If you want to improve as a blues guitarist, I would recommend learning a range of easy blues songs.
In my opinion, learning new songs is one of the best ways to develop as a guitarist. Learning scales and chords is like learning individual words of a new language. It is useful, but it doesn’t actually help you to form sentences, tell an engaging story, or connect with others. To be able to do the latter, you need reference material.
The same is true of learning to play the guitar. If you want to play blues guitar like the greats, then one of the best first steps that you can take is to learn some famous blues songs. This will help you to understand how your favourite players use techniques, scales and chords in practice. You will learn the techniques that they use(d) to create their music. And this will help you to develop your own skills.
Learning songs is not just useful from a developmental perspective either. It will keep your practice and playing fun and interesting. And this is important. After all, if your practice routine is nothing more than a series of rhythmic and technical exercises, the chances of you sticking to it are fairly slim. You are likely to become bored and demotivated.
So if you are fairly new to the world of blues guitar, then learning a handful of easy blues songs will help to take your playing to the next level. It will immerse you in the world of the blues, and make your practice focused and enjoyable.
And this is what this article is all about. Here I have collected a list of 20 easy blues songs, broken up into categories, which will help you to develop some of the key skills you need to become a great blues guitarist.
Some Opening Thoughts…
When you are relatively new to the guitar, one of the biggest challenges is finding material to learn that is suited for your playing level. If you set the bar too low, you won’t push yourself to improve and as a result, your progress will slow down. Conversely, if you try to learn very challenging material, there is a risk that you will become overwhelmed and demotivated.
The songs that I have listed here are aimed at beginner players. But there are a few things to keep in mind here:
Firstly, not all parts of these songs are easy. Many of the songs have an easy riff for example, but then a blisteringly fast and technically difficult guitar solo.
Secondly, even within this category of ‘easy blues songs’ there is some variation. Depending on your playing level, you might fly through some of these songs with little effort, whilst others will require a little more work. And some might be a little too challenging for you to try at this stage.
My advice on both of these points, is to take a common sense approach. If 95% of a song is comprised of a central riff that you feel you can learn quite easily, then I don’t think you need to get too worked up about the 30 second guitar solo. It will still be there for you to tackle in a number of months, after you’ve amassed a few more hours of playing.
Likewise, if you feel that any of the songs in this list is too challenging, then don’t let that get you down. Simply find another song on the list, learn that and come back to the more difficult songs later. Learning to assess your playing ability objectively is both challenging and also a skill worth developing. And you can start developing this skill now by trying to objectively decide which of these songs you should try to learn.
Lastly, it is worth noting that this list is not representative of the broad spectrum of amazing blues music out there. Without question there are significant blues musicians and bands that I have omitted here. And certain sub-genres of the blues are also poorly represented in this list.
This is not because these songs are not worth learning. It is just because many of them are challenging, and are best tackling once you have been playing for a bit longer.
Many of the songs on this list are also riff based. This is because, in my opinion, learning riffs works well when you are starting out. Often riffs are not that technically challenging, they are easy to remember and they typically repeat a lot throughout the song. So in this way you can learn to play a full song without having to learn a lot of different material.
Now with those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it. Here are 20 easy blues songs that will build your repertoire and help you to improve different areas of your playing:
Acoustic Blues Songs
When you are starting out, it can be challenging to get to grips with acoustic blues. Many of the early Delta blues guitarists played using a slide – a technique that is challenging even for advanced guitarists. These early Delta guitarists also often used different tunings, and many of them had quite an idiosyncratic style.
As such, it can be difficult to find easy acoustic blues songs to learn. However the good news is that there are some great songs out there. Some of my top choices are as follows:
- ‘Life By The Drop‘ – Stevie Ray Vaughan
- ‘Love Me Like A Man‘ – Bonnie Raitt
- ‘Old Love (Acoustic)‘ – Eric Clapton
- ‘House Of The Rising Sun‘ – Animals
I appreciate that neither ‘Old Love’ or ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ are what you would call ‘typical’ blues songs. The first is an acoustic version of a song that Eric Clapton released on the album ‘Journeyman‘. Similarly, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ was actually first recorded on an electric guitar. And yet despite this, I think both songs make a great choice if you are trying to learn blues guitar.
Despite the slightly poppier feel in ‘Old Love’, the guitar part is really quite bluesy. It has a great riff, some tricky barre chords that will challenge your fretting hand, and a beautiful (and quite fast) guitar solo, if you are up for a challenge.
Likewise, the folky and bluesy feel of ‘House Of The Rising Sun is perfectly suited to the acoustic guitar. The guitar part is based around arpeggiated chords. These are chords in which the notes of the chord are picked out individually, rather than strummed. As such, learning this song will help you to develop the skill of picking out individual strings, rather than strumming all of your strings at the same time.
