Blues Guitar Institute

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Advanced Blues Chords to Level Up Your 12 Bar Blues Rhythms

Lesson ID: TB434

I was stuck in a blues rhythm rut, playing the same old riffs over and over.

Then I found 4 simple chord tricks to spice up my rhythm playing. Quick chord substitutions made a huge difference adding much-needed color to my rhythm playing. Before long, I was jamming advanced blues progressions freely.

In this lesson, I’ll share the 4 chord tricks so you can break through a rhythm rut and level up your rhythm skills.

Let’s dig in.

Blend in Bluesy Dominant 7th Chords

There’s nothing wrong with the standard 12 bar blues shuffle rhythm.

It should be one of the first things you learn as a blues guitarist. But if you find yourself bored or reaching for something a bit more interesting, try this as a first step. Outline the shuffle, but mix in a Dominant 7th (1 – 3 – 5 – b7) chord.

Here’s an example:

Notice that I didn’t play the full barre chord shape for the A7. Try playing smaller shapes like the three-note dominant 7th chord in the example. This voicing – how the tones of a chord are arranged – is easier to fret than barre chords.

Plus, it sets you up for a classy blues move.

Chromatic Chord Moves

In the example, I moved the A7 shape down one fret. This chromatic movement pulls the chord out of A7 and certainly out of key, but in the Blues it sounds natural. It’s a great way to build tension and you can also move the chord up one fret to add a nice bit of tension.

Experiment mixing in a 7th chord into the basic blues shuffle on your own. Once you get the hang of it, try embellishing the chord with slides, chromatics and rhythmic stabs.

Dominant 7ths are an easy upgrade that makes a shuffle groove sound pro.

Trade Some 7ths for Lush 9th Chords

For our second chord trick, let’s swap some dominant 7th chords for jazzier 9th chords.

The 9th chord (1 – 3 – 5- b7 – 9) adds the 9 scale degree to a 7th chord. The 9th is the note one whole step above the octave and it gives the chord a nice color to the dominant 7th sound. Here’s an example of the D9 chord played against the shuffle rhythm.

This 9th chord shape includes all 5 notes and makes one of the classiest blues chord tricks possible:

The sliding 9th.

Play a D9 by fretting 5th string 5th fret, 4th string 5th fret and barre strings 3, 2 and 1 at the 5th fret. Then, slide those top 3 notes up 2 frets and back down.

This classy slide comes straight from the T-Bone Walker playbook and pairs nicely with the next chord trick.

Leveraging the Rootless 9th Chord Shape

Sometimes 9th chords fall comfortably under your fingers like the D9 voicing above. But other times, playing all five tones can be a handful. The rootless 9th chord is a great way to get that dominant 9th sound without difficult chord shapes.

Let’s build the rootless A9 from the major 3rd, C# on the 5th string, 4th fret. Next layer on the other tones moving up the strings:

  • Flat 7 – G – 4th string, 5th fret
  • 9th – B – 3rd string, 4th fret
  • 5th – E – 2nd string, 5th fret

The rootless 9th omits the root but still captures the bluesy dominant sound. It’s a clever way to play advanced extended chords without overly complex shapes.

Play around with moving the shape up and down the neck. You can also stab or embellish the chord for cool rhythmic effects.

Add rootless 9ths to your blues toolbox!

The Double Duty of the Rootless 9th Shape

What if we think of the lowest note in the chord as the root note? Then, what chord do we have?

That note is a C# and if we analyze the notes relative to C#, we get a C#m7b5 chord. Also called the half-diminished chord, this chord is a fantastic approach chord to the 5th string rooted, D9. The half step movement between C#m7b5 and D9 makes it an especially slick resolution.

So you can think of this shape either way – as a rootless 9th or a half-diminished approach chord. Two chord applications with one handy shape!

Add an Unsettled Vibe with Diminished 7th Chords

For our third chord trick, let’s get dissonant with the dissonant diminished 7th chord.

The diminished 7th chord (1 – b3 – b5 – bb7), or fully diminished chord, is built from stacked minor 3rds. Try substituting a diminished 7th chord for a dominant 7th chord in a blues jam. Build the dim7 chord from the major third of the dominant 7th chord.

In the example below, the F#dim7 subs in for the D9 on the & of beat 2.

But there’s something else going on. Later in the measure, we move the dim7 shape up three frets but kept the same chord shape.

The stacked minor thirds of the dim7 gives us a symmetrical chord. Each tone is a minor third away from the other. This allows us to slide the shape up a minor third (three frets) and still have the same tones – just in a different order.

Versatility for the win!

Use this trick to make interesting changes and substitutions.

Put It All Together in a 12-Bar Jam

Watch the video for this lesson to see how these four chord tricks can spice up a blues in an uptempo 12-bar jam. Use the chord tricks we just learned:

  • Throw in dominant 7th chords like A7
  • Substitute 9th chords like D9
  • Use rootless 9ths and half-diminished chords
  • Leverage the versatility of the diminished 7th chord

Don’t forget to embellish chords with slides, stabs and chromatics.

Use the tricks to build from the standard blues shuffle and keep things interesting. Try mixing different chord voicings and rhythm techniques.

Before you know it, you’ll be playing blues guitar like a pro!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

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