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How to play guitar like 10 Chicago blues greats

Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Otis Rush
(Image credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; James Fraher/Redferns; Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Chicago is synonymous with legendary blues names such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. These, and many more would make a name for themselves in the clubs and juke joints of the South and West sides of the city after migrating from southern states like Mississippi in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. 

At a time when electrifying guitars was new, drums and amplification were being used in the clubs to create a sound that was louder, and a far cry from the acoustic sound of the South. Pioneers like Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers would go on to influence many aspiring musicians who themselves would sign with Chicago record labels like Chess, Cobra, Chief and Delmark. 

Later, world-famous names like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be influenced by these other artists, so their affect on the world of music has been far reaching indeed.

We’re going to look at 10 pioneering Chicago blues guitarists. Some may be more ‘household names’ than others, but each had his own approach and sound, and all used the notes that are the bedrock of the blues - root, b3rd, 4th 5th and b7th, or minor pentatonic scale. With the often added Major 2nd, 3rd and 6th from the major pentatonic and using approaches like ‘curling’ the b3rd, string bends and slides, an almost inexhaustible vocabulary was created and used by all of them.

I have written and recorded 10 separate 12-bar blues in the style of these players, in a variety of keys, tempos and technical difficulty. I strongly suggest that, as well as going through these, you also investigate recorded material from these great players. 

The Chicago blues greats

Elmore James 

Elmore James (1918-1963) was a singer and guitarist known for his slide playing. His guitar was tuned to open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) to achieve his ‘signature’ triplet slide lick. Classic Elmore tracks include Dust My Broom and The Sky Is Crying.

Muddy Waters

Morganfield (1913-1983), aka, Muddy Waters, was a pioneer of Chicago blues. With songs like Hoochie Coochie Man, Rollin Stone, and Mannish Boy, his band was among the first to electrify the blues. 

Waters had lead guitarists in his band, like Jimmy Rogers, but did play himself, with a slide, playing in open E or G. Often seen with a Telecaster, and favouring a raw, bridge pickup sound, he picked using thumb and first finger.

Magic Sam

Magic Sam, (Sam Maghett 1937-1969) had a tragically short career as he passed away at just 32. He had been recording and playing in Chicago since the late 50s with tunes like All Your Love and Everything Gonna Be Alright, which featured his use of the tremolo effect. 

He was another player who favoured a fingerstyle approach, and used this to great effect with great solos and intricate and exciting rhythm chops too, as can be heard in the track, Sam’s Boogie.

Hubert Sumlin 

Guitarist Sumlin (1931-2011) is best known for his work with Howlin’ Wolf. Sumlin played in his band from the mid 50s to the until Wolf’s death in 1976). He can be heard on classics such as Smokestack Lightning, Killing Floor, and Spoonful. He recorded and gigged up to his death in 2011, including at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festivals, using  a distinctive fingerstyle approach and playing a Gibson Les Paul.

Joseph Young Jr

Joseph Young Jr (1927-1999), known as Mighty Joe Young, was another singer- guitarist who moved to Chicago to pursue his musical career. He was a sideman for various artists including Magic Sam and Otis Rush, but also recorded solo albums in the 1970s and later.

Otis Rush 

Rush (1934-2018) was another influential guitarist-singer whose records have inspired future generations. A left-handed, self-taught musician he played the guitar ‘upside down’, with the first string at the top and the sixth string at the bottom (like Albert King and later Eric Gales). He played with a wide vibrato and preferred a pick.

Jimmy Dawkins

Dawkins (1936-2013) was another guitarist-singer who migrated to Chicago in the 1950s where he gained the nickname ‘Fast Fingers’. He recorded a host of albums and as well as playing the clubs of Chicago, he also toured in Europe and Japan. Maybe not as well known his counterparts, he was nevertheless a fine and influential player.

Magic Slim 

Magic Slim (Morris Holt, 1937-2013), was a school friend of Magic Sam who also moved up from Mississippi to make it as a blues artist. He returned home for a while to hone his guitar skills, then came back to Chicago in 1965. 

He formed The Teardrops and stayed with them throughout his career. Slim used a Fender Jazzmaster or Gibson Les Paul through a Fender Super Reverb amp. He played fingerstyle, but using thumb and finger picks.

