Playing the Changes: Using the Altered Sound on a Blues in A

One of the things that distinguishes the way most jazz musicians play the blues from the way most blues musicians do is the way the jazz musicians approach the end of each four-bar line of the blues form. For starters, the jazz version of the blues form usually includes a few extra chord changes, so the whole twelve bars end up looking like this:

10-20-15 PTC Turning the Corner 12 bar progression - no arrows

It’s easier to get a handle on if you look at things line by line. So, in the first four bars, we’re just adding in a A7alt. chord in bar four:

10-20-15 PTC Turning the Corner 12 bar progression - line 1

“Alt.” stands for “altered;” an altered chord is a dominant seventh chord with any of the weird notes added on top: the b13, the b9 or the #9. We’ll get to why you’d add them in just a moment.

In the second line, we’ve now got a F#7alt chord in bar 9. F#7alt is the VI chord in the key of A and the secondary dominant of the upcoming Bmin chord in measure 9:

10-20-15 PTC Turning the Corner 12 bar progression - line 2

Finally, in the third line, we’ve got the aforementioned Bmin7, the ii in the key of A, followed by the V we’d expect, E7. Then, in the last two measures, it’s like we’ve taken measures 7 through 10 and compressed them, so they go by twice as fast – A7, F#7, Bm7 and E7, or I, VI, ii, V:

10-20-15 PTC Turning the Corner 12 bar progression - line 3

So what are these chords doing there, and why are most of them altered? If you look again, you’ll see that all of the altered action is happening at the end of a line. In fact, now all three lines of the form end with an altered chord. What’s more, each altered chord is the V chord of the change that begins the next line. So the A7alt in measure 4 is the V of the D7 in measure 5, the F#7alt is the V of the Bmin in measure 9, and the E7alt is the V of the A7 that would begin the next chorus of the form:

10-20-15 PTC Turning the Corner 12 bar progression

There’s more to altered chords than I’m going to explain here, but I’ve always found it easiest to think of them as “extra-dominant” chords. Dominant chords are supposed to be the chords to take you elsewhere the most convincingly, but since nearly every chord on the blues is already dominant, an altered dominant chord gives you the added tension necessary to resolve to yet another (un-altered) dominant chord. That tension comes from the altered chord’s “altered tones” – the b13th, b9 or #9 that have been “altered” or raised/lowered a half step from the natural 13th or 9th that should occur diatonically in the chord.

Right. So what good is it, knowing all this? Well, if you’re hip to where to alter the chords on the blues, you can then create melodic lines when you improvise that reflect those altered changes. The lick below is an example of just such an approach. For the first two bars, it’s just blues licks in A. In measure three, we climb up chromatically from the root to the b7, and then in measure 4, we work back down to the F natural, or b13 of A7 and descend through the 3rd, root and b7 of an A7 arpeggio before resolving to the F#, or the third of D7, at the start of measure 5.

10-20-15 Playing The Changes - Turning the Corner in A - one system

Fingerstyle Blues Turnaround in A

This week we’ll check out a fingerstyle blues turnaround for the key of A, or, as many of us probably think of it, “the other good blues key.”

This time, we’re using a bass line that moves every two beats over the V and IV chords, a sound that conjures up the feel of a Swing era rhythm section (measures 1 & 2 as shown below, which correspond to measures 9 & 10 of the 12-bar blues progression). Upon returning to the I chord, we get into some quicker chord changes which, particularly once we hit the bVI or F7 chord, come straight out of the East coast ragtime guitar tradition, before wrapping up with a couple of Freddie Green-style chord voicings (F7/C to E7/B in measure 4).

Over all of that, we start out with some sixths on the 1st and 3rd strings over the E chord, move to single-note blues licks over the D7-to-E7 measure, and wind up playing mostly chordal stuff over the last couple of measures.

Check out the notation, tab and audio below, and let me know if you have any questions or thoughts in the comments section below!

