12-bar Blues





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Published on Apr 27, 2011

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Getting the 12-Bar Blues

Beginner to Intermediate lesson about Blues. What is a 12-bar blues? Nick Minnion (The Secret Guitar Teacher) goes through three of the most popular blues chord sequences and sings (really badly!) his own Gutwrenchingly sad 'Dead Doggy Blues' by way of illustrating how blues sequences line up with blues lyrics.

In this lesson we are going to introduce you to the basic underlying chord structure to literally thousands of popular songs.

The 12-bar blues form first made its appearance in published music in 1912, but was almost certainly around in live African American Folk music a long time before that.

Over the last hundred years the basic 12-bar sequence that we are going to look at has appeared in almost every popular music genre from jazz and 50s rock n roll right on through folk, country, and heavy rock.

If you are going to play with other musicians then the 12 bar blues is far and away the sequence you will most often be expected to jam along with so you could say it's required learning for all guitar players!

Now in later lessons we'll explore various bass lines, riffs, shuffle patterns and other rhythmic techniques characteristic of blues.
(see video)

But in this lesson we are just going to explore a few of the commonly used 12-bar blues chord sequences.Here's what I call the simple form of 12-bar blues pattern:

The first line is all one chord -- E7.
The second line is evenly split between two bars of A7 and then back to E7 for two bars. The last line is evenly split between B7 and E7

The best way to hear how the sequence works is to think of a typical blues vocal - here's a verse of Dead Doggy Blues -- a cheerful little number I made up to illustrate how this works.

Strum along with me if you like (see video)

Now in blues, chords work together slightly differently to how they do in other types of music. One of the results of this is that the seventh chord type and major chord type are pretty much interchangeable.

So just with that information alone you can start improvising like this (see video)

Now let's look at what is probably the most commonly used 12-bar sequence:

You can see that the first two lines are just the same as our simple blues sequence, but we have made a couple of changes to the last line.

Only one bar of B7 back to one of A7 one of E7 then back to one of B7.

Only one bar of B7 back to one of A7 one of E7 then back to one of B7.
Listen to how this makes the whole thing a bit more dynamic:

Nothing much happens in the first line.

Bit of change in the second line just to support the repetition of the lyric

Then a real sense of build up on the B7 chord

And the shift down to A7 gives us a nice set-up for our punchline

Then the final bar jumps back to B7 again to provide what we call a turnaround -- this is a signal that we are heading back to start the next verse:

So that's what I call the common blues progression because it's probably the one you will hear the most.

Finally we come to the Quickchange progression which is one that says four bars is just too long a time to go without a change.

So you can see that we break up the first line by jumping to the A7 and back again to E.

I have also marked out an effective use of the difference between E major and E7 in the first and second line of this progression.

Then in the 11th bar you can see we have added in a fairly busy looking turnaround progression.

This is something of a blues cliché and is often used for intros as well as between verses:

Here are the chord shapes for that: (see video)

Have a bit of a practice, then join me in a blues jam to end this lesson off.

One of the great things about blues is how different elements of it can be blended together. So regardless of whether you have fully learnt and rehearsed all of the forms we have discussed in this lesson you should be able to strum along with me now safe in the knowledge that most of what you play is going to fit in with most of what I play!!
So here's both verses of Dead Doggy Blues using the QuickChange version of the 12-bar, but play along using whichever version you are most comfortable with and it won't sound too far out!

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