Category: Guitar

Country Blues Basics Part 12: What is monotonic Bass?

Monotonic bass literally means single tone. In practice, it is the technique of playing a single note over a song’s melody. It gives songs a driving, down home feel as opposed to the bouncy feel of an alternating bass. 

Alternating bass is much better to learn first so you can really free up the thumb and begin to understand which bass notes are appropriate to play over a chord.

The end goal of these lessons is to truly free up the thumb and allow you to switch between alternating and monotonic bass to create the foundation YOU want to create while you play country blues music. 

You will hear monotonic bass a lot in Texas blues— check out Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin Hopkins to hear this technique in practice.

To demonstrate the monotonic bass, I will be playing Hey Hey by Big Bill Broonzy. Pay attention to the switching of what note is played depending on what chord I am playing. 

Hey Hey is in the key of E. I play the open low E string over the E sections (I chord), the open A string over the A sections (IV chord), and I play F# over the B section (V chord).

The B chord I use is the A chord shape below, moved up two frets. 

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Here is the demonstration:

Notice how I play single notes in the bass over the melody. I do not switch between the 1st and 3rd strings as I would while using the alternating bass technique.

Learning how to play this type of bass should be relatively straight forward. You will be using the same chord shapes, and in many respects, the thumb movement is simpler. 

In the next lesson we will be applying this technique to Robert Johnson’s blues standard Me and the Devil Blues. 

Country Blues Basics Part 9: How do I add melody to an alternating bass?

Melody is like an ornament on a house.

The ornament needs a foundation to shine and be framed. Rhythm is the foundation that allows melody to be comprehensible. 

The good news is that melody is simple to add over an alternating bass pattern. A basic alternating bass pattern is typically divided into 4 beats. Melody notes can only be played in between beats or at the same time as a beat.

You can play melody on the high strings with one finger, two fingers, or three. I find all three approaches to be useful depending on what sound I’m going for. However, when I started playing country blues, I used three fingers

I have written a simple melody below without an alternating bass. It should be relatively simple to play:

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Now play it with the alternating bass added in:

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Looking at a country blues song tabbed out can be intimidating.

A consistent bass figure and melody notes make a simple song look complicated when written out. Try breaking the song into pieces; figure out what’s happening in the bass, and then just add the melody on top.

In the next lesson you will learn to play the song Delta Momma Blues. It will teach you a great song, but also give you an exercise in adding melody notes to an alternating bass pattern.

Country Blues Basics Part 11: What else can I do with alternating bass?

Aside from your straight alternating bass, you can learn additional techniques with your thumb that spice up your rhythm and give your playing a more orchestrated feel.

Players like Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis used a lot of fancy right thumb techniques. If you break these down, they are actually quite simple but add a significant amount of excitement to your playing.

Listen to Georgia Bound by Blind Blake to get a sense of what’s possible.

It’s best to wait on learning these advanced techniques until you have the basic alternating bass technique locked in. These advanced techniques serve the goal of freeing up your thumb, allowing to perform whatever bass figures you want at any moment.

Changing Alternation Pattern

The 1st technique is changing the notes you hit within an alternating bass pattern.

For instance, in a G chord, alternate the 6th, 4th, and 5th strings instead of just the 6th and 4th.

Below is a tabbed out exercise to apply this technique:

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Whatever bass notes you have fretted and any relevant open bass strings are fair game for this technique. Just keep in mind that an alternating bass usually starts with a lower pitch then goes to a higher pitch.

Being able to freely execute this technique will give your playing more variation and prepare you for more complicated bass runs as you progress.

Leading In

The 2nd advanced alternating bass technique is called leading in. This technique is typically used during a chord change, but has a lot of utility beyond that.

To understand what leading in sounds like, check out this video demonstration (tabs for the song are below):

To perform this technique, hold down a G chord and hit the 6th string, 3rd fret but Play through the note and hit the 5th string, 2nd fret.

I have tabbed out the 8 bar-blues in G so you can practice leading in:

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When I learned to lead in, I felt like a lightbulb had gone off. I realized that you don’t play both notes, but push through the top note into the bottom one. Learning this technique made me dial into freeing up how I move my thumb when playing bass notes. 

