If we look at the notes in the major scale based on the key of E major they look like this:
Key of E
The roman numeral designations above correspond to the notes in the E major scale. So II-7 or II minor 7 would be F#-7 or F#minor7. Chord progressions written with roman numeral equivalents are used so you can think of the progression in different keys. If we wanted to play Breakfast Blues in the key of C, the II-7 would be D-7 or Dminor7.
Folsom Prison Blues is a time-honored standard that has become a right of passage for guitar players. It's a very recognizable song that provides a great vehicle to develop rhythm and independence. And it has some nice, moving bass lines built right into the progression. Every guitar player wants to play Folsom Prison Blues. But how do we do we escape sounding like everybody else?
The cake with the file in it just arrived in the form of 6th and 13th chords. These sweet substitutions will break you out of harmonic predictability in a hurry. Our big E13 in the first part of the verse harmonizes well with the melody and gives an added feeling of motion. Then the A6 introduces a western swing flavor that implies motion as well. And our substitutions all support the "boom-chaka", freight train rhythmic feeling that Johnny Cash structured into his original arrangement.
Folsom Prison Blues get hip with substitutions
Using these two chord substitutions will add a lot to your presentation of the song. It's a great place to use the 13th chord we discussed earlier. And it's an opportunity to add more moving bass with a chromatic run from our E13 down to D Major. Together, these new additions will make you sound sophisticated and impress your friends.
Try these substitutions and check out the rest of the song in the lessons section of the site. When you play the song in a way that people haven't heard before, they will be thrilled by your innovation and individuality. They will remember hearing the guitar player that escaped from Folsom Prison.
If you think you know a lot of chords, watch this:
When I was living and playing in Toronto in the 70's I met Ed Bickert and had the pleasure of seeing him play often. He played regularly at a couple of places in town and if you elbowed your way between a few other guitar players, you could usually get a seat close enough to see his hands.
Ed was a real innovator with his chord voicings. He had nice solos and good time, but was really knocked me out was his knowledge of harmony and chords. His ability to come up with chords that most of us had never heard or seen was always a treat. And Ed was probably responsible for selling more Telecasters to up and coming players than anyone else around. Everybody wanted to sound like Ed Bickert.
Don't be intimidated by new chords
You don't have to be a jazz player to appreciate Ed's guitar work. His warm, open chords can be valued and enjoyed by anyone who plays the instrument. If you're not using a lot of extensions and substitutions in your playing, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the expertise of a player of Ed's caliber. The main thing to come away with is a knowledge of potential harmonic horizons available to guitarists. Whatever style or level you play at, exposure to something like this is inspiring and motivating for all of us.
A mainstay for any music collection is Pure Desmond, a classic recording of Paul Desmond with Ed Bickert, Ron Carter and Connie Kay. The record is brilliantly recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, who engineered some of the most important recordings in the history American music. Pure Desmond is one of best recorded and well-played examples of guitar accompaniment ever made. Give it a listen and go out and learn some new chords!
Folsom Prison Blues solo is a challenge to play in a single, acoustic guitar format. Johnny Cash wrote a great song, complete with a classic, self-contained accompaniment part. And when he played it with his band, the solo is a musical centerpiece of the song. So, as one person with an acoustic guitar, how do we reproduce that solo and be true to his original version?
In my video, I give the Folsom Prison Blues solo a new approach that overcomes the problem. Because the song has such a full accompaniment during the verse sections, when we come to the solo, we need to offer something that continues that big, full sound.
Folsom Prison Blues solo true to the original
My solution is to interpret the electric guitar/full band version in a way that honors the original Folsom Prison Blues solo. I switched up some of the single notes and used that as a lead-in to a nifty chord solo. And at then end I throw in our beloved E13 and E9 chords to add more excitement and a bit of ear candy for the listener.
First, I combine a rhythmic approach to different inversions of the D major chord. Then I slide up to the A major on the 14th fret that reproduces the feel of the original solo. The chord voicings I select allow plenty of open strings to be played. The sound rings full and true throughout the entire solo and continues the bass line theme as well.
Then when I add in the 13th and 9th substitutions at the end, it produces the icing on the cake for the listeners. Sure, I've added and subtracted a few notes from the version Johnny Cash and his band played at Folsom Prison. But I've stayed true to Johnny's intent because my new solo is interesting and catchy, so you can play it twice, just like the original recording of the Folsom Prison Blues solo.
Blues guitar brilliance may emerge from note choice, technical ability or the sound of your instrument. But it also can come from strong harmonic transitions. Your tasty licks and sweet sounds may be the gravy, but the underlying chord structure can be the meat and potatoes of your blues guitar brilliance.
Sure, there are a million guys out there playing the guitar, but you can step out of the crowd and achieve blues guitar brilliance when you use strong chord transitions. So how do we do it?
Let's start with the basics. The blues is all about telling a story. And let's face it, the blues is usually an expression of something that happens to every one of us at one time or another, things go south. A break-up, losing a job or putting your money on the wrong horse at the races, they're all worthy of a good blues story.