Buddy Guy 

George ‘Buddy’ Guy (b.1936) still performs at age 85, and is a legend of the Chicago blues era. Born in Louisiana, like many he moved to Chicago in the 50s to pursue his musical ambitions. As well as working as a session player with established artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he also recorded his own albums. 

Often seen with his famous polka dot Fender Stratocaster, Guy is a real showman and has an intense, ‘explosive’ style. His playing is instantly recognisable and very difficult to imitate! His high ‘scream’ vocal style is equally intense, and with these two elements combined, he has a fantastic and unique sound. He plays with a pick, but also uses fingers too. 

Michael Bloomfield 

Unlike the earlier players who migrated there, Mike Bloomfield (1943-1981) was a native of Chicago. Visiting the clubs on the South side of the city he became a recognised talent in the early 60s by sitting in with established blues acts. He was however perhaps best known for playing with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and working with Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited

Bloomfield moved to San Francisco in the late 60s to continue his career, but died tragically young at the age of only 37. Playing a Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul he had a raw, exciting sound. As well as blues he also experimented with improvising modal jazz lines too. 

Elmore James

This 12-bar blues in E incorporates Elmore James-style slide throughout. Your guitar should be tuned to open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E). Ensure accuracy with the slide placement, and if possible, use a guitar with heavy-ish strings or a higher than normal action to avoid pressing the slide onto the frets (I place the slide on my third finger, but fourth finger is common too). I used my electro-acoustic Eastman E10 OOSS/V steel-string acoustic for the track, which I amped.

[Bars 1-2] The tune starts in bar 1 by sliding into an Elmore James style triplet slide motif on third, second and first strings, utilising an E Major triad (E-G#-B) which is arpeggiated in beat 4. 

In beat 1, bar 2, we slide into the 11th fret G Natural note (the open tuning plays havoc with note recognition!) over the A7 chord; avoid the other strings sounding here by using the fingers of your picking hand to rest on the second and first strings. The rest of bar 2 uses the fretting-hand fingers to play the shuffle rhythm A5/Aadd6, which is palm muted. 

[Bars 3-4] The bar 1 motif is repeated in bar 3, with bar 4 seeing the fingered, palm-muted shuffle rhythm on an E5/Eadd6.

[Bars 5-6] The A5/Aadd6 shuffle rhythm is replayed here, with a sliding A Major triad (A-C#-E) on the top three strings at the 5th fret on beat 4.

[Bars 7-8] Same as bars 3 and 4.

[Bars 9-10] Slide into a B Major triad at the 7th fret of the top three strings on beat 1 of bar 9, playing the third string D# note first. Utilise the same muting approach as in bar 2 for the slide D# note again on beat 3.

[Bars 11-12] We play an A7 chord fragment at the start of bar 11, by sliding up to the 8th fret, third and second strings playing the 5th and b7th of the chord (E and G notes), then a slide into an A Major at the 5th fret. 

The descending E Minor Pentatonic based triplet on beat 4 again needs to use the already discussed muting approach to avoid hearing the second and first strings here. Bar 12 sees a typical blues ending/turnaround figure, which should be fingered rather than played with the slide. 

Make sure you let the fifth string and open first string ring together here to get the authentic sound. We slide from an Eb Major triad at the 11th fret to an E major triad at the 12th fret to finish the tune.

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Muddy Waters

This tune, in the style of Muddy’s slide playing, is an upbeat 16-bar blues in the key of G, utilising open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D). I used a Fender Telecaster on the bridge pickup for the track and, like Muddy, employed a fingerstyle approach.

[Bars 1-8] The first eight bars have a ‘question and answer’ feel. Bars 1-2 see a slide lick (the ‘question’ bit) based on a G7 arpeggio (G-B-D-F). Watch for accurate placement of the slide. The vibrato is created by moving the slide rapidly from side to side. 

The ‘answer’ lick is in bars 3-4 played on the fifth and third strings. Use the thumb for the fifth string and first finger for the third string. Bars 5-8 are pretty much a repeat of the first four bars except for the last beat of bar 8 which has octave slides from the 5th-7th frets (C-D) anticipating an upcoming D9.

[Bars 9-12] A Muddy style motif over the D9 and C9 chords in bars 9-11 which sees a short leading phrase into a resolution to the 5th of the respective chord (an A note over the D9, and a G note over the C9).

