A Blues Guitar Primer

The blues is a genre of music that is distinctly American in its origin, and has influenced almost every genre that has come since, from country to hip-hop. The guitar was the first instrument linked to this musical tradition, and it is still arguably the primary instrument used in blues music today. We are about to go on a journey through the blues and the guitar’s essential role.

Blues basics

Blues music as we know it began in the late 19th century, in the African-American communities of the Deep South. The most common form of blues, which developed during the early 20th century, is called 12-bar blues. It consists of a line being sung over four bars, repeated over the following four bars, and then a different line to conclude.

Due to its relative affordability and portability, the guitar was the perfect instrument to accompany blues singers. One of the most important figures in early blues guitar was Charley Patton (1890s-1934), the “King of the Delta Blues,” whose songs are still being covered today. He in turn influenced Son House (1902-1988), a former preacher who turned to blues guitar and singing and became profoundly influential. Among the guitarists who idolized and emulated House were Robert Johnson (one of the most successful early recording artists) and Muddy Waters. Johnson and Waters have had a lasting impression on modern blues and rock musicians, particularly the blues-based rock acts of the British Invasion era.

The British Invasion era produced several great blues-based bands such as the Yardbirds, which at one point or another had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page among their ranks. Of course, no discussion of 1960s blues-rock would be complete without mentioning Keith Richards, whose blues-based style has been key to over 50 years of success with the Rolling Stones.

Today, such acts as Keb’ Mo’ and Jonny Lang are keeping the blues guitar tradition alive, influencing countless newcomers to the genre.

A partial list of great blues guitars

Although the blues “comes from within,” there are several guitars in particular that have been used very successfully to help blues artists articulate their moods with finesse. One is the Gibson Dot, versions of which have been used by the late and legendary BB King (his famous “Lucille” was a Dot) and Eric Clapton. The Dot has two humbuckers that provide a great deal of versatility.

Speaking of Gibson guitars, their iconic Les Paul has been the guitar of choice for countless blues artists. Although it is largely thought of as a rock guitar, it sounds great when “clean” (meaning no effects added) for blues playing. Peter Green (of the early, blues-based lineup of Fleetwood Mac) and Clapton (during his time in the Yardbirds) took advantage of this axe’s warm, rich sound.

The Fender Stratocaster, with its wide range of available tones, has proven to be one of the most versatile and highly-used guitars in the genre. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and countless others have counted on the Strat.

Time to explore

Check out recordings of any of the artists mentioned above, and try some basic blues on your guitar of choice. You will fall in love.