Learn The Basics of Blues Rhythm

The Basic Rhythm Components of the Blues
by David Isaacs

Guitar players love the blues, and for good reason (We cover the blues in depth at JamPlay, scroll down for a coupon). The simplicity of the blues makes it a great starting point when you’re learning to play, and it introduces a musical concept you can’t afford to ignore: the song form.

“Form” is the way a song is put together, meaning the different sections and when they happen. In most blues songs, the form is a 12-bar sequence that cycles over and over. Conveniently enough, it’s called the 12-bar blues, and it’s a standard pattern that you’ll find in thousands of songs, not just blues songs but in rock and country as well.

A “bar” is not just a place you might play the blues. Count to four: one, two, three, four. That’s one bar, or one measure. Now take a look at this chart:

Example 1

This is our slow change blues progression. You can see how the music is divided up into bars by the bar lines, the vertical lines that appear after every four slashes. Those slashes indicate the beats, and the bar lines group the beats into neat little boxes. It’s easy to see the 12 bars by just counting the measures. You might also notice that there are only three chords: A7, D7, and E7.

A tiny touch of music theory will be helpful here. We can number the letters of the alphabet starting with A. This makes A7 the “1 chord,” since it’s the chord of the first note. That means D7 would be the “4 chord” and E7 the “5 chord.” This pattern is so common that you’ll sometimes hear the 12-bar blues referred to as a 1-4-5 progression.

Now take another look at the chart. Notice that we hold the A7 (the 1 chord), for four bars before changing to the D7 at bar five. We stay on D7 for two bars before returning to the A7 for two more bars. We wrap up the form with a bar of E7, a bar of D7, a bar of A7, and a final E7. That last bar leaves room for some variations we’ll explore a little bit later, a piece of musical punctuation we call the turnaround.

Listen to Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Working” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” for two examples of the slow change form. You might notice that while these two songs have different “feels” and are played in different keys, they both follow the same pattern, holding the same chord for the first 4 bars.

Here’s another example of the slow change, this time in the key of E. Try playing this one with the shuffle rhythm used in “Pride and Joy.” A shuffle has a bounce to it that comes from an uneven split of the beat: long-short long-short. Play this with a down-up down-up strum, adding a stronger accent on the upstroke to get that greasy Texas feel.

Example 2

Now let’s take a look at some variations. The quick change blues progression introduces the 4 chord in bar two and then returns back to the 1 chord to complete the first 4 bars. This adds a little more sense of chordal movement. Here’s a chart in the key of G:

Example 3

To hear these two forms illustrated back to back, check out Daniel Gilbert’s basic blues lesson on JamPlay. Daniel plays through both the slow and quick change blues progressions, and demonstrates some cool chordal riffs to boot:

Basic Blues: Quick Change and Slow Change

Taught by Daniel Gilbert

Daniel teaches the "quick change" and "slow change" blues progressions and provides a blues comp idea that he calls "The Chicago". Play with both forms over shuffle and straight backing tracks!
Show Interactive Tabs

For another real-life example of the quick change form, check out any one of many versions of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” including the iconic original recording. You might also notice that some versions of the song mix the slow and quick change forms. For example, Freddie King played the instrumental sections with the slow change but uses the quick change for the verses. It’s all part of the flexibility of the blues, which is all the more reason to master both forms!

For another example of a quick change blues, check out Eric Clapton’s recording of Freddie King’s “Tore Down.” There’s quite a few cool things to notice about this one! First of all, check out the 4-bar intro; the song actually starts with the last four bars of the form. We call this the turnaround because it sets up the return to the “top,” the beginning of the cycle. Here it is in the key of C:

Example 4

The groove is a shuffle like “Pride and Joy,” but in the Chicago style. Try playing this one with a stronger accent on the downstrokes: a ONE a TWO a THREE a FOUR. Listen for the pocket. That’s what rhythm section players call the sweet spot where all the parts fit together just right. It’s worth your while to spend some time just listening to these songs and paying attention to the bass and drums. After all, blues is groove music. It’s supposed to make your body move, and tuning in to the way these masters lay it down will help you get your groove on too.

Example 5

Clapton’s version of the song also has a “stop-time” section, where the band hits a hard stop on the first beat of each of the first four bars. The song switches to the slow change this time around, staying on the 1 chord all four bars. In the next verse, the stop-time is doubled, lasting for eight bars before continuing through the form! Once again, these little variations are a big part of the language of the blues.

Example 6

For one more variation, let’s look at the form of one of the all-time classics, a song that some people might call the blueprint for rock and roll: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” As great as it is, leave the familiar intro for another day; we're here to talk about the map and the groove. Here’s a simple chart, written in the key of A.

Example 7

Check out how we start off with the slow change, holding the 1 chord for the first 4 bars. We stick to the familiar form through the next 4 bars, but wait…look at the last line. Instead of descending from 5 to 4 to 1 like we have in every other example, this song holds the 5 for two bars and then returns to the 1 chord for the last two. To really make this one rock, use a driving back-and-forth strum in even eighth notes. Give a little emphasis to the backbeat, counts two and four of each bar.

There are lots more variations on the blues form, but the ones spelled out here are a great place to start. The beauty of it is, mastering just these few basic patterns will give you the basic chord structure for literally hundreds of songs. So start by memorizing these, and practice three grooves: the Texas shuffle of “Pride and Joy”, the Chicago shuffle from “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Tore Down”, and the driving straight feel of “Johnny B. Goode.” Sounds like a great way to spend your weekend, so get down to it and have fun!

Thanks for reading! Have fun with the blues this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!

Weekend Warrior Subscribers save 50%

Get our entire lesson library, live courses, teaching tools and more.

  Apply Your Coupon  

Use Coupon Code "warrior50", or just click the link above.

Thanks for reading.

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

Thanks again for joining me and our guest author, David Isaacs, on this musical journey!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

Comment Below

Other Weekend Warrior Episodes