Fingerstyle Blues

If you want to make money playing the blues, well, it’s gonna be tough—your best bet may be to get yourself an electric guitar, land a steady gig with a club band, and learn how to survive for weeks at a time on the Chitlin’ Circuit. But if you want insight into the roots—the soul—of the blues, and yearn to experience for yourself the music’s humble inception in the rural southern United States at the turn of the 20th century, then cast aside your pick, grab an acoustic guitar, and play the music fingerstyle.

Few genres of guitar music can match the universal appeal of acoustic blues. Plucked with the fingers, this timeless style is the earliest form of blues guitar. Before acoustic blues evolved in various directions (including instrumental acoustic blues), the guitar was just a convenient instrument with which to accompany yourself while you sang. Initially, the guitar style was defined by the singer’s accompaniment approach.
But gradually, the guitar went from being just a rhythmic accompaniment instrument to having an equal voice—one that could more than handle the melodic duties between vocal phrases. Specifically, the guitar provided the “response” in the call-and-response vocal/guitar interplay (a musical practice that has clear links to the African music of many early blues players’ ancestors) that has forever been a defining characteristic of blues. The guitar later evolved into other roles, including that of solo instrument delivering the blues entirely instrumentally.

Plectrum Not Spoken Here

Fingerstyle is the preferred approach for acoustic blues, because separating the functions of the plucking hand’s thumb from its fingers allows you to play independent bass lines against treble voices. More than just plunking out a “thumb brush” strumming style, an independent thumb means the thumb and fingers can play entirely separate musical roles—almost like a mini rhythm section—much the way ragtime pianists of the late 19th and early 20th century divided their right and left hands into different functions.
The piano model could not have been lost on the solo guitar players in the rural South around the same time. Savvy guitarists realized that the thumb could act like a pianist’s left hand (performing the bass lines), while the fingers sounded chords, fills, and melodic lines, just like a right-hand piano part. And this approach worked for all the different, emerging styles of the day, including Delta, Piedmont, and country-ragtime blues.

Blues Brands

A word about styles and labels: “Delta” describes not only a region where the blues originated (the vast alluvial plain that centers around northwest Mississippi and eastern Arkansas), but a style of guitar playing in which the guitar is used largely as a solo instrument, usually to accompany one’s own singing. Delta blues has an earthier, more plodding sound than some other styles, due in large part to a heavy-thumb approach.
Piedmont blues is named after a region, too, and shares qualities with country, ragtime, and “songster” blues styles. “Piedmont” (French for “foot of the mountain”), in this case, is the southeastern United States, stretching from Virginia to Georgia, from the Atlantic coast to the foothills of the Appalachians. Piedmont blues is brighter and bouncier than its Delta counterpart, with a lighter, alternating bass line and syncopated rhythms in the treble voices.
When the blues went electric, the Chicago players went at it by and large with flatpicks (though there were some exceptions). But fingerstyle blues was kept alive in country music, due in no small part to the efforts of Merle Travis. So for this lesson, we’ll use “country” to describe the type of blues that came from Memphis and Nashville, and its fusing with R&B and country music—a.k.a. rockabilly. Rockabilly was an important transition for both fingerstyle and blues, putting it squarely into the repertoire of electric guitarists, and paving the way for the next generation of fingerstyle players, including Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, James Burton, and modern-day virtuosos such as Tommy Emmanuel and Doyle Dykes. Let’s start at the beginning.

Let Your Fingers Fly

Achieving independence between the thumb and fingers is key to all fingerstyle blues. Example 1 shows a basic Delta blues passage in which the thumb metes out an insistent, plodding bass line in deliberate sounding shuffle eighths. The thumbed bass part leaves the plucking fingers free to play contrasting and complementary figures in the upper voice, such as short fills between vocal phrases, solo lead lines, or, as in this example, sustained chords.
Example 2 retains the eighth-note shuffle, but now the chords take on a more active role, providing syncopation and melodic movement. The 5-6 motion (B-C# in E, E-F# in A) in the upper-voice chords is the familiar figure heard in the rhythm playing of Jimmie Johnson and, most famously, Chuck Berry. But Robert Johnson was doing it first, and he often put it in the bass line, strumming double-stops with his thumb. To keep things accessible, we’re putting the moving figure in the chords while keeping the single-note bass line intact. Notice that syncopation has been introduced in the upper voice, with chord strikes on the and of beat two (bars 2-4), and the and of beat four (bar 3). Accent these chordal figures to give your sound a heavier backbeat.
In Ex. 3, we pull the bass line back to quarter-notes, because the rhythmic activity has picked up in the upper voices, played by the fingers. Note the scheme and contour of the upper part—this is played first over the I chord (E), then with its pitches modified slightly, reprised over the IV chord (A). This repeating of melodies over different chords is fundamental to the blues, drawing its influence from the call-and-response structure of the field hollers, work songs, and, going way back, African music from which the blues sprang.

