TrueFire Blog

Learn How to Play Fingerstyle Blues Guitar Like Robert Johnson

A close up of a guitarists hands playing acoustic guitar. Narrow depth of field.

Blind Blake, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson are just some of the early blues players who pioneered fingerstyle by playing the bass, chords, and melody at the same time. This can be a challenging thing to learn to do for guitar players who are learning fingerstyle for the first time. In TrueFire’s Fingerstyle Blues Roots, taught by John Hatcher, we’ll break down the concepts and techniques needed to get up to speed with playing fingerstyle.

In these lessons, John will introduce a few of the concepts to get you going, and then play a 12-bar blues performance study that takes advantage of these new techniques. Let’s get pickin’!

Alternating Bass Thumbpicking

Download the tab and notation for this fingerstyle blues guitar lesson on TrueFire.

In contrast to dead bass, which is monotonic, alternating bass shifts the bass notes between two tones (sometimes three). You can hear this at work in songs like “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten, “Carolina Breakdown” by Etta Baker and just about anything by Mississippi John Hurt. In this lesson, we’ll cover exercises to help you nail this technique.

Common Country Blues Chords

Download the tab and notation for this fingerstyle blues guitar lesson on TrueFire.

Nothing quite defines the blues sound like dominant 7th chords, or 7th chords for short. This particular chord quality adds a little mystery to the standard cowboy chords.

The cool thing is that there are only five 7th chord shapes that you need to know. In this lesson, we’ll cover the shapes and then we’ll really get cooking by taking a look at the moveable shapes derived from them.

Blues Turnarounds

Download the tab and notation for this fingerstyle blues guitar lesson on TrueFire.

A turnaround is simply a passage at the end of a piece of music that is used to get you back to the beginning. This is most obvious at the end of a 12 bar blues pattern where we use the last two bars to set ourselves up to go back to Bar 1 and repeat the pattern.

There’s a lot of creativity that goes into a turnaround, but a few things tend to stand out:

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at two very common blues turnarounds that will have a familiar sound to them. Keep in mind that these are the standard sound, but the turnaround is an excellent part to let your creativity come through.

Picking Workout: Level 3 – Demonstration

Download the tab and notation for this fingerstyle blues guitar lesson on TrueFire.

In Level 3 of the Picking Workout, we’ll introduce the Travis picking sounds of a 3 note alternating bassline. Things can get tricky here, but this exercise should help you develop the movements needed to get this rootsy picking sound into your playing.

Snap it Up – Overview

“Snap it Up” is a 12 bar blues in E. We’ll run through 2 choruses that really pack a punch, calling on the percussive string snaps technique along with rhythmic brush ups.

Listen up for remnants of the classic turnaround in E we covered in Section 1. This number should help you add some real life and energy to a basic 12 bar blues and is perfect for pickers looking to expand upon the sounds of the basic blues shuffle.

Snap it Up – Performance

Download the tab and notation for this fingerstyle blues lesson on TrueFire.

Let’s look a performance of “Snap it Up”. We’ll depart from the dead bass thump in this tune in favor of some string snappin’ fun! The rhythm and the whole vibe of this one will take some practice. My biggest tip for nailing “Snap it Up” is to go slow and focus on the timing.

Snap it Up – Breakdown

We’ll depart from the dead bass thump in “Snap it Up” in favor of some string snappin’ fun! The rhythm and the whole vibe of this one will take some practice. My biggest tip for nailing “Snap it Up” is to go slow and focus on the timing.


Hankering for more bluesy fingerstyle tunes to learn? Make sure to check out Fingerstyle Blues Roots on TrueFire to get your chops in order!