Acoustic Blues in Standard Tuning
It seems that the public’s view of blues has become fixated on Stevie Ray Vaughan. At some point since 1983 when people thought of blues they started thinking of a white guy wearing a cowboy hat and playing a brown sunburst Stratocaster. Personally, I can remember being fourteen years old and spending a few hours a day in my room doing my best impression of Pride and Joy. But that’s not the point of this article…
The point of this article is to show you that there is a whole other style out there. A style where a TS-9 Tubescreamer isn’t the Holy Grail of tone and where Voodoo Chile isn’t considered a standard. It’s acoustic blues, represented by such fine players as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, and many others. So unplug your guitar, put down your pick, and let’s get started.
Form and Introduction
A lot of acoustic blues are in open tunings. As such, many lessons are the same way. But what I’ll be doing in this lesson is staying in standard tuning throughout. That way, you don’t need to be retuning your guitar every five minutes just to show your friends what you learned today. Besides, as the great bluesman David ‘Honeboy’ Edwards once said, “real bluesmen don’t use open tunings.”
Let’s first take a look at the blues form. We’ll be following a typical 12-bar pattern throughout, using the lyrics from Muddy Waters’ You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had. This isn’t actually an acoustic song, nor is it played in the key of E, but when did I promise to teach you the authentic version of anything? But here’s how it goes:
E7 Had a pretty little girl. I lose my baby, boys ain’t that sad? A7 I once had a pretty girl. I lose my baby, boys ain’t that sad? B7 You know, you can’t spend what you ain’t got. A7 Can’t lose what you ain’t never had. (turnaround)
And here are the chord shapes we’ll be using:
Easy enough, right? We’ll get back to these in a minute. But for now, let’s jump in to this song with the introduction. This figure will also be the same one we’ll use as the turnaround at the end of each verse, so pay attention.
It’s actually a lot easier than it looks. For the descending line, just make that first chord form with your ring finger on the fifth fret of the A string, middle on the fourth fret of the G string, and index finger on the third fret of the B string. Then just slide that shape down one fret at a time until you’re done. For the E triad (G#-B-E) at the end, I brush my picking hand’s index finger across the strings. I do the same thing for the B7 chord. When you’re brushing, it may sound kind sloppy, that’s okay.
In a typical blues, the first line of the verse is sung over two measures of an E7 chord, and then there are two more bars of E7 before you move onto the next line. But another variation you can use is to go to A7 after the first measure, and then return to E7 as usual. I’ve heard this called a “quick-change” progression. But pretty much it would go like this:
E7 I had a pretty little girl. A7 I lose my baby, boys ain’t that sad.
So what do we play for these chords? You certainly don’t want to just strum them. Instead, what you want to do is imply the chords by working around them. I’ll try to show what I mean here:
When playing this, it’s very clear as to what the chords are even though you ever actually play one in its entirety. And aren’t those two measures far more interesting than if you’d just played the standard chords? You’ll notice there’s a nice bass line throughout the entire thing, as well as some things of harmonic interest going on up in the treble strings.
In the first measure, the bass strings are just doing quarter notes with an E octave. The little walk-up to A is on the “and” of beat 4. Once you go to the A, it’s a very familiar boogie bass line that you’ve probably heard countless times.
As for the work on the treble strings, you’ll notice that you can pretty much make the E7 shape and you’ll have all the notes under your fingers. Just hammer on the G string and give the B a little bend when appropriate, and you’ve got it. When I get to the A, I prefer to have my index finger fret the D, G, and B strings at the second fret, and grab the G note on the E string with my ring finger. For the bass line, I just kind of twist my hand a bit and fret the whole thing with my middle finger. If you find this too awkward, you could just hit an open high E string and play the bass line with any of your free fingers.
After going through this and singing, you’ve got two bars to play a fill in. I like to slide up to the ninth fret and do a fill higher up in the neck to break things up.
This is really just the A7 shape we used before, moved up seven frets to fit the E7 chord. Hit the E on the 12th fret with your pinky and really lay into this riff.
For the vocal line over A7, I play the same thing we did in the second measure. Just do it twice and you’ve got it.
But now we need another fill before going to the B7 chord. This next fill is a classic. Everyone from Robert Johnson to Creedence Clearwater Revival have used this riff:
And that should cover the first eight bars. Now we’ll move onto the B7 chord and the third line of the vocals. We’ll keep this part a little simpler. Just grab a hold of the B7 chord I already showed you. After a measure of that, you’ll walk down to the A7 chord. The move on this chord is the same as that chordal fill for E7 we already went over, just a different rhythm.
I put that last slide in to show where to begin the turnaround. Remember that figure we used in the introduction? Hit the low E note on the downbeat and just play that again.
And for your reference, here are the song’s lyrics in their entirety:
Once had a pretty little girl. I lose my baby, boys ain’t that sad? Once had a pretty little girl. I lose my baby, boys ain’t that sad? You can’t spend what you ain’t got, can’t lose some little girl you ain’t never had.
I had money in the bank. I got busted, people ain’t that bad? I had money in the bank. I got busted, people ain’t that bad? You can’t spend what you ain’t got, can’t lose what you ain’t never had.
I had a nice house. But it burned down, people ain’t that sad? I had a nice house. But it burned down, people ain’t that sad? You can’t spend what you ain’t got, can’t lose what you ain’t never had. You know you can’t spend what you ain’t got. Can’t lose what you ain’t never had.
And that about wraps it up. Rather than restate this verbatim every time you play it, try to make your own variations. Just try to keep the bassline going when you’re making your own fills. You don’t have to be able to set your watch to it, but there should be some semblance of rhythm there to keep it going. I’ve found that stomping your feet really goes a long way towards filling space. And if you’re performing something like this in a live setting, you could even go so far as to put a microphone near your foot. This will give you a nice bed on which you can do some more intricate things with your guitar or your voice. Just remember that your voice should still be the most important thing going…