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This Blues guitar tutorial is a result of my own learning process. Starting in 1996, I wrote down what I learned, at first mainly for myself. Soon the first visitors of this website showed increasing interest and wanted more, so over the years it became a complete Blues tutorial.
What Is The Blues?
It is not easy to get a definition of Blues. If you hear Robert Johnson singing “Ramblin’ On My Mind” or B.B. King playing “Thrill Is Gone”, it’s easy. That’s Blues, no doubt. But what about Cream’s version of “Crossroads”? Can Pavarotti sing the Blues? Can only an old black man, born on a cotton farm sing the Blues? No – everyone can, if he has the right feeling for it.
“I never set myself too high a goal. It was always tone and feeling, for me”
– Eric Clapton
We can talk about the usual 12-bar form, the call-and-response structure, dominant 7th chords, the I-IV-V progression, the shuffle rhythm and all these things, but one of the best definitions I heard is from Eric Clapton:
“My definition of Blues is that it’s a musical form which is very disciplined and structured coupled with a state of mind, and you can have either of those things but it’s the two together that make it what it is. And you need to be a student for one, and a human being for the other, but those things alone don’t do it.”
– Eric Clapton (interview 1998)
The Blues history is filling books. It all started at the beginning of the 20th century in the Mississippi Delta area of the United States, documented first short after the Civil War. It was a musical style of the slaves (not the only one), a kind of black folk music also called (by white people) “Plantation Songs”, “Sorrow Songs”, “Cabin Songs” or “Workaday Songs”. The word “Blues” itself came up at around 1925.
The legend tells that the cornet player and bandleader William Christopher (W.C.) Handy (born in 1873 in Alabama) wrote the first Blues ever that was printed and documented in 1912 (“Memphis Blues”, the former “Mister Crump”). The song was originally written in 1909, 6 years after W.C. heard his first Blues at a railway station in Tutweiler, Mississippi, where a sad man, a local field hand, played slide guitar and sang “Your easy rider’s gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog…”, a Blues about the Yazoo Delta railroad (from Yazoo City to Clarksdale), nicknamed the “Yaller Dog”. Handy released this song in 1912 under his name as the “Yellow Dog Blues”. He composed other titles like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”, nowadays a Blues award has his name – the W.C. Handy Award. He didn’t invent the Blues, but by making records he made it public to a broader audience outside the juke joints and barrelhouses. And he made money with it.
“The Blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what is is – the source.”
– BB King 
What do I need?
- An electric or acoustic guitar (nylon strings not recommended) in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E)
- The ability to read tablature. Need help?
- Very little guitar basics – let’s say you know how to play some chords (E, E7, A, A7,…)
- Some good Clapton CD’s with Blues classics: Blues Breakers featuring EC, From the Cradle, Unplugged, Sessions for Mr. J.
- An audio player that can slow down a song without changing the pitch. Look here.
- For the chords needed you can use the chord generator.
- Your ears (most important!)
What do I learn?
- You can play Blues rhythm guitar to most of your favorite EC Blues songs
- You can play some interesting licks, turnarounds and solos
- You can find out the key, the chords and the solos of the most Blues songs by yourself
- You can set up a Blues band, get rich, collect Ferraris, buy Martin Guitars and Fender will make a signature guitar with your name on it. (If so, play regularly at the Royal Albert Hall and spend, let’s say, 5 percent of the fee to me)
- Here’s an early sound example of a collaboration with other forum members. Everyone has it’s own style, nobody is perfect: Slow Blues in Cm
- Some more great mp3 examples are in the 12bar Blues Room!
Where to start?
I don’t know what you know, so the pages are not numbered, it’s not a classical “until next week you have to learn this lesson”-tutorial. You can start everywhere depending on your current skills. However, here are some guidelines:
- If you don’t know nothing about tab, learn it here
- If you want to learn some theory first, go to the basics.
- If you want to learn a basic Blues in 60 minutes, look at the Beginners Blues
- If you’re new to the Blues, start with the Blues basics and rhythm page or Beginner’s Blues
- If you want to start playing a solo, learn something about the Blues scales and Blues licks.
- You can generate chords, scales and backing tracks online
- Completely tabbed songs for beginners are for example Ramblin’, Before You Accuse Me or the intro from the Robert J. sessions.