FSB Turnaround in A

Walking Bass Line Fingerstyle Blues Turnaround

I love the sound of walking bass lines on the blues, and in the key of E there are plenty of possibilities for coordinating blues licks and chord voicings over a continuously moving bass. If you begin working out chord substitutions that themselves incorporate movement in the bass, you’re halfway there. For example, here’s a set of chord changes to play over bars 11 and 12 of a blues in E:


On the third beat of the first measure shown, you could certainly play just an open position A7 chord, but I’ve included this voicing at the 8th fret (with an open A in the bass) to make it easier to see what happens next. Which is: once you’re comfortable playing through this chord sequence, you can grab individual notes from the chord voicings to make single-note licks, and/or separate the bass notes from the upper voices of the chords to create syncopated chord hits. All of which would look and sound like this:

100115 Walking Bass Lick

If you’ve got questions, comments, or topics you’d like me to address, leave a reply below and I’ll do my best to discuss them in an upcoming post!

II7-V7-I Fingerstyle Blues Turnaround

You can change things up on a twelve-bar blues by replacing the standard V-IV-I turnaround with a II-V-I turnaround. Ordinarily, you’d play bars 9-12 of a blues in E like this:

II-V-Fingerstyle Blues Turarnound Chord Progressions - V IV I


A II-V-I turnaround – this version, at least – could replace the A7 in bar 10 of the form with two beats of F#7 and two beats of B7, like this:

II-V-Fingerstyle Blues Turarnound Chord Progressions - II V I


If you want to geek out on the theory, this works because we’re basically saying, first, “hey, instead of going from B7 to A7 to E, let’s just play two bars of B7,” which was a pretty common way to play the blues progression in the swing era. Next, the logic goes, “Well, if we’re playing B7 for two bars, why don’t we temporarily borrow the V of B7 – that’d be F#7 – to put some extra emphasis on the last couple of beats of B7?” That, as the classical cats like to say, would make F#7 the secondary dominant of B7 and would give you a rousing “V of V of I” progression – F#7 to B7 to E7 – to bring you back to E in a big way.

But if you have no desire whatsoever to geek out on the theory, here’s some tab, notation and audio to show you how it’s done. Have fun!

II-V fingerstyle blues turnaround example


Cactus Cafe • July 31st

I’ve played the Cactus Cafe a handful of times over the years and it’s always been memorable. One night I went to see Jorma Kaukonen, who was touring his country record and had Cindy Cashdollar on dobro and Barry Mitterhof on mandolin. It was a fabulous show, and packed to the rafters, but at the intermission I heard someone calling my name over the P.A. It was Grif Luneberg, the Cactus’ m.c., booker, manager and all-around overseer for nearly thirty years. “Hey,” he said, when I finally figured out what was going on, where he was standing, and had carefully elbowed my way to his side of the room, “you wanna open for Jorma tomorrow night?” Um – yeah. Another night my bluegrass band, the Grassy Knoll Boys, shared a bill with Laurence Juber, who of course seemed to do more with six strings than we had managed to do with twenty-three of them and a few voices thrown in for good measure. When I met Chris Smither there to interview him for Acoustic Guitar, he had just arrived from the airport, where one of his bags had been delayed. He had his guitar, but his favorite gigging shoes were in the missing suitcase, the ones he liked best for tapping his feet during shows. A good journalist goes the distance for a story, so while Smither soundchecked, I drove the airport in search of the missing footwear. He was a charming interviewee, and gave a great show that night.

On Friday, July 31st, I’ll be back at the Cactus to play an opening set for Lost And Nameless. I met Chris Peterson during my bluegrass days in Austin, and we’ve been admirers of each others’ music ever since. His band is crowded with great singers, pickers and performers and is well-worth catching anywhere around town, but particularly in a room as welcoming to both artist and audience as the Cactus.

Doors at 8pm Friday, July 31st. I’ll be playing a half-hour solo set at 8:30pm, followed by Lost and Nameless. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

Concert Window

I’ll be doing my second Concert Window show this coming Wednesday, July 22nd, live from my composing studio at 8pm Central. The shows are not archived, so it’s like a live event – you actually have to show up and watch it while it’s happening! You can post comments during the show (or heckle me), make requests, and score all kinds of extras for tipping plentifully – this time, you could land yourself an unreleased demo, a one-of-a-kind cartoon or a Skype lesson with yours truly. (No mugs or t-shirts yet, but that would make it even more like an NPR pledge drive…)

For more information and advance tickets, go here. Below, a clip from my first such show back in June.

High Profits Sneak Preview

Bat Bridge Entertainment’s new series High Profits premieres this Sunday night on CNN (10pm/9pm Central). Here’s a scene from the opening episode. Warning: some wading-through-of-advertising is required.