[Bars 13-16] The tune wraps up with a single-note country blues style phrase, starting with the 5th and 3rd (D and B) of a G Major chord played with the slide at the 12th fret, followed by a descending line, all played with the slide. Ensure accurate pitching here. The final two beats of bar 15 are slide octaves played with the thumb and first finger.

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Magic Sam

This Magic Sam inspired tune is a medium-slow 12-bar Minor blues in the key of Am. The only difference between this and a ‘regular’ Minor blues is that on the V chord, I substituted a Dominant 7th for the more usual Minor chord. 

Again, I’ve used a fingerstyle approach to try to imitate Magic Sam’s, but although this isn’t absolutely necessary, this, or a hybrid picking approach might be easier for the first bar. I used my Gibson Les Paul for this one.

[Bars 1- 2] The first bar features a Magic Sam style fingerstyle rhythmic approach, which uses the open A as a pedal between the other notes. Palm mute the fifth string here. Bar 2 provides the end of the phrase with a G Major triad (G-B-D) going into an Am triad (A-C-E) on the top three strings.

[Bars 3-8] These bars contain some nice shape 1, A Minor Pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) licks. Aim to play the string bends with accurate pitching and be mindful of the all important ‘blues curls’ (the quarter-tone ‘micro bends’) on the b3rd (C) of the scale. Be aware of dynamics, and note in the music where the softer dynamic marks (pp and ppp) are. Bar 8 has some tricky timing too. 

[Bars 9-12] A very softly played E7 chord starts bar 9 which leads into some more shape 1 A Minor Pentatonic licks in (bars 10-11, which lead into the Cm (C-Eb-G), Bm (B-D-F#) and Am (A-C-E) triads at the end of the tune.

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Hubert Sumlin

This tune, based on Sumlin’s style, is a fast 12-bar in E, based mainly around the notes of E Minor Pentatonic (E-G-A-B-D). Again, although intended to be played with a fingerstyle approach, it can still be done with a pick if desired. I brought out my Les Paul again for this track.

[Bars 1-4] The first two bars contain a phrase that starts boldly with two high E notes at the 12th fret, first string, and leads into the rest of the lick in shape 4 of E Minor Pentatonic. Take note of the vibrato where indicated. Bars 3 -4 utilise an open E Minor Pentatonic, with a typical blues lick which features the b3rd (G) on the open third string hammering onto the 1st fret Major 3rd (G#). 

[Bars  5-6] This phrase is more country blues in feel, as it uses the ‘6ths’ approach over the A7 chord (a similar Sumlin approach can be heard on Howlin Wolf’s Killing Floor). For the 6ths, make sure you fret each third string/first string as a pair. For example, fret the 9th fret, third string and 9th fret first string as a ‘mini chord’, even though you’re going to play those two notes separately.

[Bars 7-8] This lick involves a wide b3rd interval bend from the 15th fret first-string G note to the 18th fret b5th (Bb) in shape 1 of the E Minor Pentatonic.
This is quite a tough interval to bend on the first string, so take it easy, and make sure you don’t break the string!

[Bars 9-13] Yes, there are 13 bars in total here, but the 13th bar is just the last note to end the tune; if this were a full-length song, the 12-bar structure would keep repeating round until the ending, where this ‘extra’ bar is played. The licks here are again from shape 1 of the E Minor Pentatonic scale.

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Mighty Joe Young

This track is an upbeat 12-bar in C, with that ‘extra’ 13th bar providing the final note. Again, the tune is based mainly on C Minor Pentatonic (C-Eb-F-G-Bb). Although only short, it’s quite a ‘full-on’ piece with pretty much continuous phrases with little space, so learn it in logical sections. I used my Gibson ES-345 for the recording and, like Mighty Joe Young, played using a pick.

[Bars 1-5] Bar 1 begins with a couple of unison bends on the thirrd string, 10th fret (F) up to the 12th fret (G) whiet fretting the 8th fret second-string (G). Make sure the second string stays static and the third bends accurately. Note the use of the Major 6th (A) on the fourth string in beat 4 of bar 2 which is borrowed from C Major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A). The repeated motif in bar 4 starts on beat 2.

