Boogie Blues

So far in our journey through the world of rhythm, we’ve encountered syncopation (“Get Rhythm,” May ’06) and the Bo Diddley beat (“Hey, Bo Diddley!,” June ’06). In this lesson, we’ll add some swampy boogie to the repertoire. Many greats—from John Lee Hooker, the godfather of boogie, to ZZ Top and the North Mississippi Allstars—have built hellacious grooves around this primal beat.
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Ex. 1 shows the boogie rhythm in its simplest form, played using a stripped-down A chord (technically, it’s an interval with a root-5 construction). Written in a 12/8 time signature, this loping beat has a long-short, long-short (dum-da, dum-da) pulse that—when played with conviction—creates a hypnotic feel. To “swampify” the boogie rhythm, mute the bass strings with the side of your picking hand, and play each beat’s leading quarter-note staccato (i.e., give it an abrupt, detached sound that separates it from any others).

In Ex. 2, we add a Muddy Waters-inspired fifth-string riff to spice up beat four in each measure. Now we’re rolling.

Next we shift from Mississippi to St. Louis: Ex. 3 melds our boogie rhythm to the thumping bass-note piano figure Chuck Berry learned from Johnnie Johnson, and used to power “Little Queenie,” “Rock ’n Roll Music,” “Carol,” and many other roots-rock anthems. Notice the melody that ascends and descends on the fourth string (E, F#, G, F#) against the drone of the open fifth string (A). This upper line rises from the 5, to the 6, and then the b7 before retracing its steps. As we’ll see in the next few lessons, these tones play a key role in many essential rhythm riffs, from rock to funk to blues. For now, turn this figure into a finger independence and strengthening exercise by fretting the 5, 6, and b7 with your 1st, 3rd, and 4th digits, respectively.