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The ULTIMATE Nobody Knows You When You're Down Guitar Lesson

When guitar players think of blues chord progressions inevitably they often default to thinking about the typical 12-bar blues progression, however, there are a ton of other blues progressions that don’t get talked about as much. Today I want to share with you one of those progressions in this “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” guitar lesson.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” follows an 8-bar blues chord progression and has quite a different chord progression than just the typical I, IV, and V chord blues.

In this lesson, I’ll break down the chords, and different ways of strumming, fingerpicking, and even soloing over this blues classic. So get tuned up and let’s go! 

Who Wrote Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out?

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" has become a blues standard over the years but it was originally written by pianist Jimmie Cox in 1923. It was first performed in a Vaudeville-blues style. The song's lyrics tell of a wealthy person who lost their money and the friends that came with it. The first recording of this song was done by Bessie Smith in 1929.

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out Chords

As mentioned above “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” does not follow a typical 12-bar blues progression. Instead, it is an 8-bar blues chord progression and to play it you’ll need to know 8 chords. Those 8 chords are C, E7, A7, Dm, F, F#dim, D7/F#, and G7. Here’s how I would play each of these chords:

C I would play in open position like this:

E7 is played using 3 fretted notes and all 6 strings like this:

A7 is played by barring the A chord with your index finger and adding the note G on the 3rd fret of the 1st string:

Dm is played on strings 1-4 like this:

F is played as just a little 3-note chord like this:

F#dim is just like the previous F chord however here the note on the 4th string moves up 1 fret:

I’ll typically play D7/F# using the fretting hand thumb on the 2nd fret of the 6th string like this: (However, if fretting with the thumb is hard for you, you can play this same chord using different fretting hand fingers and get the same notes.) 

And finally, G7 is played in a typical folk-style like this:

Once those chord shapes start feeling comfortable next try putting them into the progression. The first four bars go like this:

C, E7 (1 bar)

A7 (1 bar)

Dm, A7 (1 bar)

Dm (1 bar) 

Throughout the progression sometimes there are 2 chords in 1 bar, and sometimes 1. The variations in the progression keep it interesting and move the music along.

The next 4 bars go like this: 

F, F#dim (1 bar)

C, A7 (1 bar)

D7/F# (1 bar)

G7 (1 bar)

The second half of this progression begins on the IV chord F, and then moves up to a F#dim. This is a common use of the diminished chord in the blues. After that, it finishes with a I, VI, II, V chord progression that is very commonly used as a turnaround at the end of many blues and also jazz chord progressions at this time.

Strumming Pattern And Bass Lines 

The strumming pattern that I would recommend starting with would be a simple quarter note downstrum.

In each bar strum 4 downstrums and count to 4 like this: 


1 2 3 4  

When you have 1 chord in a bar this chord would get 4 strums. However, when you have 2 chords per bar each chord would get 2 strums. I sometimes call this a split-bar. 

For example, bar 1 of the progression, C to E7 would have 2 strums on each chord like this:

/ /  / / 

C, E7 (1 bar)

While A7 in bar 2 would get 4 strums like this:

/ /  / / 

A7 (1 bar)

Here’s the entire progression with strumming:

/ /  / / 

C, E7 

/ /  / / 


/ /      / / 

Dm, A7 

/ /  / / 


/ /  / / 

F, F#dim 

/ /   / / 

C, A7 

/ /  / / 


/ /  / / 


Once you feel comfortable jamming through the chord progression, next you might want to try adding some walking bass lines in between the chords.

This is a classic move done in countless versions of this song. Here are two different ways I would incorporate this. 

The first way would be a walk-up from bar 4 to bar 5. Here the progression is going from Dm to F. Try playing every fret from the open 4th string up to the 3rd fret root note for the F chord like this:

The second way would be a walk-down in bar 6. Here the progression is going from C to A7. Try playing every fret from the 3rd fret on the 5th string down to the open 5th string like this:

Both of these walking bass lines use the idea of chromaticism. Which basically means moving in ½ steps. This is a great way to connect chords in a progression and vary the rhythm to add movement and energy to your music.

Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out Fingerstyle 

One of my favorite versions of this song is Eric Clapton’s from the Unplugged album.

Clapton's version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" showcases his own unique fingerpicking guitar style. Clapton’s fingerpicking style is influenced by the playing of iconic blues guitarists such as Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Clapton studied their techniques and incorporated them into his own playing, developing a style that combines traditional blues elements with his unique flair.

I call this a claw-style technique where he breaks up the bass notes from the chords. This is a brilliant way that he accompanies’s his singing. The thumb is used to pick the bass notes, while the other fingers pluck the melody and chords, resulting in a layered and full-sounding backing to support his vocals.

When playing the song, Clapton often starts with a bass pattern using his thumb on the lower strings. He incorporates syncopated rhythms and subtle variations in the picking pattern to add interest and dynamics to the arrangement like this:

Soloing And Scales

Soloing over a progression like this in contrast to a typical I, IV, and V 12-bar blues progression requires a little bit more skill. The progression for “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” moves through several key centers. To get started make sure you are familiar with your C major pentatonic scale which can be played like this: 

For a full breakdown of Clapton’s solo on this watch this video:

Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out Derek & the Dominoes

The version as recorded by Derek & the Dominoes takes a different approach and changes the time signature to a 6/8 time signature as opposed to a 4/4 time signature which was used in the original Bessie Smith version.

The strumming pattern I would use in a 6/8 time signature would be all downstrums using an eighth-note rhythm like this:


1 2 3 4 5 6 


"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" holds a significant place in the repertoire of blues guitarists, and learning to play this song can be a transformative experience for musicians. As we explored in this blog post, the song has been interpreted and recorded by numerous artists over the years, each bringing their unique style and flavor to it.

Mastering this blues standard opens up a world of musical possibilities for guitarists. It not only provides an opportunity to dive into the rich history of blues music but also serves as a platform for personal expression and creativity. The song's timeless themes of hardship, resilience, and the fickleness of human relationships resonate with audiences across generations, making it a vital addition to any blues guitarist's repertoire.

By learning to play "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," guitarists gain insights into the nuances of fingerpicking technique, chord progressions, and melodic embellishments that are emblematic of the blues genre. 

Exploring the various versions of the song allows guitarists to study and draw inspiration from the playing styles of blues legends. 

So keep practicing and for more great blues lessons check out this list of the 101 best blues songs to learn on guitar next!


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