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How to Play Folsom Prison Blues on Guitar

Today I want to share with you a “Folsom Prison Blues” guitar lesson. This song is a great example of a 12-bar blues chord progression. Learning it will help you with both your rhythm and lead guitar playing.

Now for this lesson, I will be using a capo on the 1st fret. With the capo on I will be playing in the key of E. But the concert pitch (the actual key) is F major. But for this lesson, I will be referring to “capo chords”. 

If you don’t have a capo. You can play the same thing without one. You just won’t be able to play along with the recording as all the recordings that I have heard are in F.

Ok! Are you ready? Cool.

Onward.

Who wrote Folsom Prison Blues?

"Folsom Prison Blues" is a renowned country and blues song written and originally recorded by the legendary American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. Released in 1955, the song became one of Cash's signature tunes in his career. 

The lyrics of "Folsom Prison Blues" tell a captivating story of a remorseful inmate who laments his actions and dreams for freedom. Inspired by a combination of Cash's own experiences performing in prisons and traditional folk tunes, the song captures the dark and somber atmosphere of prison life. It reflects themes of regret, longing, and the desire for redemption that resonated with listeners worldwide. 

In 1968, Cash further solidified the song's significance by recording a live performance of "Folsom Prison Blues" at Folsom State Prison in California. This iconic performance was captured on the album "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison." 

Folsom Prison Blues Chords

To play “Folsom Prison Blues” you’ll only need to know 3 chords. E, A, and B7 

For E I would play all six strings like this:

For A, I would play from the 5th string down like this:

And finally, for B7 I would play from the 5th string down like this:

The chords E, A, and B7 are the fundamental chords in the key of E major. These chords are the I, IV, and V chords, respectively, in the key of E.

E (I chord):

The E chord is built on the root note E and consists of the notes E, G#, and B. It functions as the tonic or "home" chord in the key of E. 

A (IV chord):

The A chord is built on the root note A and includes the notes A, C#, and E. As the IV chord in the key of E, it adds a sense of tension and anticipation. Transitioning to the A chord from E creates a common blues progression and contributes to the characteristic sound of blues and rock music.

B7 (V chord):

The B7 chord is built on the root note B and contains the notes B, D#, F#, and A. As the V chord in the key of E, it creates a strong pull back to the tonic (E) chord. 

When playing in the key of E, these three chords (E, A, and B7) form the foundation for countless songs and progressions. 

Now that you have these 3 chord shapes down.  

Next, let’s put them into the progression.

“Folsom Prison Blues” follows a 12-bar blues progression common to millions of blues songs.

Here’s how the progression goes:

E (4 bars)

A (2 bars)

E (2 bars)

B7 (2 bars)

E (2 bars)

I recommend playing this progression in whole notes first. So that would be strumming each chord once per bar and counting to 4 like this. 

E

1 2 3 4

Make sure you strum each chord right on the one and then continue this through all 12 bars.

Is Folsom Prison Blues easy to play?

To play a basic strumming pattern with the chords, yes. But to nail the boom-chick rhythm like Luther Perkins, no.

Folsom Prison Blues Strumming Pattern 

This tune is a great example of Luther Perkins’ style of guitar playing. He would often play a palm-muted, boom-chick rhythm pattern behind Cash. Palm muting is a guitar technique where you lightly rest the palm of your picking hand against the strings near the bridge of the guitar. By doing so, you dampen the vibrations of the strings and create a percussive and muted tone.   

To begin the boom-chick rhythm pattern start by fretting the E chord. Now with the strum hand we are going to play an alternating bass pattern. 

It’s going to go 6-4-5-4. So this means play string 6, string 4, string 5, and then string 4 in that order. I call this the 6-4-5-4 pattern. This pattern is common in many tunes.

 

Perkins would vary this pattern depending on what chord he was playing. So for example when he goes to the A chord the pattern would change. On the A chord, you want to play 5-4-6-4 like this:

So that covers us for the I and IV chords. Let’s next look at the V chord B7. 

Here we will use the 5-4-6-4 pattern but we are going to adjust the bass note of the B7 chord. On beats 2 and 4 shift your middle finger from playing the 2nd fret on the 5th string to the 2nd fret on the sixth string. This makes sure when you alternate the bass for the boom-chick pattern that you hit notes in the chord.

How do you play solo in Folsom Prison Blues?

There are two primary scales I would recommend starting with to learn to solo on “Folsom Prison Blues.” 

Those two scales are:

  1. E major pentatonic scale
  2. E minor blues scale 

You can play the E major pentatonic at the 12th fret like this:

And the E minor blues scale can be played in the same position like this:

Let’s next take a look at how these scales can be used in action.

The first example here uses a repetitive figure. A repetitive figure in a guitar solo refers to a specific musical pattern, phrase, or sequence of notes that is played multiple times, often with slight variations, within the solo. 

This repetition can add a sense of familiarity, catchiness, or emphasis to the solo and can be a deliberate artistic choice by the guitarist. Repetitive figures are commonly used in various musical genres to create memorable and engaging solos. And right away this lick can get stuck in your head. These types of phrases can range from short melodic motifs to longer patterns that are mixed into the solo's overall structure.

Bluesy strumming can be a compelling addition to a guitar solo. Consider incorporating strumming patterns into your solo. Instead of relying solely on single-note melodies or runs, use your pick or fingers to strum the strings. This introduces a rhythmic and textural element that can be both engaging and bluesy. These strumming patterns can complement the lead aspects of your solo. Here's an example:

Incorporating fragments of the song's melody into a guitar solo is a technique that can significantly enhance the overall musical experience. It's a strategy that establishes a strong connection between the solo and the song itself. By introducing recognizable bits of the melody, the listener immediately feels a sense of familiarity. This connection can be engaging and comforting, as the audience identifies with the familiar tune. Like this:

Conclusion:

"Folsom Prison Blues" remains an iconic and timeless song in the realms of country and blues music. Johnny Cash's powerful storytelling and Luther Perkins' distinctive guitar style have made this song a lasting favorite among audiences worldwide. 

As you work on jamming "Folsom Prison Blues", remember to master the essential chords of E, A, and B7, which form the backbone of the song's progression. Plus, exploring the boom-chick rhythm technique is going to help you develop your accuracy. Remember that it won’t be perfect at first. So start slow and then over time build up the speed. Happy playing! And for more blues guitar check out this blog on 101 best blues songs to learn on guitar next!

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