A lot of players took this technique and used it as a rhythmic tool, playing it in the bass to give a cool stumbling sound. Check out You’ll Like My Loving by Otis Harris, an unknown Texas bluesman. You’ll notice Harris uses this technique through out the song to give a persistent stumbling bass line.

String Snapping

The 3rd technique is string snapping, a move you’ll hear a lot of delta blues players use. 

Check out this video of Alvin Youngblood Hart playing Pony Blues. He snaps the bass throughout to give the song a hard driving rhythm. 

A common chord to use this technique on is the ‘Delta E7.’ You slide up snapping the 5th string against the fret board. Here is a video explaining this technique and accompanying tablature:

 

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Think about every note you play as instrumentation. The alternating bass is like a drumbeat or a bass player; when you snap your strings it’s like adding in an extra instrument into your one-person band.

 

Country Blues Basics Part 7: How do I play alternating bass on guitar?

Rhythm is consistently making a sound at the right time. The only way to achieve this is through practice— luckily, you can practice alternating bass while watching TV or talking to your friends.

The more you get the basic thumb movement drilled in, the easier this style of music will be to play.

In an alternating bass, the bass notes you want to hit will be different, depending on what chord you are playing at a given time. A good rule of thumb is if you’re holding down a note, it’s good to play, although it may not be the right time to play it.

The bottom line is to follow your ears. 

Remember to keep your hand holding down the chord as you play an alternating bass. Anchoring your fretting hand will let you focus on your right hand technique and keep the bass going.

Hold down an E chord to get started :

E Chord
E chord

Alternating bass is characterized by hitting a lower note and then a higher bass note to give a moving rhythmic feel.

For the E chord, hit the open 6th string to get the low E, and then the 4th string, 2nd fret to get a higher E bass note.

Below is the bass tabbed out for an E chord. Notice you are hitting an open string on the 1st and 3rd beat of a measure. The open 6th string is an E note, and is also the lowest note on the guitar. You typically want the lowest pitch of the chord’s root note to be played on the 1st and 3rd beat.

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Once you get the basic motion of moving between two strings, try playing the bass pattern for a 12 bar blues in E (you will need E, A, B7 chords,).

Keep in mind that the 1st and 3rd note in an alternating bass over an a chord, is an open 5th string. Just like with an E chord, this is because the open 5th string is the lowest A note you can play on a guitar.

Pay attention to what bass notes you need to hit:

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Here is a video of the progression 3 times through, with some melody notes added in the last time to show you how you can apply this lesson:

If you feel you can play this alternating bass pattern consistently, try it with other chord progressions in the 5 common blues keys. Here are the typical notes you would hit for every chord in an alternating bass pattern:

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If you’ve got these patterns down, toss a melody note or two in while keeping the rhythm going. 

A listener may not notice if you play the wrong note, but will definitely notice bad rhythm.

Next, let’s try applying what you’ve learned to a song called Catfish Blues. Learning this song well will definitely level up your country blues rhythm, and you’ll learn an awesome song in the process!

Country Blues Basics Part 6: Why is the bass so important?

For beginners wanting to play this style, you’ll want to know the two types of common bass patterns that need to be learned: Alternating Bass and Monotonic Bass.

Alternating bass is when your thumb alternates between at least 2 bass notes every beat.

Monotonic bass is when you thump on one note every beat.

Most great country blues songs used a mixture of both alternating bass and monotonic bass, but learning both individually is the best approach.

Note that before you begin to tackle a full song, getting your right hand thumb hitting the bass strings to time is more essential than what you are playing. In blues, it’s not about what notes you play, but how you play them. The bass you play provides the template and framework for melody notes to be played.

Think about the bass like the foundation of a house, and melody is what makes the house unique.

A good country blues song is an interplay between melody and rhythm. If you can master this dichotomy then you will become a better musician over all, no matter what style you play.

Let’s look at how to play an alternating bass.

Country Blues Basics Part 5: Are there other chords I can learn for country blues?

There are a handful of other chord forms that you will use while playing the country blues.

There are 5 common alternative chord positions you will want to learn before moving on to right-hand techniques.

The chords are:

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For the F#/D7 chord, fret the 6th string, 2nd fret with your thumb. Barre the top 4 strings with your index finger for the A7 chord.

