THE BASIC E CHORD GUITAR SHAPE
Starting with the basic chords shapes, we of course have E major, which is the root and we come back to it again and again. As with all chords, there is more than one way to play it, and we'll look at that later, but for now let's stick to the basics.
The first thing you'll notice is that it's not a complex chord shape - just cluster of 3 strings across 2 frets held down by the index finger, second and third fingers. The chord can either be strummed or fingerpicked, and when applying more advanced left hand techniques like pulling off and hammering on, the effect becomes very ' bluesy'.
As with any chord, you can either let the strings ring, or damp them off with either hand. A common blues picking pattern in many States was to hit the open bass E string with the thumb and then mute it or choke off the note with the palm of the picking hand. This is called the 'monotonic bass'
A 'hammer-on' is when you strike an open string, such as the G string in the case of the basic E chord shape, and then drop the forefinger back on to the first fret to form the E chord. A 'pull-off' is the opposite to this, where your hit the string fretted and then lift off the finger. Both techniques can be done with any of the fretted strings, and others, to make the sound more varied and interesting. All blues men used these techniques extensively, together with string bends, which we'll cover later.
STANDARD BLUES CHORD SEQUENCE FOR BLUES IN E - TURNING THE E INTO E7
It's quite rare to find a blues song with an E that doesn't eventually become an E7, mostly at the end of the second line of verse, or as a lead into the A chord. The basic form is to keep the E chord and then fret the B string with your pinkie on the 3rd fret, and this really is the sound of roots blues. That 7th makes all the difference and speaks directly to the soul.
In many songs the pinkie slides down one fret to turn the chord into E6, often siding back up to create a kind of a 'swing' effect, or used as part of a short single string run featuring the B and the high E string. The trick with the blues in E, as with any chord progression guitar based, is to do you best to vary the techniques and chord extensions so that the listener enjoys the experience.
THE BASIC A CHORD SHAPE
Another easy shape, in fact one of the first ones that most of us learn. It can either be played with three finger, which can be a bit restricting, or with a bar using the forefinger just laid across the 2nd. Needless to say, you wouldn't pick the high E string fretted on the 2nd fret using the bar - that would sound quite weird and is a different chord entirely.
Although this basic A chord shape has it's uses, it's not that common in the old school type acoustic blues, but mostly reserved for folk style picking, and very simple country and western type ballads. No, the A chord really comes into it's own when playing the blues when we fret the high E string high up on the fret board with the pinkie and using a bar for the other strings.
The image on the left shows the same A shape but with the addition of that high E fretted up on the 5th fret. This brings several advantages. First of all, while it's still the same chord, it's got a subtly different flavor. I sometimes also fret the next string (B) with my pinkie as well, which sounds great - if your finger is strong enough! It's a bit of a stretch, but the effect is worth it IMO.
Another advantage is that you can use that pinkie to play scales up and down while keeping the bar and just releasing it when the progression of notes demands it. It's the kind of thing you might do during a musical break and helps to add variation to your sound. Listen to the famous turnaround in Robert Johnson's 'Me and The Devil'
to hear this technique used to great advantage - I'm talking just about the A chord run down here - the actual song is in A and not E.
The really big pro for using this long A, as I call it, is that readily turns into A7, just by letting off the pinkie and fretting the high E on the 3rd fret.
B7 COMPLETES THE FAMOUS BLUES IN E PROGRESSION
Strangely enough, for reasons we won't go into here, the chord that completes the trio isn't a major chord that turns into a 7th variation , but is already in fact a 7th chord. The form shown on the right has the A string fretted on the 2nd fret, so it's this string we need to use in a monotonic bass pattern, for example, as the bass E string isn't fretted and will sound discordant.
Very often, this shape is used but with the bass E held down on the 2nd fret instead of the A string. As long as we don't pluck the A string by design or mistake, it sounds pretty good. The high E is held down with the pinkie and can be used to fret the B string if we wish. A 'hammer-on' can be used to great effect on the D string, which is fretted by the forefinger - alternate pulling off and hammering on makes a great Delta blues sound.
Basically, that's it! A very convincing blues can be created with the blues progression chords of E, E7, A, A7 and B7. It's our job to make it more interesting by introducing extra notes between chord changeovers, and by adding more intricate musical variations as musical breaks between the verses.
Well, what about the chord inversions
that I mentioned earlier? Here are some easy ones that I use myself:
Easy Blues Progression Chords - Inversions for the Key Of E
Half-chords are often used, which enables the guitarist to get creative and play lead-type runs high up the fret board. Starting with the E chord, its mostly used in it's basic shape, because it is so powerful, but sometimes in the verse and also the breaks, we want to break away from the chord to make a little excitement. Always remember, the cardinal sin of blues guitar is to bore the audience! This is easily done if strumming the basic chord structure in a 12 bar blues progression, for example.
The chord shape in the left is in the shape of D7, and we form it the same way. Notice that the B string is fretted on the 3rd fret, exactly where the 7th note appears for the E chord. This shape is a great way to play E7.
You can either hit that bass E string with a monotonic bass, or use the thumb to pick one of the trebles, using two fingers to add triplets on the last two strings, if your technique is advance enough. Or just strum across the strings upwards with your forefinger - it all sounds great!
A good way to use this formation is to run it down to the 2nd and 1st fret before going back to the E major, which then becomes E7, or stays as it is depending on where you are in the song - you'll soon get the hang of it! Try and strike the strikes four beats to the bar, running the chord down every bar, and your music will start to swing. Another thing we can do for the E chord is to move right up the fret board and play just strings from an inversion on the 7th fret.
Place the forefinger on the high E string on the 7th fret as shown in the diagram on the right. Now the second finger goes on the next string on the 8th fret, and either strum upwards with the forefinger or pinch the two strings together. Yes, it makes a fantastic train whistle Mississippi Blues sound, but wait - it gets better!
Now, strike the B string pushing over and then let it slide back. It really does create an unbeatable Delta Blues music sound. It's plaintiff and speaks directly to the emotions of the listener. Lightnin' Hopkins used this technique (as well as many others!) to engage the feelings of his audience. In the video below, I play 'Woman Called Mary' showing how Hopkins used this train whistle technique in a blues in E. It also includes all of the techniques discussed on this page, including the chord inversions and instrumental breaks.
Tips for playing a Classic Blues Chord Pattern In E From Lightnin' Hopkins