Thanks to John Lee Hooker, Billy Gibbons, and other heavyweights, the swinging style of barrelhouse pianists has become a cornerstone of rock and blues guitar. Here’s a look at the most essential boogie-woogie patterns and how to use them.
• Learn rhythm riffs in the style of classic barrelhouse pianists.
• Create open-string patterns that outline the chord changes.
• Move through various keys by transposing phrases to different string sets.
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Although we associate “boogie” with a famous West Coast amplifier, the term originates from a style of music that became very popular during the swing era of the ’30s and ’40s. The sound and style of boogie-woogie can be traced back to the barrelhouse piano music from the late 19th century that was performed in saloons, taverns, and ballrooms across the U.S. There are numerous pioneers that helped to forge this style of playing, including pianists such as Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, not to mention a number of Texas swing guitarists, such as Eldon Shamblin, Junior Barnard, and Muriel “Zeke” Campbell.
These influential musicians passed the torch to countless rock and country legends in the ’50s and ’60s, with Fats Domino, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, and Little Richard further exposing this sound to the masses. As you move through the years and listen to additional music, you’ll discover plenty of players adopting these sounds, including such heavyweights as John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Eddie Van Halen.
The road to guitar boogie starts with the single-note riff shown in Ex.1. As you’ll see and hear, this is a very familiar riff to play on guitar over an E7 chord. Be sure to fret with your first and third finger as you play through this example, and feel free to experiment with all downstrokes and alternate picking.
Ex. 2 shifts this idea to the key of A by moving to the next set of strings and using the same fingering and overall contour of notes. As you become more comfortable shifting to another set of strings, it will be easier to cycle this idea through a 12-bar blues.
Once you have a feel for playing this riff over E7 and A7 individually, it’s time to combine the two (Ex. 3).
In Ex. 4, we expand this classic boogie riff by adding the b7 to create an even bluesier sound.
It’s not uncommon for a blues progression to include a “quick change,” where you move to the IV chord in the second measure. In Ex. 5, we use this variation to demonstrate a boogie riff over the first four measures of a 12-bar blues.
The next example (Ex. 6) features a slight variation that explores combining the 3 and b3. (Over an E7, that’s G# and G, respectively.) As you’ll hear, this combination of notes creates a familiar sound featured in countless blues and rock songs.
Ex. 7 is similar to the “scratch-n-sniff” rhythm playing heard coming from Texas blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. You can distinctly hear this style of percussive and muted riffing in his classic track “Pride and Joy.”
Now let’s see how you can move these boogie riffs and ideas from open position to other keys and areas on the fretboard. Ex. 8 will give you a chance to explore moving between a common A7–D7 chord progression.
The next example is similar to the main riff from the Allman Brothers classic “One Way Out.” As you’ll find while playing through Ex. 9, this riff is an advanced variation of Ex. 8, but the combination of legato, sliding, and vibrato techniques gives it an interesting and developed sound.
Ex. 10 illustrates a complete V–IV–I progression in the key of A7 and offers a basic glimpse of how you can weave these ideas into new phrases and riffs. This example also includes a nice chromatic turnaround at the end that will lead your fingers back to the beginning.
As this lesson comes to a close, be sure to move these ideas into other keys and look for ways to create your own boogie riffs. You can generate countless variations from these ideas, so be patient and take your time. Before you know it, your fingers and riffs will be boogieing all over the fretboard.