Today I want to share with you how to play Magic Sam’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
This tune is a blues standard and is one that comes up countless times in blues jams. It’s also great for playing with friends as it follows a standard 12-bar blues chord progression.
Sam was an influential American blues guitarist and singer. He was born on February 14, 1937, in Grenada, Mississippi, and became known for his distinctive guitar style and soulful vocals.
It’s incredible how well he could really sing and play guitar! He also played a crucial role in shaping the sound of Chicago blues in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sam began playing the guitar at a young age and was heavily influenced by blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and B.B. King.
He moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s, where he quickly became part of the vibrant blues scene. Sam's guitar-playing style was characterized by its energetic, innovative, and expressive nature.
See Sam didn’t play with a standard flatpick. He played with just bare fingers. And boy did he get an AMAZING sound!
I’ll cover how to play the chord progression, rhythm patterns, and even some of his tasty turnaround licks. So get tuned up and let’s begin!
"Sweet Home Chicago" is a blues standard that has been recorded by a lot of artists over the years. The song is originally credited to Robert Johnson. Johnson was one of the most influential blues musicians of all time from the Mississippi Delta. He first recorded "Sweet Home Chicago" in 1936 during his legendary recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas.
The origins of the song can be traced back to earlier blues compositions. The melody and structure of "Sweet Home Chicago" bear similarities to other blues songs of the time, such as "Kokomo Blues" by Scrapper Blackwell and "Honey Dripper Blues" by Roosevelt Sykes.
These songs, along with many others, contributed to the development of the classic 12-bar blues form, which "Sweet Home Chicago" follows.
The lyrics of "Sweet Home Chicago" express a longing to return to the city of Chicago, which was a major hub for blues musicians during the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas in the early 20th century.
Over the years, "Sweet Home Chicago" has become an anthem for the city of Chicago and an iconic blues standard. Its timeless appeal and memorable guitar riffs have made it a favorite among blues enthusiasts and musicians alike. Artists such as Freddie King, Eric Clapton, and The Blues Brothers have recorded their own renditions, each adding their unique style and interpretation to this beloved blues classic.
To play Magic Sam’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago” you’ll need to know 3 chords E7, A7, and B7. Here is how I would play each of these shapes:
The song is in the key of E. These 3 chords are often referred to as the I, IV, and V chords.
I chord = E7
IV chord = A7
V chord = B7
The chord progression for "Sweet Home Chicago" is as follows:
E7 (1 bar)
A7 (1 bar)
E7 (2 bars)
A7 (2 bars)
E7 (2 bars)
B7 (1 bar)
A7 (1 bar)
E7 (1 bar)
B7 (1 bar)
Tip: note the use of the “quick IV” progression in bar 2.
It’s a great idea to practice this chord progression in order. To do this start by strumming whole notes (once per bar) and counting to 4. So you strum the E7 on 1 and count
1 2 3 4
Then strum the A7 on 1 of bar two and repeat. And so on. Do this for all 12 bars until you can do it without counting.
As I mentioned above Magic Sam played without a pick. So when I play his version I use my thumb to strum the rhythm pattern. Instead of simply strumming the chords (like we did in the previous exercise) here we are going to replace each chord with an awesome blues shuffle rhythm pattern.
For the E7 we will play this pattern:
Notice how the notes on the 5th string move. They climb from the 2nd fret up to the 5th fret but it keeps bouncing back to the 2nd fret every other strum once it starts moving. This creates a fun little pattern that is Sam’s unique take on this tune.
From there the progression changes right away to a quick IV chord. Remember that from above? You do. Great. Let’s go on.
For the A7 we are playing the same rhythm pattern as we did for the E7. It’s just shifted down (to the floor) one string.
So that covers the E7 and the A7 chords. From there we will need just one more chord. The V chord. The B7 chord. Here we’ll play this:
So for this chord, we’ll use the B7 chord shape from above instead of a blues shuffle pattern. But take note of how it is strummed. Notice the way I break up the chord (see the video above to demonstrate more on this.) Basically instead of just strumming all the strings at once. Sometimes I’ll pluck just the bass note and then other times I will accent the treble strings. This breaks up your rhythm and makes it sound more expressive and not boring.
Well, now that you’ve got the 3 most essential chords of this blues worked out. Your next step is to plug them into the chord progression.
What does that mean?
Well, wherever it says E7, A7, or B7 from the above 12-bar blues progression drop in these new rhythm figures.
But there is one little condition I have to tell you about and that is in the last two bars. Here we will play the…
In bars, 11-12 of the blues form Sam uses some killer blues turnaround licks. He often would mix them up throughout the song. But here is one in his style that walks down from the 3rd fret on the 2nd string all the way to the open position.
It starts off with the open low 6th string and then the open 1st string in eighth notes. From there it kicks into a driving triplet rhythm for the walk down. This rhythm is very common to Chicago-style blues. Also, note how the B7 chord in the final bar is played (the same way as above) by breaking up the bass strings and the treble strings.
Here is another example this time using the interval of a 6th. This is a great sound alternating the 3rd and 1st strings, and then again walking down just like the previous example. Here this blues turnaround lick walks down and hammers into an E triad on the top 3 strings.
Learning Magic Sam's guitar style and his rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago" offers guitarists a fascinating glimpse into the world of Chicago blues. Magic Sam's innovative and expressive playing, coupled with his soulful vocals, left an indelible mark on the blues genre.
By working on the chords, rhythm patterns, and signature licks that Magic Sam used, we can begin to capture the essence of his guitar style. His use of fingerpicking instead of a flatpick, combined with his rhythm patterns and dynamic control, contributed to the unique sound that set him apart.
"Sweet Home Chicago," a timeless blues standard originally credited to Robert Johnson, serves as an ideal platform to appreciate Magic Sam's guitar style.
Remember to take it slow and when you're ready try playing along with the recording. Happy playing! And for more great blues guitar lessons check out this blog on the 101 best blues songs to learn on guitar next!