- More advanced players can go through the albums, learn about Chicago Blues or fingerstyle Blues or try some Cream songs.
- If you’re tired and want to relax you can join the community or play a quiz
- Still not enough? Just click around or buy some records or sheetmusic…
Why 12bar Blues Guitar?
What’s the difference? Well, you can spend hours a day to play a lick as fast as possible. You can stretch your fingers to play as many notes as possible in a given time. There are a lot of guitarists which seem to play impossible runs with impossible speed.
My driving philosophy about making music is that you can reduce it all down to one note if that note is played with the right kind of sincerity.
– EC, interview 1974
On the other hand there are players like Clapton, B.B. King, Albert King and all the other great Blues artists. They can give just one note different sounds, adding different vibratos, bending into other notes, using different attacks. EC plays nearly all guitar styles, electric, acoustic (“unplugged”), slide, open tunings, fingerpicking and more but his roots are Blues music, where speed is not important. It’s the tone itself. Take enough time to learn it – you’re not on the flight.
Although I added some music basics, this is not a general guitar school. It’s for “freestyle” guitarists, I don’t tell anything about how to hold your guitar (try out what’s comfortable without the need of stabilizing the guitar with your hands), how to take care for your nails and what exercise you have to play today (any Blues is OK). If you’re going to be a professional guitar player being able to play other styles (Jazz, Rock, Classic) as well, you may want to learn it the classical way, including standard notation, and with the help of an instructor.
This is just for fun, to learn a little bit about Blues guitar playing with the music of EC and other Blues artists – not to sound like a Clapton imitator. Listen to many different Blues artists and then find your own style! I’ve taken EC because I like his style and the records are available everywhere, but the basics fit to all Blues songs. If you prefer Buddy Guy, B.B: King, Albert King, Freddy King, T-Bone Walker or any other Blues player, the basics are the same. If you find something wrong, please email me. My English is not perfect, and I never had any guitar lessons, I’m completely self-taught. So there must be errors…
The page design is against all rules – most pages are too long!
Yes, I know. But there are several reasons why: it’s easier to handle for me, the overall size is smaller for download (less menu codes) and most visitors come to learn and play (some print it out), not to surf through all pages in a few minutes. So I decided to put all stuff from one album on one page.
Where are the lyrics?
Most lyrics are copyright protected. To avoid trouble, I did not include them. However, if you need the lyrics, you’ll find them at the wonderful Eric Clapton Lyric Archive (ECLA). (This site already had massive copyright problems)
Why not more complete note-for-note tabs?
Get Songbooks from SheetMusicPlus if you need the notes in detail!
In the following tutorial you’ll find some songs more or less complete while others only have the essentials. Some songs, especially for beginners, were tabbed nearly completely. They are easy to play, but just playing the tab doesn’t give you much about the song itself, the structure, the licks, the used fingering patterns etc. Therefore I prefer the song essentials: basic infos about the key and chords, which scale and fingering pattern is used, how to play the intro and main licks. The rest is some work for you, but if you have the basic infos it’s not too hard to find it out. The advantage for me is that I need less time for tabbing a song and I have less copyright problems. The advantage for you is to learn more about guitar playing. Playing only tabs without thinking is not good. You don’t learn to play free that way. Use your ear rather than a tab book! Remember back when the Blues were born – there where only a few records. No MP3, no CD, no DVD, no PC, no internet. Nothing. But the great players learned it nonetheless…
I’ve got the following mail from Mike, who put it all together:
…your english is better than mine, and I was born in the U.S. I love your site. You capture the essence of the blues…
I’ve been playing for years and have learned alot the hard way. I’ve listened to all the “old masters” for years and all the “newbies” (EC, SRV, etc.)…well “new” in comparison. Anyway, I decided I wanted to learn to play the blues…really play the blues…so I bought all sorts of books, hired a great guitarist to give me lessons, practiced everyday, and in the end my teacher asked me….”have you ever actually sat down and played to the records” I said “no”…. He said, “Dude, you know all the notes, you know the scales better than I do, you know the names of chords I play that I don’t, you just aint feeling the music. Throw out the tab, turn on the CD player, grab your axe, and you’ll be giggin’ in no time. Blues is all about feeling….that doesn’t come from a book.”
I did. I recommend to everybody, don’t waste your time and money on books and tab. Get a copy of the basic blues scale that runs the entire neck, practice it, and then crank up the stereo and jam….that’s the answer…. Kudos, You got it down.
