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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 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.