[Bars 6 – 8] These three bars contain one long triplet-based descending, then an ascending C Blues scale (C-Eb-F-Gb-G-Bb) line. Ensure accurate timing and alternate picking here, and also make sure that the quarter-note triplets starting on beat 3 of bar 8 are played in time too.

[Bars 9-12] Bars 9-10 feature another triplet phrase which is played over the G7 and F7 chords. This is followed by the chromatically descending Minor 3rds line in bar 11 which leads into the E Natural note on beat 1 of bar 12, which here is the Major 3rd (borrowed again from C Major Pentatonic) of the C7 chord over which its played. The rest of that lick is a typical blues ending or turnaround phrase. Remember this is ‘Mighty’ Joe Young so do give it some attitude!

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Otis Rush

I’ve tried to capture Otis Rush’s style with this slow blues in Bb. Leaving space is important in a slow blues, as the gaps give so much more weight and purpose to the phrases that are played. I used my Gibson ES-335 for this tune.

[Bars 1-2] The piece starts with a ‘pick-up’ lick on beat 4 of the count-in with a typical third-string bend in shape 1 of Bb Minor Pentatonic (Bb-Db-Eb-F-Ab) into the Ab-Bb bend on the second string in bar 1. The first-string bend in shape 2 of the scale in bar 2 is another staple of the blues player’s vocabulary, but this is followed at the end of the bar with a rapid, answering ‘tail-off’ lick. Note the wide vibrato.

[Bars 3 -7] Bar 3 starts with a pre-bent third string to the b5th of Bb Blues scale (Bb-Db-Eb-Fb-F-Ab) into some straightforward blues vocabulary in shape 1 which tails off at the end of bar 4 into shape 5. More shape 1 and 2 licks in bars 5-7.

[Bars 8-12] Bar 8 starts with a  b3rd, first-string bend from the 13th fret (F, the 5th) to the 16th fret Ab (b7th). This leads down to the rest of the lick in shape2, which sees another first-string tone bend, this time from Eb (4th) at the 11th fret to the F (5th) at the 13th fret. 

After this comes another first string bend, executed with the first finger from the 9th fret Db (b3rd) to the 11th fret Eb (4th). This is very demanding and requires considerable fretting-hand strength to do these consecutive first-string bends, so go easy, especially as bar 10 has a couple of first-string tone wide bends too. There’s a nice backwards rake (or sweep) across a Bm11 chord on the first to fourth strings in bar 11 which is a bit of a stretch.

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Jimmy Dawkins

This track is a slow 12-bar blues in the key of Cm, which mainly utilises the C Minor Pentatonic scale (C-Eb-F-G-Bb). The combination of space and question and answer phrases hopefully demonstrate a typical ‘less is more’ approach. I used my Gibson ES-345 and played the solo with a pick.

[Bars 1-4] The tune starts with a shape 1 C Minor Pentatonic pick-up lick with a typical third and second-string double-stop at the 8th fret. This lick is almost repeated in bar 2 with just enough variation to ‘answer’ the preceding ‘question’. Make sure you come in in the right place with the third string bends in bar 3.

[Bars 5-7] The C Natural Minor scale (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb) is hinted at, at the beginning of bar 5 to mark out the b3rd (Ab) of the Fm chord. This is followed by an actual ascending C Natural Minor scale on the second string which is tremolo picked (this can also be thought of as an F Dorian, especially considering that we’re playing over an Fm chord at this point). This leads into a a C Minor Pentatonic shape 3 lick on the second string.

[Bars 8-12] Bar 8 starts with a high C note at the 20th fret of the first string, followed by a simple bluesy bend on the third string in shape 1 C Minor Pentatonic. Note how the long ‘question’ phrase in bars 5-7 are ‘answered’ with this very short, punctuated phrase. Watch the timing in the long phrase at bar 9.

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Magic Slim

This Magic Slim style piece is a medium tempo 12-bar in G which is mainly centred around a G Minor Pentatonic (G-Bb-C-D-F) but includes G Major Pentatonic (G-A-B-D-E) too. I used a pick forv the piece, and the guitar was my Fender Telecaster ‘72 Custom Reissue, since I don’t have Slim’s preferred Jazzmaster!

