Folsom Prison Blues Chords – Your Ultimate Guide

One of Johnny Cash’s greatest songs is easy to play! Let’s have a look at some Folsom Prison Blues chords

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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • How to play “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
  • How to strum like Johnny Cash
  • An easier way to play the B7 chord
  • How to bend strings!

Your Complete Guide To The Folsom Prison Blues Chords

Is this your first time playing the blues? First time playing a Johnny Cash song? First time playing a song about prison or trains?

This song has everything! Folsom Prison Blues is universally regarded as one of the greatest country songs of all time, and one of the most enduring folk songs of the 20th century.

Almost everything about this song is iconic: the intro is immediately recognizable.

Cash’s performance of the song won him the first of his four (only four?) Grammy awards in 1969. The guitar solo is a famous work in itself!

And let’s not forget about the rhythm. The signature Johnny Cash version of the Carter scratch stayed with him throughout his career.

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

This song is a terrific introduction to Cash’s playing style, lyrical sense, and use of the blues, and it’s not terribly difficult to play.

  • With a little practice, you’ll be able to come up with a guitar arrangement of Folsom Prison Blues chords and riffs that you’ll enjoy forever.
  • This song is a permanent part of most guitarist’s collections and it’s great to pull out at a jam session. Everyone loves to play and sing it.
  • It does not matter how long you have been playing guitar; there is something for everyone to learn from this song. Let’s go!

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

Folsom Prison Blues: The Background

Now, everybody knows that the worst trouble Cash ever got in was either a night in jail or that time he started a forest fire in his camper in 1965.

His affinity for people fallen on hard times, and the hard times he suffered himself, however, earned him his status as their spokesperson.

  • Folsom Prison Blues was written in 1953 and performed at Folsom Prison, a still-operational state prison in California, in 1968. The song earned him a Grammy.
  • The protagonist in Folsom Prison Blues is a pretty dark character. Cash said that he sat around thinking of the worst possible reason to kill someone, and then put that in the song.
  • When Cash was asked why the man committed murder in Reno, Nevada and served his prison sentence in California, his response was, “That’s poetic license!”

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

Cash’s 1968 performance at Folsom Prison included a backing band with Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins, W.S. Holland, June Carter, and the Statler Brothers.

The recording of the performance is remarkable for the way Cash’s genuine connection to his audience comes through, which is not always easy to catch in a recording.

  • Note, however, that the cheers after the “I shot a man in Reno” line were reportedly added in post-production.
  • The prisoners were a bit more careful about where they opted to cheer, being surrounded by guards and all.

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

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Let’s Get To Playing!

The Folsom Prison Blues chords we’ll be using today are in the key of E, the only reasonable key in which this song can be righteously played.

If you’re a beginner on the guitar, the Folsom Prison Blues chords are going to be a bit of a challenge at first, but we’ve got your back.

  • With a couple of chord-change hacks and some practice, you’ll be able to get through the entire song with no problem.
  • The three chords you’ll use are E major, A major, and B7.

Here’s what they look like.

E (022100)

(If you don't understand the above image please read our article "How To Read Guitar Chordboxes In 60 Seconds". It will make everything clear!)

A (x02220)

B7 (x21202)

Look at that B7. It’s not anyone’s favorite chord.

Here’s how you get there: put your middle finger down on the A string second fret first, then your first finger down on the D string first fret. Then put your ring finger down on the G string second fret.

Worry about putting your fourth finger down on the high E string second fret later. It will come with time, and since you already have 75 percent of the chord, it will sound alright in the meantime.

These three chords look a lot more challenging to navigate than they are.

Here’s a quick E-to-B7 hack:

From the E chord, don’t move your middle finger at all. You just have to flip-flop your first and third fingers so that the first finger moves south one string and your third finger moves north one string.

It’s even easier to do than it is to explain!

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

Pro-Tip: All of you beginners out there – practice the chord changes! Before trying to get through this entire set of Folsom Prison Blues chords, give your fingers a chance to adjust.

Once your fingers know what they’re doing, learning a song becomes much easier!

Yes, It’s A Blues!

Let’s give a listen to “Folsom Prison Blues” live at Folsom Prison.

It’s called a Blues, right there in the title, but it is hard to hear why.

  • “Folsom Prison Blues” does not sound much like the songs we usually associate with the term.
  • One of many fascinating things about the blues is that although blues lore focuses a great deal on the blues traveling up the Mississippi River and landing in Chicago to be picked up and revolutionized by people like Elmore James, the blues spread everywhere and became a much broader term.
  • “Folsom Prison Blues” is a totally legit and basic 12-bar blues.

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

The 12-bar blues is the 12-measure standard chord progression that has influenced music all over the world for the last century,

The Folsom Prison Blues chords are an unadulterated version of the 12-bar blues. The progression goes like this:

E E E E

A A E E

B B E E

If you convert those chords into numbers based on the key you are in, you have a transposable set of 12-bar blues chords that you can use to write your own blues songs or to learn other blues songs.

That set of numbers goes like this:

I I I I

IV IV I I

V V I I

Other 12-bar blues songs you might try to learn are Lennon’s “Yer Blues”, NRBQ’s “12 Bar Blues,” Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad,” and Clapton’s “Alberta.”

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

Folsom Prison Blues Chords: The Johnny Cash Arrangement

To play the Folsom Prison Blues chords as Johnny Cash did, you’ll use this progression:

E E E E

A A E E

B7 B7 E E

It’s easy to memorize, and it will come in handy when you try to learn other 12-bar blues songs in the key of E!

