How To Play 12 Bar Blues
Perhaps a bit of nostalgia is kicking in considering this week marks the six month anniversary of the beginning of Bold Music, but something’s got me thinking about the blues. In today’s posting, we’ll look at how to construct the basic 12 bar blues. Our awesome instructors can also teach this method in private guitar lessons.
A little Background
Every musician today should, in my opinion, be familiar with the blues. The blues is the foundation for every major musical genre enjoyed in America today—rock, hip hop, RnB, country, folk, jazz—you name it. Its creators were slaves, ex-slaves, sharecroppers and indentured servants, and it is in many ways an evolution of African/African American spiritual music and field hollers. It is a genre of music that is shared by many, sung and played together, and it often tackles difficult subject matter like personal adversity and struggle.
Musically, the blues is simple, allowing the genre to be enjoyed by everyone—and it has stood the test of time. Let’s now take a look at how to play the basic 12 bar blues.
12 Bar Blues Structure
The title “12 Bar Blues” tells a musician a fair amount about how to build the chord progression. Bar means measure, so in this case, we are talking about a 12-measure chord progression.
We can then pick some root chord, and take another chord 4 scale degrees away, (called our IV chord) and one more 5 scale degrees away (our V chord) to give us the three chords needed to play the blues. That’s right, the 12 bar blues is really just a I-IV-V progression played in a predetermined (formulaic, if you will) way.
For example, if we wanted to play “blues in G,” we would start on a G chord (and it can be major, minor or dominant seventh in quality). We then take a chord of the same quality a perfect 4th away and then another a perfect 5th away, leaving us, in this case, with a G, C, and D chord. Again, we can play the blues with major, minor or dominant seventh chords. This relationship always remains the same, so we tend to just call the chords by their relative number: the I, IV, and V chords. Finally, we arrange these chords in the following 12 measure progression to give us the basic 12 bar blues:
| G | G | G | G |
| C | C | G | G |
| D | C | G | G |
Or, more generically, we can use roman numerals to talk about the same progression in any key:
| I | I | I | I |
| IV | IV | I | I |
| V | IV | I | I |
Take a few minutes to memorize this formula, and try it in a variety of different major, minor or dominant keys. You’ll likely hear a very familiar pattern—enjoy!