Blues guitar brilliance by supporting the story
One way to achieve blues guitar brilliance is to have a chord progression that supports the story you are telling. In my song, The Breakfast Blues, I use some interesting chord substitutions that challenge the listener's ear. But these robust chords serve another purpose, they support the story that is being told in the song.
The Breakfast Blues tells a story about a guy with a lot of problems The lyrics that explain his story are supported by the underlying chord progression. The story and the lyrics are punctuated when we play the transition to the "IV", or the sub-dominant cadence - or simply put - the part that sets up the chorus.
The Breakfast Blues is in the key of E, so when we go to the IV or the A Dominant chord, instead of just playing an E7 to set it up, I substitute a B-7, Bb7, E9, Eb13 sequence that really spices things up. Later I use a B11, Bb7b5, E9, Eb7#5b9 sequence!
These symbols make look intimidating, but don't let them scare you. I explain all of these and go through each one of them, step by step in my lessons. If you can learn them in this song, you will be able to apply these chords to many other songs and they will soon become part of your blues guitar brilliance.
Great guitar chords can create interest in your playing. A great guitar chord, one which may be a bit more complex, can even generate respect from your listeners. When I refer to a complex chord, I don't mean one that is hard to play, but one that has more harmonic density or even dissonance. Don't be intimidated by these terms, they just mean a sound that creates an urge for it to be resolved, or followed by another sound.
Every chord you play doesn't have to be complex to get the listener's attention. If you put the right chord in the right place you can bring more attention to a passage of the song you are performing. And if you introduce something different, something unconventional, it can create curiosity in what you are playing.
So when you try some of these great guitar chords it can produce some interesting reactions from your audience. Their ears may be sending subtle messages to their brains, like "what's coming next?"
And great guitar chords are always an excellent topic of discussion among guitar players. If you come out with something other players haven't seen or heard, you can gain respect and admiration from your community of players.
Great guitar chords can be a source of pride, too. You may have people telling you how hard is to making a living as a musician and how you should be doing something more sensible like accounting or funeral home management. But when they do, now you can reply, "sure, but I can play this and it sounds great!"
Play fancy 13th chords that sound - and look great
Sound and look good when play fancy 13th chords like these. There's something about a great sounding chord that actually feels good when you play it. And 13th chords fit the bill. They give a sophisticated sound and create a distinct feel to your progression.
There are more places to play fancy 13th chords than you might think. In my arrangement of Folsom Prison Blues, I use them to accomplish a feeling of motion and give a new twist to a great guitar standard. Using the 13th chord as a substitution can give you a lot of bang for your sonic buck and generate interest in your interpretation of a song.[ssba]
Open strings are one of the most beautiful things about the acoustic guitar. When they ring clear and true, they can open the ears, hearts and even the wallets of your audience.
You can find the greatest resonance from the instrument when you play open strings. Technically, the moment you place your finger on a fret of the guitar you are limiting the sound. Yes, fretted notes can sound great, but they will never give the sustain we get from playing open strings.[ssba]
Open strings, open keys and open tuning
There is currently a lot of interest in alternate tuning approaches for the guitar. It's a way to use more open strings. But we can also do some organic things to get more open strings going.
When I wrote my song, Breakfast Blues in the key of Eb, it was a great blues key and worked well for the vocal, but the accompaniment just didn't carry the song. I changed the key to E (natural) and it opened the song way up. The new key with all the options to use open strings created opportunities to develop a broad accompaniment that really filled out the sound.
I also used chord voicings that enabled me to use as many open strings as possible. I was able to have an open E string "pedal" throughout a few sequence of the chord progression that provided some interesting harmonies as well. This supported the vocal more fully and gave the song a much bigger sound, which is always a challenge for those of us presenting material for guitar and voice alone.
Moving the key up a semi-tone was a bit harder on the vocal and I'm still improving here, but the extra work will pay off. So if you find your fully fretted chords are not giving you the sustain you want, you can try a different key. Also try to experiment with adding some open strings in parts where you might not normally use them. Your end result will be to open the ears, hearts and if you are lucky, maybe even the wallets of your audience.
There's a wealth of things to learn and explore in my arrangement of Johnny Cash's famous Folsom Prison Blues. You will find cash currency in moving bass lines, chord substitutions, harmonizing and strategic use of open strings, they're all there for the picking.
I've structured the arrangement so you can learn the easy parts and then increase in complexity as you progress through the song. The end result will be an interesting and exciting new take on a time-honored standard, the Folsom Prison Blues.
When you learn this one you will impress your friends and best of all, it creates a great 'feel' when you play it. This is a really fun way to play the song - and find Cash along the way![ssba]
As part of my series on big endings, here is a great finish for the Folsom Prison Blues. You'll thrill your audience and impress your friends with this one. It's got octaves, chord substitutions and even a right hand crossover in it.
Will people be peeved when you tinker with tradition and change a time-honored ending? Not likely, because it's a compliment to the original artist when you offer an interesting interpretation of their great work. Besides, you'll create more curiosity in your playing and your performance if you give your audience something to talk about.
You'll get a lot of mileage out of my ending for Folsom Prison Blues as it frees your listeners to travel down new roads. Learn this new ending for Folsom Prison and leave them wanting more of your fancy playing.[ssba]