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Learn To Play "Folsom Prison Blues"

About This Lesson

David returns to the pages of Guitar Noise with another Easy Song for Beginners lesson. Work on your chord changes and strumming with not one, but two great country classics.

As we discussed in the Eleanor Rigby lesson, beginning guitarists usually have two main concerns - learning (and changing) chords and keeping rhythm. After all, if you want to play some songs as soon as possible, then you need to know the chords and you need to be able to strum them.

One problem that we face, though, is that we often practice these two skills separately, and that makes it a little hard to get things together at first. Eleanor Rigby was a good start at getting to work at the two techniques together, and I’d like to continue a bit on that aspect of your playing. So in this lesson, we’ll take a pattern we’ve already learned (in the Easy Songs for Beginners Lesson on Margaritaville), add some simple chords we already know (E, E7, A, A7, D and B7), and ratchet our strumming and chord changing skills up a notch or two. And to make this a little more interesting (not to mention fun), let’s learn two new songs instead of the usual one we do in each lesson. We’ll dig a bit into the “country” catalogue and pull out two standards - Folsom Prison Blues, by Johnny Cash and the Hank Williams’ classic, Your Cheatin’ Heart. And, by the bye, if you ever want a real treat, you should get to hear two of the Guitar Noise Forum moderators perform these songs. Wes Inman does a terrific turn on Folsom Prison Blues while Nick Torres’ rendition of Your Cheatin’ Heart is second to none.

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

If you’re keeping track of these things, this lesson fits nicely after the aforementioned piece on Margaritaville, and if you haven’t already read that one, then you might want to take a moment to do so. In essence, people tend to start strumming with simple downstrokes. Then the occasional upstroke or two is added. Then we might do what we call a “bass/strum” pattern, where the root note of the chord is played and then followed by the whole chord. And then beginners evolve from there to the alternating bass line. We’ll be using the same basic strumming pattern from the Margaritaville lesson, complete with alternating bass line, in this lesson, so being up to speed on what we’re talking about will certainly help you to get the nuances of these two songs a bit quicker.

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InstructorDavid Hodge

Let’s start out with Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. We’re going to play this song in the key of E, so we’ll need the following chords:

Example 1

The original recording of this song is in F, so if you want to play along with it, you should place a capo on the first fret. I’m playing in E on the MP3 files here, so don’t worry about a capo if you just want to play along with the MP3 files. And do try to remember to right click on the files so that you can use the “Save Target As…” function to save them directly to your computer. Doing this means you don’t have to download the sound files more than once, which will help us save a bit of bandwidth.

In terms of structure, Folsom Prison Blues follows a variation of the basic twelve bar blues format (as one might suspect from the title). If you’d like to learn more about the twelve bar blues structure, check out the lesson Before You Accuse Me and then hurry back. There are numerous ways to fool around with the basic chords of this song, but for the sake of simplicity as well for the overall structure of the lesson, I’ve gone with the following:

Folsom Prison Blues 1
Folsom Prison Blues 2
Folsom Prison Blues 3
Folsom Prison Blues 4

Please note that I placed a chord marking for every measure (every four beats), which will hopefully make things a little easier for everyone. There should be four measures per line of lyrics. I’ve also made a few changes or substitutions, if you will. Many TABs or transcriptions for this song will use a regular A instead of the A7, but I really think the A7 adds a lot to the sound, making things a little more blues-y. Also, I tend to come in earlier with the E7 than others might. Some folks don’t even use the E7 at all. These are all things that you can experiment with. As always, you should feel free to ultimately come up with your own arrangement of this song.

And now that we have our chords, let’s use our strumming pattern from Margaritiville to get us started. Here are the basic patterns, using root notes only, for the E, A7 and B7 chords. Obviously, you can use the E pattern for E7 as well:

Example 2
Example 2 continued
Example 2 continued

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Remember that you don’t want to hit all the strings when strumming the chords. Just the top three or four will do, since the bass note will resonate over the entire thing. And on the upstroke especially, you just want to hit the top two or three strings, even though the notation and TAB shows all four. Basically, when you make the upstroke, you’re bringing the pick back a little, almost in a cocking motion, to get it set for the next single hit of the bass string. This takes a little getting used to, but you will be surprised at how quickly it comes with a little concentrated practice on your part.

