Often, when guitarists think of the blues and blues players, the first thing that comes to mind is lead guitar. I've always been a big fan of the blues and grew up listening to all the great lead players. In going to numerous blues jams and sitting in with established blues bands, however, I found that my rhythm playing needed a little work. Contrary to what many people think, rhythm guitar playing is an art form, and blues rhythm is no exception. Let's take a look at some of the techniques that you can employ to bring your blues rhythm playing into sharper focus.
EIGHT BAR BLUES IN 'E'
Let's start with a basic blues rhythm and build a performance by examining the details. This rhythm has a pattern that works well over an upbeat, 8 bar blues.
Note the use of muting and staccato. Rhythm playing requires that your left hand muting and control of the duration of notes are spot-on. For staccato effects (staccato means "short" in Italian) you can simply relax the pressure of the left- hand fingers to end notes quickly. It's important to understand that the length of a short note is very precise. If a note is to be held for a sixteenth note, it ends exactly where the next sixteenth note begins.
For damping effects, chords with no open strings often work best. By releasing the pressure of the left-hand fingers, you can achieve strong muted "clicks" that really stand out. Damp the outer E strings with your left-hand thumb and the fleshy part of your fingers and hand.
Let's take a look at some chords that we might use. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that knowing a ton of chord shapes and inversions offers a huge advantage in rhythm playing. But knowing how the chords fit together and the texture that they create is equally important. I try to shoot for a smooth texture in my chord choices, and I voice the chords in an area of the guitar that won't compete for space with the bass, lead vocal, or lead guitar. Put simply, this is "somewhere in the middle". Here are some examples in the key of E:
Note the similarity of the hand shape and the fact that all of the chords are voiced on the inner four strings of the guitar. This allows for smooth transitions. Also, there aren't any large melodic leaps between any of the chords, which allows for a smoother-sounding part.
Here is a second group of chords to try. These are 9th chords, which add a distinctive, "jazzy" color. They're voiced a little higher and as a result, cut through a bit more.
TWELVE BAR BLUES IN 'A'
Now let's change things up a bit. One of the keys to rhythmic sophistication is variety, and variety is a numbers game. So we'll change the key, the chord shapes and the rhythm. It may seem simple but now we have two tunes, two keys and a number of new chords on hand. The rhythm is one that you most certainly know: The Shuffle. The shuffle divides a beat of 4/4 into 12 "triplets," with each quarter note equaling one triplet.
This time, we'll use three rhythmic patterns. The second pattern is for the second bar each time a chord repeats for two bars (bars 4 and 8). This adds variety and keeps the rhythmic momentum pushing forward. Additionally, we'll add a "turnaround", which is a group of chords in the last two bars of a blues that increases interest in the movement to the V (B7) chord and leads the ear back to the I chord at the beginning of the progression. Rhythm three will be used in the last bar. Take care with this one, as it contains a syncopation. Use the chords provided below.
12 BAR BLUES IN 'C'
Let's create a different rhythmic texture for this piece. Rather than using the same chords as before, we'll use partial, three-note chords. For the rhythm, let's take a minimalist approach, placing an R&B style "clank" or staccato chord on only the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure.
This type of rhythm can be very effective for a breakdown section or introduction. It takes discipline to stay with the pattern for the full twelve bars, but the effect is worth it. In the next chorus (each repetition of the progression is often called a 'chorus'), you can switch to a busier rhythm if you like.
Here's another group of three chords, this time with 4 notes each. Try the 12-Bar Blues in C with these chords for a lower, fuller sound.
ADDITIONAL NOTES AND ADVICE
Everybody loves to jam, but how can guitarists who are just beginning to play with other people make more of an impact as rhythm players? The most effective strategy is to listen to the other musicians and interact with or "play off of" them. There are numerous different theories and much has been said about how the bass and drums interact, but what about the rhythm guitar? In the blues and R&B oriented styles, I've found that it can be effective and fun to try to play with the snare drum. Listen closely to what the drummer is doing, and try to support his snare hits with a sharp staccato chord. These will usually fall on beats 2 and 4, also known as the "back-beat". The 12-Bar Blues in C would be a perfect vehicle to try out this style. You can also use this approach in the first piece, the 8-Bar Blues in E. Just give the chords that fall on beats 2 and 4 a little extra oomph, more formally known as an accent.
Developing your memory is an indispensable skill in playing the blues. Feeling is an all-important element in your performance, but in order to really feel the songs, you have to know the forms and progressions cold. There's no time to worry about counting when playing such a free-flowing yet repetitious musical style, so you have to be able to "see" ahead to where the changes will be without thinking about it too much. Likewise, you generally don't want to be looking at sheet music. So make an effort to memorize the chord progressions we've touched upon in "Blues Rhythm" - the 8 Bar Blues, and two different arrangements for the 12 Bar Blues. There are many more. Try to memorize as many tunes and changes as you can, and you'll feel more comfortable when you're jamming with others or just playing by yourself.
A LITTLE MUSIC THEORY THAT PERTAINS TO THE BLUES
There's no easier place to introduce or review a little theory than the blues. Most guitarists have heard the expression, "I-IV-V." This is a way of describing a chord progression. This same progression is also the basis of the blues. But what do the numbers mean? Let's start with a scale. In a major or minor scale, there are seven notes, plus the octave. If we build a chord on each note, we'd call them I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII. For no other reason than that it sounds good, I, IV and V make for a very strong chord progression. Now, let's look back over our three blues pieces. We have blues in E, where I-IV-V comprises E7-A7-B7. In the key of A, we have A7-D7-E7. In the key of C, we have C7-F7-G7. Can you figure out any other I-IV-V progressions?
Often the rhythm section on classic blues recordings is made up of drums, bass, piano, and even horns, which can supply some very tasty backing. As a rhythm guitarist trying to pull some of these elements together, you have to do a pretty precise and thoughtful job to create a performance that has variety and subtlety. It's as much of an art form as playing lead, so give it some practice time. Everybody loves a competent rhythm player!
Thank you for joining me on another outing with Mel Bay's Guitar Sessions, Rock/Blues column.
See you soon!
Chris Botta Bio
Chris Botta grew up in New York City and began studying the guitar at the age of nine at a local music school. In his early teens, he began playing with his first rock bands.
He took his undergraduate studies at the Mannes College of Music, studying guitar with Michael Newman and theory with Carl Schacter. Upon graduation, Chris began teaching privately and at the Queens Village School of Music. At this time Chris also began writing, recording and performing with a variety of local groups.
He continues to teach and to craft his sound, style and songwriting, which combines influences from the rock era while reflecting the modal melodies of Indian music, modern classical harmony, and the edgy New York rock sound.
Email Chris at: email@example.com