Steady-Thumb Blues

In our previous two lessons, we’ve seen how a 5-6-b7 line played on the bass strings can create a grooving rhythm guitar part (“Boogie Blues,” July ’06, and “Piano Boogie,” Aug. ’06). But this line has even more to offer. If we move it up to the treble strings (as opposed to plucking it on the bass strings) and tinker slightly with the note order, we’ll have a bluesy melody to hot-rod otherwise mundane major chords.
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Check out Ex. 1, in which we embellish both E and A major triads with a 5-b7-6-5 line. In bar 1, the line occurs on the second string (B, D, C#, B), creating an E-E7-E6-E progression. In bar 2, the line hops up to the first string (E, G, F#, E), yielding an A-A7-A6-A phrase. Play this two-bar progression slowly and freely, focusing on the melody as it threads its way through the chords.

In a minute, we’ll put this melodic motion to work in a fingerstyle blues passage, but first, try Ex. 2, a classic turnaround in the key of E. This C7-B7 (bVI7-V7) shift creates tension and release that draws the ear toward E (the I chord), our ultimate destination.

In Ex. 3, we revisit the moves in the previous two examples, but now we’ve done away with everything but the most essential tones. Besides making the passage easier to play, this streamlined fingering also lets the melodic movement clearly stand out against the supporting bass notes. The lesson here? Once you’ve worked out a progression, don’t be afraid to strip it down to its core by eliminating unnecessary notes and fretboard activity. Sometimes playing three strings sounds more powerful than five or six.

In bars 1-3, notice how your thumb (p) plucks insistent quarter-notes. Blues guitarists call this “steady-thumb” picking. On the treble strings (attacked by the index and middle fingers, indicated by i and m), the rhythmic action follows the bass until you reach beat three. On the and of three, pluck the two-note harmony that outlines the measure’s final chord. If you do it right, this interval will occur exactly between the steady-thumb bass of beats three and four. Now we’re rolling! The turnaround in bar 4 swings you back to the beginning or into a final song-ending E chord.

Next time: Sus-chord mojo.