Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues TAB how to play Folsom Prison

In this guitar lesson, I will be providing you with the Folsom Prison Blues TAB and showing you how to play this Johnny Cash classic country track one step at a time. Cash first wrote Folsom Prison Blues in 1953, and it was recorded later for his debut album Cash with his Hot and Blue Guitar. It is one of Cash’s signature songs and it was ranked in the top 100 country songs of all time by Rolling Stone. Cash famously performed the song live to a crowd of inmates at Folsom State Prison in the late 60s for his album At Folsom Prison. This version became a number 1 hit on the country music charts and reached number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won a Grammy award for best country vocal performance in 1969.

Cash was inspired to write Folsom Prison Blues after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while in West Germany, serving in the United States Air Force. Cash took the melody, and some lyrics from Gordon Jenkins’ Seven Dreams concept album, specifically the song Crescent City Blues. Jenkins was not credited on the original record but after the song became popular, Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of approximately $75,000 following a lawsuit. The line “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” came from Cash trying to come up with the worst possible reason for one person killing another. “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”

The original recording of Folsom Prison Blues was recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis Tennessee. Sam Phillips produced the track and the musicians were Johnny Cash on vocals and guitar, Luther Perkins (guitar), and Marshall Grant (bass). There was no drummer in the studio for the recording session. A snare drum was replicated by inserting a piece of paper under the guitar strings.

The later live recording of the song is more up-tempo than the original Sun recording and according to Michael Streissguth, cheering that can be heard in the recording was added in post-production. According to a special feature on the DVD release of the biopic film Walk the Line, inmates avoided cheering about Cash’s comments, fearing reprisal from the guards. The performance once again featured Cash, Grant, and Perkins, as well as W.S. Hollands on drums. Pitchfork placed the live version of the song at number 8 on a list of 200 greatest songs of 1960s.

Now you know a little bit more about Folsom Prison Blues. Let’s get to the practical stuff next and learn how to play it on guitar.

Folsom Prison Blues TAB and Guitar Lesson

folsom prison blues tab and guitar lesson

As mentioned earlier, the beginner friendly Folsom Prison Blues is a song with two guitar parts but what we’re going to do in this lesson is condense those two guitar tracks into one guitar part so that you can easily play the song alone. There are only three chords that you’ll need for this one. We have a standard open E major chord, a standard open A major chord, and a five string B dominant 7 barre chord. Here are the charts.

Folsom Prison Blues Chords

The B7 barre chord is optional. Well, sort of. You must play a B dominant 7 chord, but if you prefer, you can play the open version of that chord if you know it. I’ve gone with a barre chord for two reasons. Firstly, there may be beginners reading, and I like to get those guys practicing with the barre chords and secondly, I just happen to really like them.

The good news keeps on rolling in. Not only are there just three simple chords in the song, there’s only one chord progression to learn too.

Let’s learn that chord progression before we start to look at how to perform the song.

Folsom Prison Blues Chord Progression

The Folsom Prison Blues chord progression looks like this.

E / E / E / E / A / A

 E / E / B7 / B7 / E

You have a total of eleven bars there, starting with four bars of E major. Those four bars are followed by two bars of A major and then two more bars of E major. Then you two bars of B dominant 7 and then finally, one bar of E major which is a little random but hey, that’s the chords.

A Friendly Tip

If you’re a beginner or lower intermediate guitarist, I’d highly recommend that you use a metronome to practice Folsom Prison Blues. The placement of the notes is quite specific, and you really want to capture that vibe that this track has. The song is performed at 102bpm (approximately) but don’t be afraid to dial that back and start slower until you’re comfortable with what’s going on.

Folsom Prison Blues TAB intro section

Now let’s turn our attention to actually playing the song. Naturally, we start things off with the intro. There’s a combination of a cool lead riff and some strumming. Here’s the TAB.

The first thing you see there is rests. These rests tell us where to come in. The notes are played on the “and 4 and” of the standard 4/4 bar that is split up into eighth notes (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). The individual notes in the second bar all fall directly on top of the beats (1 2 3 4).

The intro has one bar of the rhythm which we’ll be using throughout the song, but this rhythm bar IS NOT a part of the chord progression. It is merely part of the intro itself. You’d start to count your bars of E major AFTER the above is performed.

As for what those chords are, they’re just the high end of your standard E major chord. The individually picked bass notes are filling the low end, so we only need to strum the higher notes. The strumming is a rapid DU (down up). In total, you have the first bass note on beat one, then the down up strum on the following “and”, then the next bass note on the second beat, the next two strums on the following “and”, and so on.

If that didn’t sink in, keep reading. All will become clearer soon.

TAB performance tip – position your fingers in place for the full chord. The bass notes you see above are a part of the E major chord. Fret an E major and pick the individual notes, then strum the other bits. This logic can be followed throughout. Finger the full chords when you arrive at that point in the progression and simply play the indicated notes. Sometimes, the bass notes aren’t part of the chord, but when this happens, the notes are simply the open E string.

Folsom Prison Blues TAB how to play the main chord progression

So, the strumming at the tail end of the intro section is to be used throughout the rest of the song so if you can play that, and if you’ve learned the progression, you can pretty much play the song already.

Below, you will find the full progression, as well as two alternative approaches with varying levels of difficulty. If you’re using one of the easier versions, you can substitute the final part of the intro for what you see below. Hope that makes sense. If it doesn’t, too bad, I guess.

Easy version

The easiest way of performing the chords for Folsom Prison Blues can be found in the next image. The progression is the same, as are the bass notes but I’ve made the rhythm simpler compared to what you saw at the end of the intro. Everything is an eighth note (1 and 2 and), and everything is a downward strum/pick. Here’s the TAB.

