The Essential Guide to Blues Rhythm Guitar

A quick-start guide to the art and craft of playing classic blues shuffle rhythm guitar.
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The driving force behind music is rhythm, and the foundation of traditional blues rhythm is the shuffle. Here’s a quick-start guide to the art and craft of playing classic blues shuffle rhythm guitar.

HARMONIZING THE DRUMS

The fundamental role of rhythm guitar is to harmonize the drums, in other words, to express the feel of the drum set with chords, so the first step in capturing the elusive blues shuffle groove is to listen to how a drummer plays it. Ex. 1 shows a typical medium shuffle pattern: bass drum on beats one and three, snare drum on beats two and four (the backbeat), and the shuffle rhythm (eighth-note triplets with the middle note left out) on the hi-hat.

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While you’re listening, tap your foot on each downbeat, mute the strings with your fretting hand, and scratch out the hi-hat pattern on the strings, muted with the fret hand, using alternate strokes—downstroke on the downbeat, upstroke on the upbeat (Ex. 2). Pick from your wrist and keep it and your forearm loose and relaxed. Match the tempo precisely, accenting each downbeat and adding a little extra snap on the backbeats (two and four) to mirror the relaxed yet authoritative groove.

Next, fret an A5 power chord on the sixth and fifth strings and mute the remaining strings with the side of your first finger. Continue the same picking pattern, releasing the pressure on the strings immediately after the downbeats and sustaining the upbeats (Ex. 3). Classic shuffle phrasing requires careful coordination between the hands to balance the laid-back triplet feel, the slight break in the middle of each beat, and the accented downbeats.

BOOGIE SHUFFLE AND THE 12-BAR BLUES

Now we have laid the proper foundation for the number-one blues guitar rhythm pattern—the boogie shuffle (Ex. 4). Credit goes to Delta blues icon Robert Johnson for adapting this boogie-woogie piano figure to the guitar (check out his “Sweet Home Chicago”), and disciples like Elmore James (“Dust My Broom”) carried it forward into the electric era. Maintain the drum-based picking pattern while you add the extra note on every other beat with your fourth finger (interpret the eighth notes with a shuffle feel).

The most common vehicle for the blues shuffle is the 12-bar blues, a song arrangement consisting of three chords: the tonic, or “one,” chord, plus the “four” and “five” chords, based on the fourth and fifth steps of the major scale, respectively (key of A: A, D and E). Apply the boogie shuffle pattern to the 12-bar blues in A shown in Ex. 5, continuing the same picking and fretting pattern as you switch between chords.

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To transpose this rhythm figure to other keys, first locate the root of the one chord on the sixth string. The root of the four chord is at the same fret on the fifth string, and the five chord is up two frets from that.

TURNAROUND AND ENDING

At the end of each repeating 12-bar progression—what’s often referred to as a chorus—you have the choice either to go back to the top or end the song, and there’s a specific chord pattern for each. To keep going, insert a turnaround, or rhythmic accent going to the five chord in the 12th bar (turnaround chords are typically dominant ninth chords). Play the turnaround accent without altering the steady down-up picking pattern, as demonstrated in Ex. 6.

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To end the song, conclude the accent on the one chord instead of the five (the final chords are also usually ninths), as demonstrated in Ex. 7.

UPBEATS

The boogie shuffle is the most popular guitar rhythm choice, but it’s not the only game in town. A classic counterpart is a steady pattern of upbeats, referring to the last eighth note of each triplet (also borrowed from piano players). Using the same shuffle groove in your picking hand, fret the chords on upbeats and relax the finger pressure on the downbeats to mute the strings without letting go of them. Use ninth chords all the way, and continue the alternate picking pattern right through the turnaround (Ex. 8).

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Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor featured a layered boogie-shuffle-plus-upbeats guitar arrangement on some of the best-known shuffles in the blues repertoire, such as “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” and many others, recordings that inspired Stevie Ray Vaughan’s all-in-one-guitar shuffle masterpiece, “Pride and Joy.”

HORN RIFFS

A third layer of shuffle rhythm is inspired by the horn-section arrangements on classic blues records by B.B. King and others. Adapted to the guitar, these syncopated two-bar horn riffs include sixth chords alongside ninths, with chromatic half-step moves providing extra color. Maintain the alternating shuffle picking pattern, strumming the chords that land on the downbeats with downstrokes and those on the upbeats with upstrokes. Ex. 9 demonstrates the standard ending).

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These three workhorse shuffle rhythms can be played separately or together in any combination and are highly adaptable to different chord progressions, tempos, and styles of blues, from “down-home” to “uptown.” There are many other textures and techniques in the blues rhythm repertoire, but the key to unlocking any rhythm style is to play like a drummer. Just substitute picks for sticks.

Keith Wyatt created the School of Electric Blues Guitar at www.artistworks.com. He taught blues guitar for over 30 years at L.A.’s Musicians Institute and is the author of Blues Rhythm Guitar and Blues Guitar Soloing (MI Press/Hal Leonard).

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