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.

Country Blues Basics Part 10: How to play Delta Momma Blues (Free tab!)

Delta Momma Blues will help you practice your alternating bass technique over melodic chord changes. The song has a relatively simple melody that sounds awesome when combined with the moving bass pattern.

If you can play this song, you can start to tackle more complex songs in the genre.

Here is my version of the guitar arrangement:

The song is in the key of C. There are 3 chords in this song: C, G, and F.

But don’t worry! There is an easier way to play a first-position F chord that all blues players used because it’s much more practical than the barre chord.

When you play the F chord, hook your thumb over the neck to catch the 6th string 1st fret, barre the top two strings at the 1st fret with your pointer finger, and then use your middle and ring finger to fret the remaining. You’ll want to keep your pinky free to play melody notes.

Every finger style blues player utilized this position when playing the F chord. It should look like this:

F chord
F chord

The C chord should look like this:

C Chord
C chord

Hold the G chord as shown below:

G Chord
G chord

This song is an 8-bar blues in the Piedmont style—the chord progression is as follows:

C | C | F | F | G | G7 | C/G | G/C

A lot of tunes in C use this progression. Dave Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues is a good example.

To begin learning Delta Momma Blues, play the alternating bass over the progression so you can practice quickly changing chords.

If you forget which note is next while learning the song, try humming the melody to yourself and see if you can find it. The note is always going to be accessible within the chord shapes you are holding. 

Here is my version of Delta Momma Blues tabbed out:

Intro:

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This may look complicated but if you just play the melody notes you’ll see it’s a very simple melody over a repeating bass figure.

Verse:

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This song is a great one to practice singing over because the melody of the verse matches the vocals

This song was recorded by Townes Van Zandt on his 1970 record Delta Momma Blues:

Another version I like was recorded by Steve Earle on his album Townes:

Notice how the two versions are very similar but also different in what melody notes are hit.

This is a good example of how you can make your own arrangement of a song. You need to retain familiar elements to keep the song recognizable, but you actually have a lot of freedom to experiment and find your voice.

Next, let’s take a look at how we can make the alternating bass pattern more exciting.

 

Country Blues Basics Part 8: How to play Catfish Blues on guitar

A front porch gem.

This song’s droning and persistent bass line reminds me of blues music from the Northern Mississippi Hill country.

You can sit on the groove of this song all day, spinning up variations and just playing the main riff. The underlying groove is just a template for you to experiment upon.

But the best part of this whole song is that you can play it with only your thumb! 

This song is a perfect way to practice varying the bass movement in an alternating bass setting (but you also learn an amazing song in the process).

The basic song is structured around a E chord. The E chord should look like this:

E Chord
E chord

I would suggest holding down the full E chord while you play the song instead of just the relevant notes. A lot of times you’re hitting more than just the note tabbed out. Making sure those extra strings harmonize with what you are hitting is key.

For the verse, use your pinky to grab the 3rd fret on the 6th string. Begin to see if you can bend it with just your pinky to get that nice slurred sound that is essential to the blues.

Catfish Blues Tabs
My version of Catfish Blues

It may be best to start this song by learning the verse. Getting the groove into your hands will prepare you for tackling the bass runs.

When you’re mastering the underlying groove, think about it like a drum beat.

Once you’ve gotten the song under your hands and can play it in your sleep, throw in some bass line variations or treble runs.

If you need some ideas, check out Lightnin’ Hopkins’ or Corey Harris’ version.

This song was recorded by Robert Petway in 1941. Here’s the version mine is based on. Catfish Blues is also a master class in blues vocals:

A lot of really great songs are based around 1 chord. If you can master this one, check out Rolling Stone Blues by Robert Wilkins:

If you’ve got your alternating bass technique locked in, try adding melody notes on top.

 

Journey to the Country

I found out about Townes Van Zandt long after I was into the blues.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Earlier into my listening days, I may have written him off just because he was described as country music.

We all get older, and we hopefully realize that everything we were so sure about was absolutely wrong.

Due to a country music craze in college, I was exposed to modern country radio hits constantly. For years, I would be that guy that would say ‘I like a lot of music, except country.’

Townes van Zandt’s music came to me after I had been primed by two artists: Scrapper Blackwell and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Blackwell’s song Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out really stood out to me. For some reason it reminded me of the song You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story.

This association made me begin to wake up to the possibility that country music was approachable for me.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is a contemporary artist who I discovered by chance while roving on YouTube. When I dug into his music, my favorite tracks were his country inspired tunes.

His song Tallacatcha really stood out to me:

These two artists primed me for Townes van Zandt’s music coming to me in exactly the right place and time.

I was ready for an artist like him and I was holed-up reading about music in a rainy hotel in Salzburg.

Although it was not the first time I had seen Van Zandt’s name, this time I stopped and listened.

Waitin’ Around to Die was the first song I came across:

What Townes taught me, is that I can feel the expression of his art, even though it’s clothed in a country approach. The music permeated the hard shell I had put up against country music touching me.

Thank god it did.

When something we resent becomes something we love, it shows how many little ideals we baselessly hold onto. 

It also shows us the process of letting go. 

I love how we learn lessons through a seemingly disconnected series of events lining up perfectly.

When we see the result, we cannot imagine life having worked any differently.

Everything is easier to see in retrospect though—

—and the journey always continues.

How did I find the blues?

I love country blues music.

I’m not talking about electric guitars and shuffle rhythms.

I’m talking about the real old blues.

The country-blues were regional African-American folk musics. These sounds laid the foundation for music today, and continues to be present, even if it’s just an esoteric ghost of a memory.

I found this music during a long journey, meandering through genres and artists, not knowing what I was looking for until I found it.

My journey started with the Grateful Dead. I always liked the acoustic songs like Brokedown Palace, Ripple, and Black Peter. This was Clue #1 to what I was looking for.

Clue #2 was when I started listening to Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. I was really drawn to their earlier music— their unconventional voices and acoustic guitar accompaniment struck me.

Young’s and Cohen’s music seemed so immediate and self-sufficient. I felt that these singers were drawing on something rich.

A source I could feel but not understand. 

Clue #3 hit me like a train— it was like lenses suddenly snapping into focus. The path on my journey was illuminated.

This moment occurred when I stumbled on a video of the blues singer Lightning Hopkins playing Baby, Please Don’t Go.

Afterwards I thought to myself: This is how the guitar is supposed to sound.

My new mission was to capture and fill my head with that sound.

Have I been able to capture it? No, because that’s the journey. Discovering the blues was just the clearest step on the journey thus far.

What I did manage to capture was the realization that I’m drawn to the image and sounds of the lone singer-songwriter bearing themselves to the world. 

In order to express themselves in a way that touches us, they have to tap into that rich channel.

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I feel like when I play guitar for people, or hear the music of one of these singer-songwriters, I get to tap into that richness and get to experience it again.

If only for those moments.

My journey has led me to many interesting stations, and I am excited to share them with you.

If you haven’t heard the old country blues music, listen to it.

It will give you the foundation to understand where all the music we love came from and also hopefully make you feel like I did when I first heard it.

Stopping by the Front Porch

Have you ever heard a song that makes you feel like nothing bothers you anymore? Have you ever seen something so beautiful, everything else disappears?

If you have, then this is a site for people like you. It’s the site I wish had existed, so I decided to make it.

I’m going to post daily content about photography, music, philosophy, art + whatever else strikes me.