In this lesson we’re going to dig into the uptown blues. What makes a blues uptown? The exact definition of uptown blues can be a bit nebulous. It’s not quite rural or “down home,” yet it’s not straight-ahead jazz—uptown blues lives in that musically gray area between blues and jazz. From a music theory standpoint, I’d describe uptown blues as having a harmonic sophistication, which is evident in the chords and solos of the great players of this style. The great T-Bone Walker was one of the key—if not the most important—players in this style, and in this lesson we’ll explore what he and others did in their solos and chord playing to achieve that uptown sound.
Chords and Rhythm
Before we jump to the cool licks, we need to take care of some business first—the business of playing rhythm. The rhythm player rarely gets the same amount of glory as the lead player, but a weak rhythm player can ruin an otherwise good band. Don’t be that guy or gal!
To play rhythm, you’ve got to know some chords, so that’s where we’ll start. One of the core things that separates uptown blues from other styles of blues is the harmony. In other blues styles, the prevailing harmony tends to be built with triads or dominant 7 chords. In Fig. 1 you can see a basic voicing for E and E7 and then we expand those to include the 9 and 13.
If this talk of 9s and 13s raises some concern, don’t fret (pun intended), they are easy to construct from basic chords that you’re probably already playing. Look at Table 1. In it, you’ll find the necessary formulas you’ll need to get started.
In Fig. 2 you can see that two adjustments are needed to turn a basic C chord into a C9 chord.
Step 1: To convert the C to C7, we drop the 5 and add the b7.
Step 2: To convert the C7 to C9 we replace the second instance of the root with the 9 (which is the same as the 2, but an octave higher).
If you have never taken the time to learn what each of the notes are in the chord (i.e. the root, 3, 5, 7 and so on), I would encourage you to do that. Armed with this information and a few basic chord formulas, you can make the appropriate adjustments to create new chords from ones you already know.
Here’s how to arrive at a very useful 9th chord shape from your basic G major chord, shown in Fig. 3. First, we replace the open D on the 4th string with the F note on the 3rd fret, giving us the b7 needed to make a dominant 7 chord. We’ll also eliminate the 1st string and then play the 5 on the 2nd string instead of the 3. In the second step, we’ll substitute the 9 for the 3rd string root and skip the low root altogether. This is a common substitution, as the root doesn’t provide as much interest as the 9, and if you’re playing with a bass player, the root tends to be covered.
In Fig. 4, you’ll see how we can get to a hip voicing for a dominant 9 chord from our beloved major barre chord. We start with the basic shape at the third fret. From there, we drop the root on the 4th string two frets to get the b7. Then we add the 9 on the 1st string with our pinky. Now that all the notes are in place, we drop the root and 5 on the lower two strings to come up with a rootless voicing for G9. You could certainly play the barred version of the chord, but removing the bottom two notes gives more sonic separation from the bass player.
Now that we’ve got a few stock dominant 9 voicings in our hands, let’s expand them to the 13. If you recall from Table 1, the formula for the dominant 13 chord is 1 (or root)–3–5–b7–9–13. Some of you may be thinking, “What about the 11?” That’s a valid question. When building larger chords, the 11 can be included, and when it’s included on a dominant 7 chord, it tends to be a #11. However, for this lesson, we’re omitting the 11.
Let’s take our newfound C9 (from Fig. 2) and expand it to a dominant 13 chord in Fig. 5. We start with our original shape and then extend our 3rd finger to cover the G on the 1st string—that’s the 5th of the chord. Next, we replace that note by moving it up two frets and hit the A at the 5th fret with our pinky. Remember, the 13 is the same note as the 6, just up an octave. So by moving a whole-step up from the 5, we arrive at our 13.
Let’s look at another option in Fig. 6. We start with the same C9 voicing as before, but this time we lower both the root (on the 5th string) and the 9 (on the 2nd string) down a whole-step.
In Fig. 7, we’ll use the 13-for-5 substitution to arrive at our G13 voicing. Barre across the second fret with your first finger to allow your pinky to reach up for the 13 on the 2nd string.
Once again in Fig. 8, we’ll use the 13-for-5 substitution to arrive at a G13. You can decide whether or not to include the 9 in this 13th voicing.