Pay attention to the repeat marks and link the TAB to the chord progression that you saw earlier. The bass notes are all Es, As and Bs and when strumming, finger the full chord, but only catch the higher notes. You may also need to play around with muting a little, but it isn’t essential. Also, don’t play too aggressively.

If you can play the above, you’re able to play through the whole song now, technically. I’d say that this easy version is the ideal starting place for not only beginners, but all guitarists because it will help you to get a feel for the arrangement and the rhythm. Once you’ve mastered the above, you can move onto the next version which is more intermediate in terms of difficulty.

Intermediate version

Next, we’ll look at a slightly harder version which is a mix of the easy version you saw above, and what you saw in the intro section. The only thing that I’ve changed here is the strumming. The bass parts have stayed the same. So have a lot of the strums too. Here’s the TAB.

As you can see, there’s extra strums in there now. The simple “1 and 2 and” rhythm has been developed slightly to include 16th notes.

Not much changes for you. When you see the extra chord fragment, you’d play a rapid DU (down up) strum, instead of just the down strum that you were doing before. To expand, the strums were (and still are) falling on the “and” parts of the bar. Now, at times, you’re playing two strums over that “and” instead of just the one. The strums at those parts will last half as long because you now have to squeeze two strums (the down and the up) into the same amount of space.

You’ll also notice that my placement of the developed rhythm seems somewhat random in terms of placement. This is intentional. I’ve done it that way to demonstrate that you can be free with rhythm and place these extra strums wherever you see fit or wherever you think sounds good. If you want to take away, or add to the above, you can do. You can even mix things up as you progress through the song. You don’t have to be robotic and play the exact same for every loop.

Once you’ve got the hang of throwing in those extra little strums, you can move onto the next version which is the most advanced.

Advanced version

Next, you’ll see an image that takes the previous approach to the next level. All of the strums are down up 16th notes. You do this in the same way as we did with the previous image but this time, there’s no opportunity to catch your breath. The rhythm is very consistent. Here’s the TAB.

You could think of the above as constantly D DU D DU D DU D DU (down, down up). Give it a try and start slowly if you need to. Also consider what I said before. Don’t worry if you need to lose one of those up strokes every now and then. The world won’t end. The truth is nobody cares about how you’re playing it because, nobody cares about you.

Before we move onto the last couple of parts, I do have one more option for you. Take a look at the next piece of TAB.

Folsom Prison Blues TAB – extra bass notes

You can hear in the recording that there’s more going on with the electric guitar than what I’ve shown you. As I said right at the start, this is a one guitar version but with one tiny little adjustment, we can incorporate more of the electric guitar. I’m only changing one bar, so an image of the whole TAB isn’t necessary. Here’s the TAB.

The change happens at the final bar of the first four bars of E major. I’ve added the extra little bass notes in. It sounds pretty cool. Give it a try. You don’t have to use this if you don’t want to but its there.

You can also take this a step further by developing it more. For example, you can reverse the riff when you’re transitioning from the A chord to the E chord. Give that a try too.

Folsom Prison Blues Guitar Solo rhythm section/solo alternative

If you’re playing Folsom Prison Blues as a solo guitarist then you may feel that performing the actual guitar solo sounds a little thin. The answer to this isn’t to simply cut the sections out though. All you need to do is simply play through your rhythm progression instead of playing the lead. What I like to do is play around with the strumming a little just to spice things up. Experiment with it and find a groove.

Naturally, many of you reading will want the full experience and will want to perform the actual guitar solo. I got you covered.

Folsom Prison Blues Guitar Solo TAB

The Folsom Prison Blues guitar solo is played twice, and it lasts the length of the chord progression that we’ve been using throughout. The solo starts slightly before the start of our progression loop, so I’ve picked up toward the end of the progression so that you can see how it links. Here’s the TAB. The last bar of the TAB represents the final bar of the chord progression loop. You’re back at the four sets of E major after this.

This solo is relatively easy to get under your fingers. The rhythm is neat and tame and can be clearly heard in the recording. There’s plenty of repetition in there, so there’s less to learn than you think. There’s some strumming in there too, but the chords are no different to the ones we’ve used in the song so far except when you’re strumming the E major toward the end, you remove the fretted note on the G string, making it an E minor for short moments.

Take it one bar at a time and here’s a tip. The structure of the solo follows the structure of the rhythm.

Folsom Prison Blues TAB outro

The last thing that we need to learn is the outro. This comes at the very end of the final run through of the main chord progression and the TAB picks up at the B dominant 7 part. The riff may seem familiar. Here’s the TAB. Once you’ve learned this, you’re done.

You now have all the tools that you need to play Folsom Prison Blues on guitar. Try all the rhythmic approaches that I’ve shown you herein and see what works best for you. Mix them up and play around with it. This is one of those tracks where you can either play very specifically or, never play the same way twice. It depends on your taste, I guess.

Folsom Prison Blues is a really fun little track that’s open to guitarists of all skill levels. I don’t hear it played nearly often enough. Well done for learning such a fantastic piece of music.

Oh, one more thing. You’re going to screw up the bass notes and you’re going to do it a lot. Just stick at it and keep practicing.

What next?

That concludes the Folsom Prison Blues TAB and guitar lesson. I believe that this is the first country guitar lesson that I’ve written for Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat but I do have a lesson for Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt. 

Johnny Cash Hurt Guitar Lesson

If you don’t fancy that one, try one of these which I would also class as more “old school”. 

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