  • There are other ways to play these three chords, but the basic open-chord shapes above will get you through the song as Cash played it and as it has been played ever since.
  • If you have practiced the chord changes, you’ll be ready to begin playing and singing right away, so go ahead and give it a try!

Folsom-Prison-Blues-Chords

For a complete chord chart of the Folsom Prison Blues chords and lyrics, try this version of “Folsom Prison Blues” from Ultimate-Guitar.com.

  • As with most things you find on the Internet, this chord chart is incomplete.
  • It tracks chord changes by the lyric at which you need to change the chord but does not say how long the chords need to be played.
  • You can follow the 12-bar blues format to make sure that you’re playing the chords for the proper length of time.

In Cash’s arrangement, sometimes the last measure of E is cut off of the chord progression to start the next verse early, and that format is used in the chord chart above.

You can opt to play it that way, or you can even out the arrangement so that you have 12 bars every time you go through the progression.

How-to-play-Folsom-prison-blues

When You Get The Blues, You Get Rhythm!

Once you’re settled in with the Folsom Prison Blues chords, it’s time to layer on that famous Johnny Cash strum!

Cash’s rhythm style is so closely associated with him that it’s sometimes called the Johnny Cash strum. Say that, and any musician will know exactly what you’re talking about.

  • It’s also frequently called “boom chicka” because that’s the rhythm that it makes.
  • Together with W.S. Holland’s drumming, the Johnny Cash strum is what makes “Folsom Prison Blues” sound like the train song that it is!

Folsom-prison-blues-johnny-cash

To strum like Johnny Cash, you’ll replace every other strum with a plucked string.

The plucked string is the boom, and a down-up strum in between is the chicka.

  • Whenever you’re on the E chord, you’ll first pluck the E string, then strum, then pluck the A string, then strum.
  • When you’re on the A chord, you’ll first pluck the A string, then strum, then pluck the E string, then strum. Hold on to the chord shapes the entire time!

With the B7 chord, it’s a tiny bit tricker.

  • You’ll first pluck the A string, then strum, then pluck the E string, then strum.
  • However, you’ll need to take the middle finger with you from the A to the E string when you pluck the E string.
  • Just flop it onto the E string in such a way that it touches or mutes the A string when you move it, and it will sound just like Cash!

B7/F# (2×1202)

Pro-Tip: Each measure of the Folsom Prison Blues chords is eight pick-strum combinations long.

If you’re on the E chord, for example, you’ll count 1, 2, 3, 4 every time you hit the E string. It’s a 12-bar blues with a slow count, but that’s how the song goes!

how-to-play-Folsom-prison-blues-on-guitar

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

Folsom Prison Blues Chords: The Famous Intro

Cash started off his concerts with the words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” The intro to “Folsom Prison Blues” always followed.

Talk about setting the tone for the evening!

The intro that precedes the Folsom Prison Blues chords is short, unchanging, and very simple to play, and in about five minutes, you’ll be able to kick off your set the same way – except for the “I’m Johnny Cash” part.

The intro uses part of the Folsom Prison Blues chords, which means that it follows the two cardinal rules of cool guitar riffs: it sounds cool and it isn’t hard!

Set up for the intro by making a B7 chord, and you’ll find that you hardly have to move your fretting hand at all to do this:

guitar-lesson-Folsom-prison-blues

That curved line after the last note is a string bend.

  • To bend the string, first grab the E string at the second fret with your middle finger.
  • Right after you pluck the E string, keep holding on to the string with your middle finger and curl it to drag the string toward the A string any amount.
  • You should hear a little wobble in the pitch of the string. That’s a string bend!
  • It’s a way to change the pitch of the note you are playing without having to pluck the string again.
  • It does not matter how much you curl your finger to bend the string, initially.
  • As long as you hear a little change in the pitch, you’ve achieved the proper effect!

Pro Tip: Try bending the a string until you achieve a pitch that fits over your Folsom Prison Blues chords to spice things up!

easy-johnny-cash-songs-to-play-on-guitar

Kicking Off The Solo Over The Folsom Prison Blues Chords

The solo interspersed into the Folsom Prison Blues chords is just as recognizable as the rest of the song, so you might as well learn it.

It doesn’t really matter what you do with the solo after you do this riff; people will be so happy to have heard it that they’ll spend the rest of the solo break nodding with satisfaction that they’ve heard the important part.

  • The solo riff is up the neck from the rest of the song.
  • If you’re playing rhythm and lead guitar in a solo guitar arrangement of this song, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to reposition your fretting hand.

Here’s the first riff in the guitar solo!

If you listen to the solo in the recording, you’ll hear that the lead guitar work is pretty much done after pulling off that riff twice!

Traditionally, the first two notes of that solo riff aren’t plucked separately. The first note is plucked, and then the second note is attacked by a hammer-on.

  • A hammer-on is exactly what it sounds like. Keep your second finger on the eighth fret, and with your ring finger, hit the same string hard enough on the ninth fret for the note to sound.
  • It’s called a hammer-on because you have to try to hit the wood of the fretboard through the string to get the note to sound. Hit it too softly and you just stop the string from vibrating.

Make sure you’re hitting the string with the top of your finger, not the pad. It makes for a better hammer effect!

Putting Your Folsom Prison Blues Chords Together

You’ve now got all of the components you need: Folsom Prison Blues chords, rhythm, intro, and solo!

  • To put your own arrangement together, first practice each component.
  • There are plenty of YouTube resources if you need help with any of the pieces of this song.
  • After you’ve got the components down, practice the transitions!

For more wonderful Johnny Cash music you can learn on the guitar, check out this great book:

The Little Black Songbook

It’s got everything you need from the Man in Black.

Recommended resources

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