Four Ways to Play the 12 Bar Blues

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The 12 bar blues form is one of the most common song structures in music. Though it comes from the blues, the chord structure of the 12 bar form can be heard in any style with a blues influence including rock, country, gospel, bluegrass, and folk.

“Form” in music is a framework, a basic outline of the song. Form won’t necessarily tell you what the chords to a song will be, but it does give you the sections and how long each one lasts. However there are forms that we might think of as “standard”, that show up so often in the same way that you can anticipate what the chords will be and when they’re likely to change. The 12 bar blues is one of these forms. So much so that an experienced player can walk into a blues jam anywhere in the world and be able to play along even if they don’t know the songs.

Just a little music theory before we go forward. The 12 bar blues is sometimes called a “1-4-5 progression” because of the chords it generally includes. Here is an example of a 12 bar blues form in the key of G:

12 Bar Blues in G

12 bar blues form The “12 bar” part should be pretty clear: three lines of four bars each. We’re in the key of G, so if we number the letters of the G scale then we could call G the “1 chord”, C the “4 chord”, and D the “5 chord”.

Musicians use these numbers as shorthand to communicate chord changes. We’ll see more of this in just a moment, but for right now just recognize that the term “1-4-5 progression” is used to mean that this pattern uses the 1, 4, and 5 chords of the key:

  • 1 chord 4 bars
  • 4 chord 2 bars
  • 1 chord 2 bars
  • 5 chord 1 bars
  • 4 chord 1 bars
  • 1 chord 2 bars

There’s more to this than the math, of course! Each of those three chords has a definitive sound, and the way they relate to each other is part of what moves the music forward.

You could literally play thousands of songs with this progression, from the blues to the Beatles and Bocephus. In fact, most blues songs follow this basic form, with many small variations. But this weekend we’re going to look at some other forms that still fall into the category of “blues” but expand on the 12 bar format.

Standard 12 Bar Blues

16 bar blues form This form is a common extension of the “standard” 12-bar. A bluesman might stretch out a verse on a single chord for longer than 4 bars before moving up to the 4 chord. In this case, we’re holding the 1 twice as long, for 8 bars.

Sections like this are often played in “stop time”, with full-band stops on the downbeat of each bar. This repetition builds tension, which is released when the chord changes. The move up to the 4 chord almost feels like a chorus, especially if a key lyric falls on the chord change. Listen to Muddy Waters’ “Hootchie Coochie Man” as a great example.

New Orleans Style Blues Form

C7 This next example has an 8 bar form and totally different kind of chord structure. We’re solidly in a minor key, G minor, and use a flatted 6th to 5 (Eb to D) chord change for the release instead of the familiar 5-4-1 blues turnaround.

Take a listen to Louis Armstrong’s version of the blues standard “St. James Infirmary” for a similar chord progression in a New Orleans style.

Play this one as a slow swing, with steady quarter note strums and a slight accent on the backbeat 2 and 4. Use a C7 shape to play the D7 and Eb7 by moving the C formation up 2 or 3 frets respectively: 2nd position for the D7, 3rd position for Eb7.

Standard 12 Bar Blues

We’re not restricted to even numbers of bars…some songs have a more irregular structure:

8 Bar Jazz Blues In this case, we have an extra bar at the end of the cycle, but you could also see it as a 2 bar turnaround that starts at bar 7. Either way, it works, even though the second half is longer than the first, it feels totally natural because of the familiarity of that 2 bar turnaround. Listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” for a similar example.

The blues is a very flexible style and while it’s easy to get to know the basic forms there’s more possibilities than we could possibly cover in one article. Take the time to explore the styles of different artists to explore this topic further. For a great place to start, check out Hawkeye Herman’s JamPlay lesson on blues great T-Bone Walker, who brought a jazzy vibe to his blues:

Play Like T-Bone Walker by Hawkeye Herman

Taught by Hawkeye Herman

Get a taste of the style of the guitar player who gave legends like Clapton and B. B. King their start! T-bone walker is an amazing blend of genres and techniques and a blast to study.

Remember that these chord chart examples are just outlines, and there’s any number of ways you could add in licks and chord variations. One of the essential skills for any great player is the ability to creatively add something to a simple framework. It’s the basis of improvisation and a key to mastering the blues. So jump right in and experiment…you’ll never learn to swim if you don’t take the plunge!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joinning us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with special guest author David Isaacs!

Cheers,

Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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