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The Basic 12-Bar Blues Riff

Welcome to the fourth video of the Blues Guitar Quick-Start Series. So far in this series, we’ve been focused on learning the standard 12-bar blues progression and applying both our power chords and dominant seventh chords to that progression. It’s important to know how to dress up your rhythm blues guitar playing, and one way to do that is through blues riffs. In this lesson we’ll learn a basic blues riff, and then dress it up even more in the next lesson.

For this basic blues riff, there is quite a bit of stretching involved, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get the hang of it right away. It will take some work to get comfortable with stretching that far. What we’re going to do is outline the chords throughout the 12-bar blues progression with this riff, and apply a shuffle rhythm. We’re also going to use a muting technique to give your playing a more bluesy style.

Let’s jump right into this riff. In our 12-bar blues progression, the first four measures are over the 1 chord, so we’ll learn the riff that goes over this chord. Start with an E power chord and play that twice with two eighth notes, using a swing feel. Next, leaving your index finger where it is, place your third finger on the fourth fret of the A string and play that twice using two swung eighth notes. This is basically the entire riff, you’re just going to repeat it over again.

This has taken up only two beats so far, so to get a whole measure, we need to play this riff twice. Since we have four measures of the 1 chord, we’ll need to play this short riff eight times in a row.

The 12-bar blues progression switches to the 4 chord for two measures next. For this riff, we’ll make an A power chord by placing your index finger on the second fret of the D string, and play the fifth and fourth strings twice using two swing eighth notes. Keeping your index finger in place, come down with your third finger on the fourth fret of the D string, and play that twice using two swung eighth notes. This will be your basic riff over the A chord.

Again, we’ll have to play this twice for one measure, and since we have two measures of A in the progression, we’ll play this riff four times.

Next we have two more measure of the 1 chord, so we’re going back to the riff over the E chord. We’ll play it for two more measures, so four times through again.

Now here comes the stretching part that I mentioned earlier. When you go to the 5 chord, which is a B, we’re going to have to make a B power chord. Because of the stretch in it, we have to make it with our first and second fingers rather than first and third fingers. Place your first finger on the second fret of the A string and your second finger on the fourth fret of the D string. Play this for two swung eighth notes. Now you have to stretch your fourth finger all the way to sixth fret and play the A and D strings for two swung eighth notes. This may take you a while to get that stretch down.

Now we have a measure of the 4 chord, so head back to your A riff and play it for one measure. After that, go back to the 1 chord for one measure. Finally we end of the 5 chord for one measure, so make the B power chord shape again and stretch your pinky out to play that B riff for one measure.

Now that we’ve walked through this riff, take a look at the video to hear what it will sound like with the jam track. This is the basic 12-bar blues riff we’re going to learn altogether in the context of some real music.

One thing you can add to this riff to give it more style is muting. If you have your regular swung eighth notes, you can divide this up by the beat. You have two notes on each beat, so you can cut the first one short by muting it. Hit the strings, then come down and mute them with the palm of your hand right away. You can strum the second note normally. If you keep up that alternating pattern, you get a good blues feel just like you hear in the video.

Work on your muting technique for a while, and then you can apply it to your basic 12-bar blues riff. Take a look at the video to hear me play an example.

Hopefully now that you’ve learned this simple 12-bar blues riff, you can really hear how it livens up your rhythm blues playing and gives it some forward momentum. This is the most basic version of this rhythm riff that we’ll learn, and it’s important to get it down because it’s the foundation of another version of the riff we’ll learn later.

Slow this riff down and practice it as much as you need to until you feel really comfortable with it, then you can pull up a jam track. Try playing along to either the 70 beats per minute or the 100 beats per minute jam track.

In the next lesson, we’re going to take a look at an intermediate blues riff. We’re going to dress up the basic blues riff and make it even more interesting for you to play.

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