If you want exact not-for-note tabs or are searching for a song which is not here, I recommend buying a song-book. But don’t just copy the notes to your fretboard. Read it, get the main musical theme, key and chords and then go your own way. It’s OK for a special song or album you definitely will be able to play or if you don’t have much time until the next gig…
Are you a good guitar player?
No. Compared to EC, Stevie, Jimi, Jeff, Jimmiy, BB, Albert, Otis, Mark etc. I’m a lousy player. I can’t play every day and when I started playing I was already 30++. And this was in the beginning 90’s…
This site started in 1996 – the “Archean” of the world wide web. It’s a kind of document about how I learned to play guitar. In the meanwhile there are thousands of links to 12bar.de, and the community is increasing from day to day.
What do I have to pay for this tutorial?
[Nouns] zero, nothing; null, nul, naught, nought, void; cipher, goose egg; none, nobody, no one; nichts [Ger.], nixie, nix; zilch, zip, zippo [slang]; not a soul; ame qui vive; absence ; unsubstantiality.
[Adjectives] not one, not a one, not any, nary a one [dial.]; not a, never a; not a whit of, not an iota of, not a drop of, not a speck of, not a jot; not a trace of, not a hint of, not a smidgen of, not a suspicion of, not a shadow of, neither hide nor hair of.
[Other languages] nix, nichts, gar nichts, null, nada, cero, gratis, sin costo,…
However, if you want to donate something, let me know!
A possible way to donate for the server costs is using Pay-Pal or buying media using the affiliate links on most of the pages. I don’t get rich, they don’t even cover the costs of my provider. The price for you remains the same, I get a small amount of money for each order.
Still reading? It’s always interesting to take a look at other fretboard artists. For example the picking hand techniques of the flamenco guitar style. Although I’m really not a flamenco fan and the music is completely different to Blues it gave me a lot of tips how to play some difficult Blues licks (listen and look to players like Paco de Lucia, Tomatito or others…).
If you’re impressed by van Halen’s tapping, Vai’s speed or Malmsteens runs, it’s OK. But remember – speed isn’t everything. If you think a player is fast, compare him to a flamenco style guitar player in some lonely spanish village. Learn some classical and/or flamenco pieces, they may improve your skills.
The main difference between classical and Blues guitar is not only the technique. In classical music the composer is the one and only. Every note is fixed, there is no room for improvisation like in Blues or jazz music, where the player is the boss. Many fast players don’t know which note to play during improvisation, so they’re trying to play them all at the same time. Blues means composing while playing, telling a story, choosing notes wisely.
Finally – don’t forget to listen as much as possible to the Blues classics:
Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert, Freddy, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and all the others I’ve not listed here.
But – most important: Enjoy!
Some more quotes on Blues
“My guitar is still my voice. When I hear a piece of music in my head, I don’t hear a song, I hear the guitar part. So I write words to that and sing it. The guitar is first and foremost in my head… I’ll always try to play with the most amount of soul through the guitar.”
“There are a lot of other musicians who can touch on other areas-I can’t. I’ve tried to play folk, C&W, jazz, and a lot of pop music, but I do blues best, and that’s been given to me to do. As much as I’ve questioned it and railed against it and been stubborn about my path, I’m back on it. This is me, in terms of my musical identity where I come from and what I mean. Wherever I go in the future will be as a result.”
– EC, interview 1996
“His fingers are directly wired to his soul”
– Brian May about EC
“When you listen to the otherwordly voice of Robert Johnson hitting those words “Blues Falling Down Like Hail” or Howlin’ Wolf riding the rhythm of “Spoonful” with such amazing ease and more than living up to his name at the same time, or Skip James lamenting love, the worst of all human afflictions, in “Devil Got My Woman” or Son House hugging the memory of his dead lover for dear life in the tightly coiled “Death Letter Blues” you’re hearing something from way, way back something eternal, elemental, something that defies ratioinal thought, just like all the greatest art.”
– Martin Scorsese, preface of Martin Scorsese presents the Blues 
Ain’t but one kind of Blues and that consists of a male and female that’s in love…
– Son House 
The Blues – it’s kind of religion, really.
– Peter Green 
The Blues – there’s no black and white – it’s the truth.
– Van Morrison