Both ‘Life By The Drop’ and ‘Love Me Like A Man’ are predominantly based around simple shuffle patterns. These will help you to develop the rhythmic skills you need to play an authentic sounding blues shuffle. They also start with slightly more complex opening passages, which will help you to combine some acoustic lead lines alongside the rhythmic parts that play throughout the remainder of both songs.
Classic Blues Riffs
By the middle of the 20th Century, the blues had become electrified. There was an established blues scene in cities like Chicago and Memphis, and the popularity of the genre was ever growing. Musicians were playing to larger audiences. And they were doing so with the aid of amplifiers and electric guitars.
In part, this influenced the style of the music they created. Players moved away from the traditional country blues sound, and started writing songs with catchy, intense and repetitive riffs. Many of these have entered into the fabric of the blues. So even if you don’t know the following songs by name, I suspect that you have heard the riffs central in these songs:
- ‘Mannish Boy‘ – Muddy Waters
- ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb‘ – Buddy Guy
- ‘Smokestack Lightin’‘ – Howlin’ Wolf
- ‘Boom Boom’ – John Lee Hooker
Out of these four songs, the riffs in both ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ are based around single note lines. As such, I would argue that they are a little bit easier to grasp than ‘Smokestack Lightin” and ‘Boom Boom’ – both of which are based around multiple string lines and hybrid picking.
‘Mannish Boy’ in particular is composed of a simple and repeating riff. It is also one of the most recognisable blues riffs of all time. So if you are looking to get started learning easy blues songs, this would make a brilliant choice.
British Blues Songs
The middle of the 1960s marked the second wave of the British blues movement. This was a movement that quickly gathered a huge amount of momentum, and had profound and far reaching effects.
Guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters gained new levels of stardom – both in the U.S. and abroad. They were granted access to prestigious venues like the Fillmore East, from which they had previously been banned. It was the first time that musicians like King played in front white audiences.
British blues guitarists like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Paul Kossoff took the songs and style of their blues guitar heroes and made them heavier and more aggressive. In so doing, they created some of the best blues rock music ever recorded. If you want to learn to play in this style, any of the following songs would make a great starting place:
- ‘Heartbreaker‘ – Led Zeppelin
- ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ – Cream
- ‘Oh Well (Pt.1)‘ – Fleetwood Mac
- ‘Wishing Well‘ – Free
British blues and blues rock songs are often built around a central riff. This riff is then often punctuated by a fiery blues solos This is true of many of the songs in the above list, but it is particularly obvious in both ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’.
If you are quite new to the world of blues guitar, don’t worry about tackling these solos just yet. Instead, focus on getting comfortable with these riffs and their nuances. The small bends, vibrato and palm muting techniques that are used impact the way these riffs sound. So once you feel comfortable with the order of the notes in the riffs and how they fit together, work on tackling these nuances.
Unlike many of the songs listed so far, the majority of these songs were originally played with a more overdriven guitar tone. As such, if you play them with a totally clean tone, you will likely struggle to capture their feel. So if you have the option to crank up the overdrive – either with an amp that has a gain channel, or with an overdrive pedal(s), I would recommend doing so!
Heavy Blues Songs
If you are looking for even heavier blues and blues rock music, then there are a whole range of brilliant and easy blues songs that you can learn. Some of my favourites are as follows:
- ‘Waitin’ For The Bus‘ – ZZ Top
- ‘No Good‘ – KALEO
- ‘Bright Lights’ – Gary Clark Jr.
- ‘Next Girl‘ – The Black Keys
As is true of the British blues songs listed above, these heavy blues rock songs are based around central riffs that repeat throughout. Some of these songs, like ‘Bright Lights’ and ‘Waitin’ For The Bus’ also have extended and tricky guitar solos, which are slightly more advanced. So if you are fairly new to the guitar, I would focus on really nailing the riffs before tackling the solo sections.
As is also true of some of the British blues riffs linked above, the riffs in these songs can sound a little thin and uninspiring when played with a totally clean tone. So once you feel comfortable playing through them, I would recommend cranking up the overdrive. It will make them sound much more authentic. It will also be more fun for you to play too!
