How to Not Suck at Playing Blues Rhythm Guitar

How many ways can you play the rhythm parts to a blues without it sounding like the same old mundane, boring chord progression?

Ultimate Guitar
As an acoustic guitarist, or any guitarist for that matter, you should be familiar with the blues. Whether you are, or consider yourself to be a blues guitar player or not, is irrelevant. Fact is, there will be many times over your guitar playing life you'll meet up with various guitarists and musicians, and of course, one of the most common things to do when you first jam with someone is to play a blues. It's heaps of fun and if you know your stuff, you can sound like you've been playing with someone for years, when in fact you've just met.

While solo technique, and in particular improvisation, are important to jamming a blues, it's on the rhythm side of things where most guitarists struggle. It's quite common to hear someone rip it up with great blues soloing, only to then suck at playing the rhythm part while others solo.

Fact is, when playing in a band you play rhythm guitar for the vast majority of the time, even if you consider yourself to be a "lead" player. However, it's all too common to see guitarists really struggle in this area, using the same old chords and strumming patterns, waiting out the time until their next solo.

Let's change this and look at 3 rhythm guitar approaches we can take with a 12 bar blues progression. You can adopt these in your next jam session to spice things up. Whoever solos over your rhythm guitar parts will love it!

The 12 Bar Blues Form

Most guitarists should be familiar with the basic 12 bar blues form. Here it is:

Despite being familiar with the above progression, many guitar players will struggle to do much more than strum basic chords as they play through it. This is of course OK to do, however it will get boring and uninspiring pretty quickly for not just yourself, but those playing with you too. There is so much more you could be doing to keep things interesting and fresh.

The thing to realize is, that playing the rhythm part to a blues is not time you spend waiting until your next solo, strumming the same old chords you always use. It's time to be inventive, to improvise, and inspire whoever is soloing over your playing, so they can feed off what you are doing and play way above their usual standard.

1. Rhythm Riff Approach

Rhythm riffs are a great alternative to simply strumming chords all the time. They create a nice counterpart to a solo and can be used not just in blues, but other styles of playing too.

Here is an example of a rhythm riff being applied to our blues progression:

This rhythm riff is targeting the 3rd of each chord as it follows the changes of the progression. It relates to the root 6 bar chord form and many variations can be created from it. See if you can come up with some yourself.

2. A Touch Of Jazz

One of my favorite things to do is to add a touch of jazz to a blues progression. Both jazz and blues are closely related styles of music, so it makes sense to do this.

The following is a stock standard 12 bar blues progression in the jazz world:

You will typically find more chords in a jazz blues progression. This is because in jazz, it's common to substitute some chords of a progression for other chords.

Chord substitution is not something we will go into here as it's a big subject, however do learn and become familiar with the above example for the following 2 reasons:
  1. It will train your ears to become familiar with some sounds/chords you may not have heard before, or at least, not heard often. Don't focus in trying to understand these chords, just get them into your ears for now.

  2. To build you chord vocabulary as an acoustic guitar player. The chords in the example above can be used in many different playing situations, not just the blues, and will really help improve your rhythm guitar playing in big ways!
The rhythm component to rhythm guitar is very important too, not just the chords you use. The rhythm used in the example above is what's known as the Charleston pattern. This was inspired by the Charleston dance of the 1920s and is a very popular rhythm pattern used in jazz.

3. Block Chords

Also known as 4, 3, 2, 1 voicings, block chords are chord shapes fretted on the top 4 strings of your guitar. They are fantastic for creating cool blues rhythm parts.

Here are the 4 block chord shapes I will be using in this example:

And here they are applied to our 12 bar blues:

I can clearly remember when I first came across block chords. They immediately resonated with me, and I started to apply them to anything and everything I could. Before block chords I only really knew how to play open and bar chords.

In this example I have taken two chorus' of the blues. In the second chorus you will notice I am changing more frequently between my block chords, even when the chord is not changing in the progression itself. This is a great way to create movement across a static chord, and starts to reveal to you some of the possibilities of using block chords in your rhythm playing.

There are many more things you can do with these guys, but that should keep you occupied for the time being.

Bringing It All Together

You may have noticed that I used the same key for each of the examples above. I did this so it would be easier when integrating and joining the approaches together.

One absolutely crucial thing you MUST do when learning something new, is to apply whatever it is you are learning to as many different situations as you can. In this case we have several approaches to our 12 bar blues, so it's also important to mix them together too.

When you mix various approaches together you'll be surprised how many variations you'll come up with, many times without even intending to. This is good, because your goal is to be able to play endless rhythm guitar variations of a 12 bar blues, not memorize a few and play then exactly the same way every time you want to use them.

About the Author:
Simon Candy is a highly experienced and sought after guitar instructor from Melbourne, Australia. Specializing in the acoustic, Simon offers online lessons for acoustic guitar covering a number of styles including blues, fingerpicking, jazz, percussive and rock.

41 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great article Simon! I am always looking for ways to reinforce my rhythm playing. The Rhythm riff example was very cool and fun to play.
    Allen Hopgood
    Great article, Simon. Rhythm playing makes up at least 95% of our playing…it's something, all guitar players, regardless of style or genre, need to focus on a LOT more.
    There is a lot of stuff about soloing out there, and hardly anything about what to do in a jam when you aren't soloing (- which is most of the time). Cool ideas and plenty to spice up a Blues accompaniment here. Thank you!
    Very nice work, Simon! As you mentioned, there are so many cats that can solo all over the place but have NO idea how to comp. This article is for the good of jam sessions everywhere!!!!! Charlie
    chicago bill
    Excellent lesson Simon. Thank you. I've been learning for 4 years, 2.5 of that with an experience blues instructor. I'm looking forward to adding this to my lessons and practice. Cheers.
    This was fun to practice. I have never seen or used these block chords but after playing through some them it brings a lot together for me. It gives me something to focus and work on that also promotes creativity. Thanks
    Simon Candy
    You are most welcome! Yeah, I loved the block chords when I first came across them many years ago and use them all the time. They are sometimes referred to as 4, 3, 2, 1 voicing's and you can of course refer to them as root position, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd inversion chords depending on which one you are using.
    Jace Bastian
    Great article, Simon!! I especially loved the rhythm riffs part and the block chords part; I never knew what block chords were before, now I know I will definitely be using them a lot in the future. Thanks again for the article!!
    These ideas are great! It made me think in ways I have never done when it comes to rythm! Awesome