[Bars 1 & 2] The tune kicks off in bar 1 with a G Major Pentatonic run which starts in the open position then into shape1, which gives a distinctly ‘happy’ feel. The Bb (b3rd) note in the last triplet of beat 3 which is borrowed from the G Minor pentatonic, reigns in that happy feeling enough to keep things bluesy. The country blues style hammer-on lick in bar 2 is again from G Major Pentatonic.

[Bars 3-4] The shape 2 lick in bar 3 and the shape 1 lick in bar 4 are out-and-out G Minor Pentatonic licks. This helps to create a familiar blues feel when juxtaposed with the very ‘Major’ feel of the previous two bars.

[Bars 5-8] These licks are mainly using G Minor Pentatonic, but the A notes (5th fret, first string) on beat 2, bar 6, and the B Natural note (4th fret, third string) at the end of beat 3, bar 8 are from G Major Pentatonic, which provides those extra tonal colours which continually feature in blues (the A note is the Major 2nd or 9th in G, and the B note is the Major 3rd).

[Bars 9-12] We see similar musical principals in the remaining bars with the use of the major 6th (E) taken from G Major Pentatonic in the final note of bar 10 (5th fret, second string) and on beat 2 of the 12th bar (9th, fret third string).

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Buddy Guy

This Buddy Guy style track is a medium tempo blues in the key of B, which almost entirely stays rooted in B Minor Pentatonic (B-D-E-F#-A). I used my Fender Stratocaster (sadly not polka-dot) for this one.

[Bars 1-4] The piece starts in bars 1-2 with a held bend from E (12th fret) to F# (14th fret) on the first string, shape 2. This is repeatedly let down a semitone (F) then re-picked from the F#. This involves pre-bending each time, so make sure to deaden the string so as not to hear the F note re-ascending to F# before re-picking. Bar 3 contains a typical shape 1, first-string bend followed by a rapid picked descending lick in the same position, finishing with a little ‘tailing off’ slide and pull-off into shape 5 on the fifth string.

[Bars 5-8] Bars 5-6 see an intense tremolo-picked shape 2 double-stop using the 5th (F#) and b7 (A) on the third and second strings. The lick in bars 7 -8 starts with a held and re picked third-string bend from E-F#) in shape 1; make sure you hold the bend accurately before releasing it and continuing the lick.

[Bars 9-12] The lick in bar 9 is the only deviation from B Minor Pentatonic . It features a brief F# Minor Pentatonic ‘flurry’ high up at the 14th fret, before returning to a B Minor Pentatonic at the end of the bar, where it flows into bar 10 with a repeating second-string bend that deliberately over bends from F# to A to create excitement. The climactic bend on the second string in the final bar should be held but also played with vibrato. Let the first string ring here.

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Michael Bloomfield

This Mike Bloomfield style track is an upbeat 12-bar blues in the key of Bb which focuses on his blues style (the final 13th bar is just where the last note sustains through at the end and is not part of the 12 bar form). I used my Fender Telecaster ’72 Custom Reissue for the piece.

[Bars 1-4] These licks are in shape1 of Bb   Minor Pentatonic (Bb-Db-Eb-F-Ab) and although relatively straightforward, should be played with some attitude.

[Bars 5-6] The lick in these two bars uses the notes from the Bb Blues scale
(Bb-Db-Eb-Fb-F-Ab), where the b5 (Fb) and 5th (F natural) trickily repeat between the third and second strings in bar 6. The end of this lick slides via the third string into shape 2 of Bb  Minor Pentatonic.

[Bars 7-8] The shape 2 lick continues here in bar 7. The lick in bar 8 is still in shape 2 but has an interesting bluesy chromatic climb from the b3rd (Db) through the Major 3rd (D natural) to the 4th (Eb). The following repeated 4th to Major 3rd semitone phrase is a typical but great sounding blues lick.

[Bars 9-12] Bars 9-10 see some more shape 2 vocabulary; note how the resolution to the F (third string, 10th fret) over the F7 chord in bar 9, and the later resolution to the Bb (second string, 11th fret) over the Bb7 chord on beat 1 of bar 11 strongly mark those chord changes. 

The final descending phrase in bar 11-12 uses notes from both the Bb Minor and Bb Major Pentatonic (Bb-C-D-F-G), but this could also be viewed as coming from Bb Mixolydian (Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab).

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