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Free Fingerpicking Blues Guitar Techniques And Lessons - The Thumb Is King

Updated on July 15, 2016

The Most Important Thing About Fingerpicking Guitar

After studying how to finger pick blues guitar for the last forty years or so, it strikes me that thumb movement control is vital.

If asked by student guitarists 'what’s the most important technique to practice again and again', my reply is always - work on your basic thumb technique, repeat and explore the possibilities.

A Little History – Picking the blues

It's possible that the first acoustic blues guitar sounds came from the south states and were really quite basic. Weather conditions are heavy and humid in those regions, which aren’t ideal for wooden musical instruments using strings. The very first stringed guitar-type instruments were probably constructed from cigar boxes, had one to four strings and were sometimes played with a bottle neck or slide. These first guitars were very difficult to keep in tune, and so bottleneck blues playing was a good option, as variation in tone was just a matter of moving the slide position while playing.

In the first part of the 20th century, selling by catalog became commonplace, pioneered by Sears, and inexpensive guitars were made available to ordinary people. However, for a colored person existing on subsistance level wages, even a very cheap guitar was tough to buy. That said, professionally constructed six string guitars were a great improvement over a self made cigar box guitar! These guys were extremely motivated to learn how to play blues guitar, as it represented a way of escaping their hard working lives.

Jim's Blues Guitar Lessons

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Early Fingerpicking Guitar Techniques

A finger picking style very common in the early blues guitar music is known as the 'monotonic bass'. This indicates that the thumb hits one or more bass strings, and doesn't alternate between strings. This allowed the fingers to be creative, as you didn't have to think too much about your thumb. Often, the basses weren’t fretted at all, which allowed for increased flexibility for the fretting hand fingers.

For this reason, players held the palm of their finger picking hand in contact with the first three or four bass strings, muting the sound so that it became more of a 'thunk' or 'thrumming' sound than a clear discernible note. Big Bill Broonzy was a master of this style. Learning to play guitar in Big Bill's style is very challenging for modern guitarists.

Big Bill Broonzy Plays 'Hey Hey'

Other 'Big Thumb' Blues Guitarists

Other blues guitarists , such as Texas blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins, often used this monotonic bass style, but let the the bass notes ring. The monotonic bass style was employed by other blues men such as Mance Lipscomb, Scrapper Blackwell and of course Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson

Possibly the most famous old blues man. For many people, blues guitar means 'delta blues' and delta blues means Johnson. His style of fingerpicking was at the same time raw but could be delicate, which was achieved by his development of a powerful technique incorporating a strong monotonic bass and delicate answering finger work.

In addition to his inventive guitar picking, Johnson's vocals were intense and charged with emotion. His most powerful pieces were in the key of A and slide songs in the open G tuning, both groups being played with a strong monotonic bass line.

Acoustic Blues Traveller Play 'Me and The Devil' by Robert Johnson

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Blind Blake - Ragtime Blues Fingerpicking Guitar King
Blind Blake - Ragtime Blues Fingerpicking Guitar King

Alternating Bass And Ragtime Fingerpicking Guitar

Ragtime piano became popular in the early 1900s and some blues guitar players realised that the characteristic bass signature could be played in a simplified way on the guitar. To accomplish this, it was necessary to strike two or three bass strings with the picking thumb, alternating between the strings, producing a 'bum-chick' sound. When this technique was combined with the picking sounds of the fingers, a very complex sound is produced which sounds like two guitars!

Many guitarists, such as Mississippi John Hurt, used this technique exclusively and recorded some fine work. Of course, the dexterity needed to play this style is far above that required to play monotonic, delta style blues. Learning how to play ragtime blues guitar is a real challenge.

Blind Blake was probably the foremost ragtime blues guitar player between 1920 and 1930. He achieved this by taking the thumb control to a new, extraordinary level. In many of his songs, Blake doubled up on the alternating thumb beats, making two notes instead of one. Not too many guitar teachers provide acoustic blues guitar lessons for this style.

So Much Trouble - Jim Bruce

Doc Watson - Travis Picking Expert
Doc Watson - Travis Picking Expert

Beyond Ragtime Blues Guitar

Modern guitar players took hold of this early ragtime sound and quickly extended the chords and techniques, exploring new areas. Many of the original Scott Joplin rags have been faithfully transcribed, and other ways of playing appeared constantly. In the U.S., many notable guitarists extended these picking styles and gave the music a country flavor.

Merle Travis was one of the first pioneers of this new genre and this is why the style is often called Travis picking. Chet Atkins was an obvious master of the style and currently Tommy Emmanuel is probably the foremost finger picker on the planet. Doc Watson, another legendary figure, was an expert in the Travis picking style - a true blues guitar master. Learning to play Deep River Blues in Doc's special style can be incredibly satisfying (and frustrating!)

Fingerpicking Doc Watson Style - Free Deep River Blues Lesson

Acoustic Blues Guitar Lesson - Seasick Steve

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    • sonnyhodgin profile image

      Sonny Hodgin 5 years ago from Indiana

      There's a lot of great stuff here! Fingepicking blues is a lost art. You can still here it sometimes, though. My favorite recent example is "Stiff Upper Lip" by AC/DC.



    • profile image

      michael wiley 6 years ago

      Thumbs up for those Rob.