Minor Pentatonic Blues Songs
Finally, here are some songs that have lead sections that are based around the minor pentatonic scale. All of these songs have sections which are more technically difficult and challenging than those listed above. However, if you have recently learned the shapes of the minor pentatonic scale and you are looking to consolidate those shapes whilst also expanding your repertoire, then I would recommend learning any of the following songs:
- ‘Strange Brew‘ – Cream
- ‘Hey Joe‘ – Jimi Hendrix
- ‘The Thrill Is Gone‘ – B.B. King
- ‘Born Under A Bad Sign‘ – Albert King
If you have recently learned the minor pentatonic, then I would recommend learning Strange Brew first. This is in the key of A, which is typically the key in which guitarists first learn to play the minor pentatonic scale. Not only this, but the lead guitar is based around licks that traverse across many of the different pentatonic shapes. So if you are struggling to connect your pentatonic shapes then learning this song will definitely help.
‘Hey Joe’ is very useful in helping to illustrate the sheer number of licks and phrases you can get out of just one shape of the scale. And both ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ will help you to learn the phrasing and style of two of the Kings of The Blues.
Finally, all of these songs are in different keys. This will help you to learn how to move the pentatonic scale shapes into different areas of your fretboard and solo in a whole range of different keys.
How To Learn These Songs
I would recommend learning these songs using a mixture of tablature and learning by ear. Both of these have their strengths and weaknesses, and as such I recommend combining them in your learning approach. Let’s look at them both in a bit more detail:
Learning By Ear
Developing your ear is an immensely useful skill. It will help you to work out notes, riffs and chord progressions just by listening to them being played. As you progress as a guitarist, this will help you to learn new material much more quickly. It will also help if you have an ambition to play in a band or to jam with other musicians. You will be able to react much more quickly in a live music context. You will also be able to learn without having to consult your laptop or phone to look at tablature.
Having said that, learning by ear can be tricky, especially when you are starting out. As such, I wouldn’t try and learn all of the songs listed here by ear. This is likely to be too challenging, and could lead you to feel frustrated and demotivated. This is particularly the case with the songs that are not riff based. Individual notes are easier to work out by ear than chords.
Learning Using Tablature
Conversely, it is much easier to learn songs using tablature (tabs for short). I always think of tablature as being a little bit like a musical version of painting by numbers. It is easy to understand and follow, and this makes it great for learning new material. The drawback is that it doesn’t help you to develop a broad range of musical skills. Like painting by numbers, it doesn’t really help you to develop a broad set of creative skills. As such, if you learn solely using tabs, you are robbing yourself of potential development. And this could slow down progress in other areas of your playing further down the line.
Taking A Practical Approach
To strike the right balance, I would recommend taking the following approach:
If a song is based around chords, or involves more complex lead parts, then use tablature. I would also recommend taking this approach if the guitar in the song is very heavily distorted or uses different effects – as this will make it more difficult to work out by ear.
Conversely, if the song is riff based, then try to work it out by ear at first. If you find it too challenging to work the guitar part out from scratch, then use a tab to find the starting point of the riff. From there, try to work out the next couple of notes. And if you get stuck, have another look at the tab.
By alternating these two approaches, you will be able to learn songs more quickly. This will help to build your repertoire and develop your technique. However, you will also begin to develop a broader set of skills that will make you a better guitarist and musician.
When it comes to actually using tabs, I would personally recommend using a premium service like either ‘Ultimate Guitar Pro‘ or Guitar Pro. Unlike traditional tabs, both of these options provide audio alongside the tab. This allows you to hear the guitar part you are trying to learn, whilst looking at the notes on the tab.
There are a couple of reasons I would recommend going for one of these options:
Firstly, the quality of the tabs that users create to suit these formats is usually better. And this is significant. The last thing that you want to do is spend time learning from a tab, only to discover that it is incorrect.
Secondly, both of these offerings provides you with a variety of tools to make your learning easier and more effective. You can slow down the tempo of the song, isolate the part you are trying to learn, and select tricky sections to repeat on a loop.
Finally and significantly, they also help you to learn from tab and also develop your ear at the same time. You can hear the pitch of the note that is being played and see it on the tab at the same time. And whilst this is not as useful as learning from ear alone, in my opinion it is much better than just looking at tabs without the audio.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Whether or not you opt for one of these premium learning tools, your actual approach to learning these songs should remain broadly the same.
Learn these songs one by one. I know how tempting it is to want to learn a whole range of different songs at the same time. But trying to learn in this way is not an effective use of your practice time. I made this mistake for a number of years when I started out. I was constantly jumping from song to song, without really fully learning how to play any one song particularly well.
Additionally, take your time to learn these blues songs. It is much better to be able to play one or two songs very well, than it is to be able to play a wide range of songs poorly. Take a granular approach to your learning. Look at the techniques used in the songs, and the little nuances that make the riffs, chord progressions and solos so effective. It might take you a little longer to learn the songs in the beginning. But it will make you a significantly better guitarist and musician in the long run.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on learning these songs, and if you have any other song suggestions or questions at all please do get in touch. Drop a note in the comments section, or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help.
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