Strum these alternative chord shapes for now, and practice substituting them in the 12-bar blues progression from the previous lesson. These chords’ utility will become apparent when we cover right-hand techniques. 

If you’ve got a good grasp on the material we covered here, you are well on your way to getting the country blues basics down.

The goal of these first 5 lessons is to show you what you need to know in your left-hand to be able to play this style of music comfortably.

If you can get to the point where you don’t have to think about what your left hand is doing, then you can focus on right-hand technique

Practice the chord positions and strumming them in a 12-bar progression. Once you can do that comfortably, learning almost any blues song in the left hand will be no problem.

Now let’s take a look at developing the right-hand.

Country Blues Basics Part 4: How do I use these chords once I learned them?

Take a look at the key chart from Part 2 of this series, and practice strumming the chords in a key one after another.

Once you feel comfortable strumming the chords in a given key, try strumming along to the chord progression below. Each letter in the progression represents 4 strums: 

| C | C | C | C | F | F | C | C | G | F | C | G |

If you are comfortable strumming along to this progression then congratulations, you just played a 12-bar blues in the key of C.

Each time you you strummed a chord 4 times, you were playing a bar of music. There were 12 bars in this progression, which is where the 12-bar blues form got its name.

Try using the Key Chart and strumming in all the keys to the progression below. Just plug in the chord associated with the number:

| I | I | I | I | IV | IV | I | I | V | IV | I | V |

Spend a few days learning the five common key progressions and your left-hand will be prepped to move on to learning right-hand techniques.

Finally, let’s take a look at the rest of the chord shapes you’ll need to conquer nearly any blues song.

Country Blues Basics Part 3: How do I play the chords for country blues?

The Chords

To be able to play the basic progression for nearly any blues song, you will need to learn 5 basic open chords, as well as B7 and F.

Here are what the chords look like:

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Play the F chord to fret the 6th string with your thumb, and the top two strings with your index finger. It should look like this:

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If you are not comfortable with these chord positions, it is is essential you practice them before moving on. Practice strumming them starting with an A chord and moving through a G chord before starting again.

Once you are able to finger the basic chords, we will explore chord progressions.

Country Blues Basics Part 2: What music knowledge do I need to play country blues?

There is not much music theory needed to play this style of music, but there are still a few basics that must be understood.

As I mentioned in the previous post, blues is typically played in 5 different keys: A, C, D, E, and G.

Although some blues songs are only played with 1 chord, most are played with 3 chords. To play songs with 3 chords, you will need to learn the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord.

Below is a handy reference chart which breaks down the I, IV, and V chord based off the key:

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Key Chart

Essentially, most blues songs are based around a certain chord. Let’s say it’s an A chord. If we are going to base a song around a certain chord, that means we are playing the song in that key.

Based on the chart above, in order to play a 3 chord song in the key of A, you will also need to learn the D chord and E chord.

If you look at the chart above, you will see you will need to learn to at least one B chord and F chord.

Luckily, nearly every country blues player (and most folk and country players) used a form of the F chord with no barre, and played an easy to fret B7 chord instead of B major. 

If you are comfortable with how progressions work, take a look at this post to see diagrams of the chords you’ll need to know.

Country Blues Basics Part 1: What chords do I need for country blues?

Almost every country blues song uses the same vocabulary of chords. Most songs use basic open position chord forms or a limited group of simple inversions.

Most country blues songs are played in the basic keys of A, C, D, E, or G.

What they are playing is not as important as how they play it. If you watch footage of the masters of this style of music you will notice that they are almost always holding down a chord.

These players are barely moving their left hand, but somehow produce amazingly complex sounding music.

The secret behind this complexity is in understanding the many sounds you can get out of holding down a single chord. The secret to the master’s playing isn’t in their fretting hand, but in their picking hand. The thumb of their right hand is always keeping time while his other fingers play something else.

An aphorism that sums up this idea is: ‘your left hand is what you know, your right hand is who you are.’

If you can get the left hand down, then you can focus on mastering right hand techniques, which is where the soul of the music resides.

If you think this type of playing sounds interesting then check out my instructional video of Catfish Blues to see how much mileage you can get out of a 1st position E chord (and that video just scratches the surface!).

Next let’s explore the basic knowledge you need to play this music.