You can, of course, play the whole song using just this pattern. You could also skip the bass notes entirely and simply strum the chords for the whole song as well. That will sound fine. But give the pattern a try. We’ll be taking things a step or two further in a moment, but first I’d like to address the subject of changing chords.

In our lesson on Eleanor Rigby we discuss making chord changes in a timely fashion by starting our switching a little earlier than necessary and then working the changes up to speed through practice and repetition. Here on Folsom Prison Blues, I’d like you to use the strumming pattern itself to give you the chance to make timely chord changes. You’ll notice that we have five different chord changes in this song: E to E7, E7 to A, A to E, E to B7 and B7 back to E. With the exception of the B7 chord, we start each of our strumming patterns with a hit of an open string for our bass note. Here, for example, is the switch from E to E7:

Example 3

The idea is to make the switch from E to E7 when you strike that open E string at the start of the second measure (where the “*” is). Since the change from E to E7 merely involves lifting your ring finger off the D string, doing this at speed, even a slow tempo, should pose little to no problems for most of you, so let’s move on the E7 to A and A to E switches:

Example 4
Example 4

Because you’ve probably done a lot of switching between E and A (and back again), this change should become easy after a few tries. And even if you’ve never tried changing from E or E7 to A before, your fingers should catch on in a relatively short while. Try to remember to start slowly, keeping the tempo even. Don’t pick up speed until you’re pretty confident you can make the change cleanly at a slow pace.

Okay, one more chord change to deal with:

Example 5
Example 5

At first glance, the E to B7 change might seem a bit involved, but if you think about it for a moment, you realize that when you play the E chord your middle finger is right there on the second fret of the A string - exactly where you need it to be to play the B root notes of the B7 chord. So keep that finger in place, and as you strike that note at the start of the B7 measure should be when you shift your fingers over from E to the rest of the B7 chord. It’s a pretty simply switch. Your index finger moves from the first fret of the G string to the first fret of the D while your ring finger shunts from the second fret of the D string to the second fret of the G string. Add your pinkie to the second fret of the high B string and you’re good to go.

Notice that, with this particular change, your pinkie should be the last thing you worry about. Even if you don’t get it there on time, the chord will sound fine with an open high E string. The most important thing is to get the index and ring fingers to make their shift in the time it takes you to hit the B note that your middle finger hangs onto.

Now that you’ve got a good handle on your chord changes, let’s spice up the strumming pattern with a good ol’ country alternating bass line. Here are the patterns for our chords, and remember you can use the same pattern for both E and E7:

Example 6
Example 6
Example 6

The only tricky part here is the B7 chord. Some people actually cover both the second fret of the A and low E strings with their middle fingers, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of practice to get comfortable making your finger dance from string to string.

When you do get the hang of the alternating bass strum, then go back over your five chord changes, incorporating this new strumming pattern into the mix. And then work the whole song up to speed and voila! You’ve got it!

But it doesn’t have to stop there because of the incredible number of variations you can do. On the alternating bass patterns, you can use the E note at the second fret of the D string during your E, E7 and A chords. You can also bring hammer-ons into your playing. Here are a few of the many variations you can try:

Example 7
Example 7
Example 7

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As you can hear, we’ve created a lot of cool musical touches simply by using techniques and patterns you already know. I particularly like the last example with the B7 chord. Giving that F# at the second fret of the low E string a little tug provides a nice blues-y feel, especially when you use it right before switching to the E chord.

And speaking of which, the signature that opens Folsom Prison Blues comes straight from using that B7 chord:

Intro Riff

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This is a great example of how a guitar riff is created right from a chord. And it’s not only easy to play, it’s a lot of fun. So let’s try doing the Intro followed by a whole verse before moving on to our second song.

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