Fancy Pants

In Ex. 4, we take our bedrock of quarter-note bass notes and play an entire four-bar melodic solo. The opening phrase is similar to the one in Ex. 3, but it’s fleshed out and fancier, owing much of its flair to the eighth-note triplets in the upper voice. The last two bars feature back-to-back classic blues quotes, played by everyone from Muddy Waters (who brought Delta blues to Chicago and electrified it) to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Practice the Piedmont passage in Ex. 5 by first playing the bass line. Apply a slight palm mute with the heel of the plucking hand so that the notes stay short and crisp. Piedmont blues is jauntier than Delta, and placing a spring in the step of your bass notes will help you get the feel. As in Delta blues, Piedmont achieves its effect by placing a contrasting musical part above the bass. Since the bass is short and crisp (and not at all pondering, like Delta bass lines), let the chords ring out in sustained half-notes. Note the progression, too: C, C7, F, D7/F#, C, G7, C—very different sounding from the typical I-IV-V progressions in E we’ve focused on so far. These changes are close to ragtime, and indeed Piedmont adopted many ragtime trappings, including stride bass and highly syncopated melodies up top.

Ons and Offs

In Ex. 6 we retain the alternating, low-high bass from Ex. 5, but now use the fingers to play a melody. Because Piedmont often has tricky syncopations, it helps to think of melody notes as having two “states”—on or off the thumb notes. When a melody note is on (coinciding with the bass note), it’s part of a pinch (both the bass and melody notes are plucked simultaneously with a thumb/finger “pinch”). When it’s off (in between), it’s part of a mini thumb-finger-thumb arpeggio. Sometimes it’s tricky to squeeze in an off note between two driving bass notes, but it’s like double-dutch jump rope—after you learn the technique, you can get in between the “ropes” without getting mangled. The first two bars are all pinches. Bar 3 opens with a pinch followed by four in-between (syncopated) notes.
The Piedmont melody in Ex. 7 is in the style of the great Blind Blake, who often played in the key of C, because it seems to suit the Piedmont and ragtime styles better than E. (G was also a popular Piedmont key.) Though the passage has a ragtime feel, the altered melody notes D# (Eb) and Bb are taken from the blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7).

Coal Mine Boogie

Example 8 shows a rockabilly progression in the style of Merle Travis, and draws from both Delta and Piedmont in that it provides a solid quarter-note bass, but uses just a two-note, low-high pattern. Since the tempo is much faster than the medium shuffle of Piedmont (hence the time signature is 2/2, or cut time), the upper voice is sparser and less melodic. But like the Delta blues, the melodic gestures are similar for the I and IV chords. To really get that authentic rockabilly sound, don a thumbpick for a percussive effect, and add some slapback echo.
Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and others evolved the Piedmont and rockabilly styles into more sophisticated fingerstyle approaches, often incorporating jazz chords, walking bass, and other more intricate musical concepts.
In Ex. 9, the quarter-note bass neither repeats nor alternates (as it did in Delta and Piedmont). Instead, it “walks” up to C# in bar 3, and then cycles from C#7 to F#7 to B7 to E7, in a VI-II-V-I cadence. The melody descends, creating pleasing counterpoint via contrary motion to the bass.
Example 10 retains Ex. 9’s bass line, but now the melody is a free-flowing line that combines open strings with fretted notes to create a legato, harp-style effect. The trick here is to keep the bass notes ringing for their full rhythmic value while you skip around the neck grabbing fretted notes up and down the neck. The harmonic content of this melody incorporates notes from both the major scale (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#) and the blues scale (E, G, A, Bb, B, D), so it’s a cross between country and blues. The chords, meanwhile, have a strong blues and ragtime quality. Atkins and Reed based many songs on this ascending blues bass line, including “Jiffy Jam” and “Blue Finger,” and this approach represents the combining of many elements to produce an arranged approach to fingerstyle blues.

Jon Chappell has written many instructional books on guitar, including Blues Guitar for Dummies [Wiley Publishing].