Fingerstyle acoustic blues is one of my favorite styles of guitar to play. You play the rhythm, the chords and the melody all at once. Having no need for amps, pedals or even picks, this style tends to connect me to a simpler time. All you need to play fingerstyle blues are two hands, a guitar and a lot of soul.
What you need to get started
Some people use thumb and finger picks, the ones that attach to your fingers. I occasionally use the thumb pick when I’m looking for a brighter sound than what you get with flesh on string.
For the life of me though, I can’t get the hang of using those little metal picks that go on your index, middle and ring finger. Dobro players seem to use these religiously, but I can’t seem to use them without snapping a string. Oh well, maybe one day…
I don’t use fingerpicks much at all really. There is something appealing in grabbing my guitar and making music with my bare hands.
For beginning fingerpickers, I would recommend starting without fingerpicks. Adding a pick from the start would be just one more thing that could go wrong. You can add them later.
How to get started with fingerstyle acoustic blues
When I began playing acoustic blues, I was completely lost. I struggled with some of the most basic moves for months. Looking back, it was because I tried to tackle everything at once.
So, to get started, let’s break down the three main components of playing fingerstyle and master them separately. When you have them down, you can combine them into a really cool piece of music that will sound like more than one guitar.
- Bass Line
There are so many rhythm styles in the blues, from straight quarter notes to shuffle patterns to walking basslines. By far the easiest rhythm to get started with is the straight ahead quarter note thump. Walking basslines baffle me.
Grab your metronome, set it to around 90 bpm and play along with the beats. Use your thumb pluck the open E string on each beat of the metronome, the quarter notes. It helps to count out loud. Tap your foot, bob your head. Get into it.
Though it doesn’t feel like it when you are just playing one note repeatedly, you are establishing the groove. Setting your internal metronome.
Your left hand will feel left out, but we will add some left hand duties once you master the ‘thumb pump’ beat.
What we want to do here is build up the muscles in your thumb. This can take a solid week or two of just practicing this one note over and over again. Getting a solid thumping sound can be very frustrating, but hang in there and you will get it.
Practice this thumb beat over and over until the muscles in your thumb ache and everyone around you wishes that you would “just play a song.”
When you have this nailed, you should be able to thump out the E note in time and carry on a conversation without missing a beat. Once you can do that, you can move on.
Start by fretting an E major chord then lay your right hand index finger on the G string, your right middle finger on the B string and your right ring finger on the high E string. Then pluck each of these strings simultaneously with a pinching motion.
Essentially you are playing three notes from the E major chord. Keep your thumb going on the quarter notes and count them out loud. As you get to the first beat of the measure, pluck the top three strings of the E major chord and let them ring.
Practice this one bar exercise a good bit. Until you get comfortable with the coordination of the thumb and plucking the chord. When you have this down, move the chord to the second beat of the measure, the third and then the fourth.
When playing on the thumb beat becomes natural, play the chord with your three fingers in between the thumb notes. These would be the eighth notes.
If you count a measure with eighth notes like this: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
The eighth notes would be the &’s.
When you can pluck the chord out on any beat of the measure that you wish, then its time to add some melody lines.
This is the part of the song that will be stuck in your head long after you have put the guitar down.
Adding a melody line to the thumping thumb and chord rhythm might seem difficult at first, but start with a very simple lead line with only three notes or so and build from there. Most of the ‘licks’ that I play are usually very simple, but they repeat and establish the overall melodic motif of the tune.
These don’t need to be complicated to sound cool. The main thing is that they are in time with the bass and the chords that you are playing.
In E major, I find that my left hand pinky finger is just hanging around doing nothing. So the melody is where I put the pinky to work. Take a look at the accompanying video lesson, for some examples.
Where do I go from here?
After learning these three components in E, we will move on to the A chord and then the B chord. After you have the basic structure down, you can tweak things by adding licks and chord tricks to your repertoire. With some practice, you can begin playing some of the greatest blues songs ever written, 32-20 Blues anyone?
Until then, keep pickin!