CD Release Show: May 17

DH_1024 I’m pleased to announce the official CD release show for my new record, Pennsylvania Station Blues, will take place Sunday, May 17th at 6pm at Strange Brew in South Austin. Co-produced by Jeff Plankenhorn, the all-acoustic record features my trio of Mark Epstein on upright bass and Kyle Thompson on drums and percussion, and we recorded the whole thing in two and half days. I have a lot of people to thank for helping out along the way, and I’m sure I’ll be doing so over and over at the show, but we’ll be playing songs from the record, and some newer ones, in between all the grateful gushing. For now, shout-outs to Billy Henry for engineering at Muzicwiz studio, Matt W. Cooper for mixing at the Sound Suite, James Wetz for the crazy-good artwork and Peerless Mastering in Boston for, well, a kickass mastering job. Hope to see you at the show.

High Profits Premieres Sunday, April 19

One night last spring I got a text around 11pm that read simply, “The weed show sold!” Many months later, we’re wrapping up the score to the final episode of High Profits, and I’m excited to post that “the weed show” is poised for its premiere on CNN Sunday, April 19th. The eight-part series was created by Bat Bridge Entertainment, based here in Austin, and you couldn’t ask for a better group of folks to work with.

Which Fingerstyle Blues Course?

TF Essentials image

Having received more than one question about this I thought I would post an explanation here of the differences between a few of the fingerstyle blues courses I have out with Truefire. Here goes:

If you’ve never done any fingerstyle at all I would recommend my Fingerstyle Blues Handbook courses as the place to start. Volume 1 is steady bass, Volume 2 is alternating (Travis style) bass. They assume zero fingerpicking skills to start. As such the material is more like excercises than tunes but they will give you a real foundation for the rest.

As to the difference between Fingerstyle Blues Factory and Essentials/Fingerstyle Blues: The whole first part of the Factory course is short, 2- to 4- bar licks, which you then string together into complete 12-bar choruses in the secod half of the course. Essentials just jumps right in with whole tunes, and assumes you can already manage most of the techniques involved.

If the Handbook courses are late beginner/early intermediate and Factory and Essentials cover solid intermediate ground, New School Fingerstyle Blues is pretty advanced material. It teaches a handful of complete tunes, most with multiple sections, with no real restrictions on difficulty. Several of the tunes appear on my solo guitar CD “David Hamburger Plays Blues, Ballads and a Pop Song.”

So that’s that. In case the terms “steady bass” and “alternating bass” are unfamiliar to you, here’s a bit of an explanation:

Steady bass refers to a technique where the the thumb repeats bass notes on a single string for whatever chord you’re on. For example, for the first four bars of a blues in E, you might just continually play the low E string the entire time, or four E quarter notes per measure.

The alternating bass has your thumb, well, alternating every beat between a lower and a higher string. So on that same E chord, you might play the low E (open 6th string) on the first beat, then second fret on the D (fourth) string on the second beat, back to the open E on beat three, back to the D string on beat four.

The alternating thumb style is also called Travis picking; many people learn a basic version of it called pattern picking. You can hear it in everything from Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and so on.

The steady bass is typically considered the province of the Texas bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, in whose styles it lends itself to a more improvisational approach on the high strings (because what the bass is doing is, on some level, less complicated than what’s required in the alternating thumb approach). It’s also present in more Delta-based styles like those of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.

Overall, the alternating style seems to result in a brighter, bouncier feel while the steady bass conjures up darker, bluesier ways of playing. That’s the broad cliche, anyway. Both are fundamental to the fingerstyle blues approach. I imagine we designated the steady-bass course Volume 1 because the lack of alternating the thumb does give you one less thing to worry about, but I’ve found, in years past of teaching it live, that it still takes quite a bit of concentration and practice to keep the bass going consistently once the fingers (melody notes) get involved. And for what it’s worth, none of the original blues artists I mentioned above ever did this flawlessly either; they tended to play in a much looser, call-and-response style between the bass and the upper notes. But when learning from scratch, it’s not a bad idea to get that consistency down, so you can choose to get loose with it. But the short answer is: steady bass, thumb on one low string at a time; alternating bass, thumb switching between two notes in every measure.