Eighty percent of your results in anything come from only 20% of your efforts.
At least that’s what the Pareto Principle says and it gets broadly applied to just about anything these days. While I’m a often suspicious of things like this, the spirit of the principle seems to hold up. Even in acoustic blues.
There are so many chords vying for our attention. But as a fingerpicker, I find myself playing the most from just a few chord shapes.
In this lesson, I’ll share 5 chord shapes that any acoustic blues fingerpicker should know.
Let’s dig in.
The Big G Chord
Want to play ragtime blues like Blind Blake or country blues like Mississippi John Hurt?
If so, you’re gonna need this chord shape!
There are so many cool licks that you can do from this one chord shape. It’s versatile and once you get it down, it’s actually convenient. Plus, with three open strings in this chord, it’s perfect when you want a big sound.
So, we’ll call this one, the Big G.
The notes of the Big G Chord are the same as any G Chord: G, B and D. What makes the Big G so flexible is all in the fingering.
The numbers below the grids represent the finger you use to play each string.
|Thumb (yep, it’s a thing!)
Switching to this fingering will probably feel awkward at first. I did for me. But playing the G chord this way gives you options. Lots of them. It sets up a quick change from the G Major chord to the G7 simply by dropping the G note on the 1st string down to F.
Do this by lifting your pinky and putting your index finger down on the 1st fret, 1st string.
Incorporate the open string and you’ve got plenty of melody options right under your fingers.
Once you gain some confidence with this grip, try putting your pinky to work on other strings in this Blind Blake style run.
The drawback to this chord? It isn’t movable. That’s because of the open strings, but the next shape solves that problem.
The Long A Chord
It’s called the Long A Chord and it’s essentially the Big G moved up two frets. You use a barre across strings 4, 3, and 2 to replace the open strings. Then stretch way up to the 5th fret for the high A note on the first string.
I’ll bet you can see why it’s called the Long A! 🙂
By the way, if you struggle to nail this stretch, you’re not alone. Many players do. If that’s you, check out Tuesday Blues #87 for a strategy to help you nail this stretch.
Like the Big G, you can quickly switch between an A Major chord and an A7 just by dropping the note on the 1st string down a whole step.
Don’t let the fact that this is called the Long A fool you. You can easily move this shape to any key. Just move the entire shape to any position on the neck. It actually gets easier as you move up the neck because the stretch is smaller.
Broonzy played this shape at the 4th fret for a B and B7 chord in his song, Hey, Hey.
Keep this in mind as you move the shape: the root is on the 3rd string. So wherever you move this shape, look to the 3rd string to get the name of the chord.
For example: move the Long A shape to E, by barring at the 9th fret. The 3rd string, 9th fret is an E note.
Most basslines in fingerstyle blues are played on the lower-pitched 6, 5 and 4 strings. You may have noticed that the 6th and 5th strings aren’t movable in the Long A shape. You can get the low thump going over an A chord or E chord, but what about over a C chord? Not so much…
The next shape is a perfect alternative when you need that lower bass thump anywhere on the fretboard.
Closed C7 Shape
One of the first chords that guitarists learn is the C Major chord in the open position. This one:
This chord may not seem particularly useful in the blues until you make one small addition: fret the 3rd string, 3rd fret with your pinky.
This converts the basic C Major Chord to a Bluesy C7. Now, we have a shape that’s bluesy and easy to move anywhere on the fretboard. The root of this shape is on the 5th and 2nd strings. Look to those notes for the chord name.
Here it is moved to an E7, note that the fingering is the same:
The basic C chord shape is just one finger away from a bluesy chord and it’s easy to move anywhere on the neck. Nice! But, it’s also one of the best chord shapes for alternating basslines.
You can play a two string alternating pattern on the 5th and 4th strings like this:
Or a more complicated, but super cool three string alternating pattern like this:
Apply a picking pattern and move the entire shape through a progression and you’ve got yourself the makings of a cool country blues tune. Try it!
The D7 Shape
Like the Closed C7 shape, the D7 shape is completely movable and it’s definitely one you should get to know. It shows up in Robert Johnson style intros and is fully on display in Keb’ Mo’s tune, You Can Love Yourself.
Like previous shapes, this one starts with a (probably) familiar shape in the open position. Then, we re-finger it to make it moveable.
The root of this shape is on the 4th string. We can easily move it up to A, by shifting the shape up to the 7th fret, like this:
Remember the numbers shown below the chord grid represent your index (1), middle (2), ring (3) and pinky (4) fingers.
The best way to get comfortable with this shape is to plug it into a bluesy study like the one below.
The Thumb + Triad Chord
The F Barre Chord is one of the hardest chords beginners face.
It’s not easy. Even seasoned players can struggle to nail this chord reliably. The right practice and good technique can get you there, but country blues gives us a much easier alternative. Well, with one trick.
You have to use your thumb to fret the sixth string. Here’s how you do it:
Palm the guitar neck with your fretting hand. Then, hook your thumb over the top of the fretboard and fret the sixth string with the fleshy pad of your thumb.
Note: The mini-barre across strings 1 and 2 is optional. Sometimes you’ll use it, sometimes you won’t.
This will be awkward at first.
And maybe for you the thumb fretting just isn’t happening. But if you can do it, use it! This F shape helps fingerpickers in one big way:
It frees your pinky to play melody notes.
Here’s an example of an alternating bass line over the F chord with a bit of melody played with your newly freed pinky finger.
Now we’re cooking!
Chords (And How You Pick Them) are the Path to Success with Fingerstyle Blues
These examples focus on one chord shape at a time and that alone can be used to create cool acoustic blues music. But, the real advantage?
Mixing these shapes into a complete blues tune.
I teach you how to do that and more inside myBGI in several of my courses:
- Fingerstyle Fundamentals: The basics of fingerstyle blues with performance studies
- Sweet Little Lady: A Kindhearted Woman Style Blues study
- Georgia Blues: A Country Blues Picking Study
I’d love to have you as a member. Learn how to join here.