How To Not Suck Every Time You Want To Play A Blues On Your Acoustic Guitar

By Simon Candy 

Blues is a universal language amongst musicians, and as an acoustic guitar player you need to be well versed in this language, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a blues guitarist. You could be anywhere in the world, I know I have been, and find yourself in a situation where you are knocking out a blues with someone you’ve just met. It’s great fun and a great feeling to be able to do.

Right about now you might be thinking, ok so I need to get my improvisation skills up, and I need work on my solo technique. Yes, this is all good, however it’s on the rhythm side of guitar that most people fall down. It’s not unusual to see a guitarist rip out an absolute killer blues solo, only to suck when it’s their turn to play the rhythm part.

Fact is, as a guitar player, most of your time is spent playing rhythm guitar, yet many of us struggle when it comes to this. It’s almost an after thought as we strum out the same old chords, with the same old strum patterns, padding out the time until we next take a solo.

So let’s fix this by looking at 3 blues guitar rhythm techniques and approaches you can use when playing the most common form of the blues, the 12 bar blues.

 

The Basic Blues Form

If you have played guitar for at least a little while you should be familiar with the basic 12 bar blues progression. If not here it is in the key of G: 

12 Bar Blues Progression

 

Now, a lot of guitar players, even those who have played for many years, never get beyond this point. That is, when playing blues rhythm guitar, they will look at this chart and play stock standard open and bar chords. 

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does get monotonous and boring after a while, and certainly won’t inspire whoever is soloing over it. There is so much more you could be doing when it’s your turn to play rhythm blues guitar parts in a jam, gig situation, or when composing a blues tune.

It’s not just yourself that will benefit greatly from having variety in your blue rhythm playing, but the people playing with you too. For example, when taking a solo, there’s nothing quite like having great rhythm playing to solo over. I guess we could say it’s a two way street when it comes to playing blues, yes you need to solo well, but you also need to support the other people soloing with great blues rhythm guitar playing. 

 

1. Blues Rhythm Riffs

In this first example we are going to use a cool blues rhythm riffs to spice up our 12 bar progression. Rhythm riffs are a great alternative to playing chords and will add interest to your rhythm parts, not just in blues but in any style of music. 

Here it is:

Acoustic-Blues-Rhythm-Riffs

 

 

In the example above I am applying the same riff throughout the 12 bar, adapting it to the changes of the progression as they happen. This rhythm riff is targeting the 3rd of each chord and is one of literally thousands of riffs you could use in your blues and general acoustic rhythm guitar playing.

 

2. Jazzing Up The Blues

Another great way to play a blues and provide the soloist with some cool variety in the rhythm guitar parts is to jazz it up! I personally love doing this myself as it’s not only a lot of fun to play, but a lot of fun to solo over too.

Here is what’s considered to be a stock standard blues in the jazz world:

 

Acoustic-Jazz-Blues

 

 

The first thing you might notice about the blues example above is that there are more chords. This is because in jazz it’s common to substitute chords in for, and in addition to, other chords in the progression. 

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into chord substitution and all that it entails, I highly recommend you play through this example for two reasons:

  1. It will open up your ears to other possibilities when it comes to playing the rhythm part of a blues. Don’t focus on trying to understand so much what is going on. Let your ears learn the sounds.
  2. To gain additional chord voicing’s/shapes you can use, not just in blues, but in your playing in general. While this example is in the style of jazz, you can take the chord shapes and use them in any style of blues for your rhythm playing.

The rhythm used in this example is known as the Charleston pattern. This is a very popular rhythm pattern used in jazz, inspired by the Charleston dance of the 1920’s. The rhythm patterns you use in your blues rhythm guitar parts will also add variety and interest to what you do, and is well worth considering too.

 

3. Using Block Chords For Your Blues Rhythm Part

In this example I am using what I like to call “block chords”. These are simply chords fretted on the top four strings of your guitar. They are also sometimes referred to as 4, 3, 2, 1 voicing's.

Whatever you want to call them, they are great for providing variety to your rhythm parts. Here are the four block chord shapes I am using in the example below:

 

Blues-Block-Chord-1     Blues-Block-Chord-2     Blues-Block-Chord-3     Blues-Block-Chord-4

 

And here they are being used to create a nice blues rhythm part.

 

Chorus 1:

Acoustic-Blues-Block-Chord-1

Chorus 2: 

Acoustic-Blues-Block-Chord-2

 

 

I still remember first discovering these types of chords. I loved them and immediately started applying them to everything and anything I could. They were my first real venture away from the stock standard open and bar chords.

I have included two chorus’ of our 12 bar blues in this example. In the first chorus I am staying on the one block chord shape per change. In the second chorus however, I am moving between the 4 block chord shapes per change, creating movement across the static chord. 

This starts to reveal to you the possibilities when using block chords in your blues rhythm playing. You are adding a melody component to your rhythm part via the top note in each chord. The great news is, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these guys!

 

Tying It All Together

I purposely used the same key for all blues rhythm guitar examples in this article, so that you could more easily see a correlation between them. 

Once you have learned each one on it’s own, your job is only half complete. You MUST integrate them together to truly have them under your fingers for use in the real world. This means taking a blues backing track in G and playing each example over it back to back, adapting your rhythm parts to the feel of the track. 

Here is an example so you know exactly what I mean:

 

 

Notice in the example above, I left out a lot of the chords when applying the jazz blues rhythm part. I had to do this because the backing is not a jazz blues backing, and these chords would not work. I did however use the the voicing's I had for the G7, C7 and D7 chords. This is a great example of adapting something to fit a particular situation so you can still use it.

I can’t stress how crucial it is to integrate the things you learn together! When you discover new ways to play through a blues, add these into the mix by integrating them too. Your goal is to be able to play chorus after chorus of a blues, varying your rhythm parts as you go. When you integrate your rhythm parts together you’ll be surprised how many variations you’ll create without having to learn anything new.

 

Learn how to make the most boring and mundane of chord progressions sound unique and amazing every time you play them with these awesome acoustic rhythm techniques for your guitar playing