact it was essential, if it wasn't to sound messy.
You can either play the C chord with both the first bass notes held down, or just with the 5th string fretted. Of course, if you use the first two bass strings, all of your left hand fingers are used up in forming the chord, which severely limits the variations you can apply.
However, if you use the simpler C chord as shown, then this frees up the little finger,which can be used on the higher strings. But be careful - it also means that you can't strike the bottom E string, because it will sound discordant. It also means that you can't alternate between the base E string or the other bass strings, for the same reason.
When playing ragtime blues guitar, I want to create a complex sound and often this means using a Travis alternating picking style that moves between three bass strings. If I want to play in this style but still use my little finger on the higher strings, then I simply fret the first two bass strings, moving my finger over in time with the picking hand strikes.
The basic G chord shape is a favorite with all guitarists, particularly beginners. There are only three strings fretted, which means that there are less strings to get wrong and buzz. I don't find it as rich for playing ragtime guitar, but it does lend itself to some very interesting progressions, particularly when I want to turn-around between verses.
This feature of adding a turnaround between verses is particularly strong in ragtime blues guitar. It creates a break between verses and its also another place where we can introduce variations to make it more interesting for the audience.
Often, in blind Blake's work, when playing in the key of G between verses, you introduce a turnaround using the chords G, G7, C, Eb7, and back to G, finishing off with D7.When performed cleanly at a reasonable speed, it's a very appealing sound.
Similarly, a turnaround in the key of C uses the chord progression of C, C7, F, Ab7 and then back to C. You'll find some minor variations but most mainstream ragtime blues guitar players, such as blind boy Fuller, use this turnaround in almost every song in the key of C.
Playing the Blues in Open Tuning
Three open tunings are used quite extensively in many blues styles. The first, drop D, can’t really be called an open tuning because only one string is tuned down. The base E note is tuned down two steps to D.
Now if we alternate our thumb between that bass E string and the fourth string, it creates a lovely droning alternating effect, and we can introduce a melody on the higher strings without worrying about fretting the bass note.
Quite a few of the old classic blues were created in this tuning, songs like Brown Skin Mama by Sam Chatmon, and Statesboro Blues from Willie mctell. Scrapper Blackwell also use this tuning for songs like Back Door woman Blues and Kokomo Blues. In the hands of a master guitar player it can be really inventive.
If we now drop down the first, 2nd and 3rd strings as shown in the diagram, we have drop D. this is great for a beginner, because if we strum our fingers across the strings, it plays a D major chord. Now if we bar the 5th fret and then the 7th fret, we have the basic three chords for playing a nice blues song in the key of D.
Sometimes it was used to play bottleneck style, but more often it was used for ragtime and blues picking. Blind Blake cut over 126 sides in his career and four or five of these were in open D tuning. Down the Country was a slow blues and his famous piece Police Dog Blues was fast with a ragtime feel. Both tunes use the same chords, which of course are different from standard tuning chords. However, they are very easy to learn.
A great many bottleneck delta blues style songs were created in open G tuning. This tuning was even easier to attain than open D. You simply tune the base E and the high E string down two steps to D, take the 5th string (the A string down) two steps, and you're ready to go.
It's often being said that playing open G in the bottleneck style is the easiest to learn but the hardest to master. The basic idea is quite simple - the slide is simply rested lightly across the threats without touching the frets themselves. If you try this by resting the bottleneck on the strings and strum the guitar, you’ll notice some strange sounds coming from both sides of the bottleneck.
This is because both sides of the bottleneck are creating sounds from the strings. Ideally, we want the sounds from the strings between the bottleneck and the saddle of the guitar. The strings between the bottleneck and the fret-board have to be damped somehow, and we do this by resting a finger on the strings behind the bottleneck.Now we can start to make music.
Open G was used extensively in the Mississippi Delta, and this was probably because of the damp, humid conditions. It was much easier to keep in tune than standard tuning. Using the bottleneck, as well as producing that lonesome delta blues sound, also gave another advantage when using guitars that were below standard and difficult to keep in tune.
Normally, the bottleneck slides up or down towards the target fret to achieve the correct note. It's also a feature of bottleneck playing that the slide is moved backwards and forwards quickly to give a nice effect. Luckily, this also gives us a chance to search for the perfect note at the same time. It's very difficult to slide up the fret-board and hit that note spot on, so this vibrato is very useful.