The Basics Of The 12 Bar Blues

By Ken K – Littleton Guitar School

The blues is one of the most influential genres today and contains some of the passions of some of greatest guitarists of all times. It is also an unfortunately overlooked genre of music by many new guitarists these days.

The beauty of the blues is its simplicity. Many blues songs commonly used what is called a “twelve bar blues” chord progression. This kind of progression lends itself easily to the improvisation of musicians while being widely known and understood by many as a quick way to start a jam between new musicians.

This progression, as one could guess, is twelve measures long. These measures usually contain only three chords, hence the simplicity. Those chords are the I, the IV, and the V of the respective key that is being played. While there are many variations to the blues progression, a very common variation is the I is played for the first four measures, followed by two measures of the IV, back to the I for two measures, then one measure of the V, one measure of the IV, then finishing with two measures of the I again, then rinse and repeat.

An example of this progression in the key of E looks like this: I = E, IV = A, V = B

Sometimes the last two measures of the progression are replaced with what is called a turnaround, or a phrase that signals the end of the progression that returns to the root chord of the key. Also, often times the chords are played as power chords and with a rhythm that is referred to as a shuffle. This means that the rhythm is played with an almost triplet feel. These are just a few examples of the many different alterations that can be made to the progression to make it unique.

Learning this progression may seem easy or boring, but the doors it opens for a group of musicians is vast. The same progression doesn’t have to sound anything alike. Listen to “Crossroads” by Cream and “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn. Both sound very different, where “Crossroads” is a cover of an older blues song, covered by Cream with a more rock and roll feel to it, and “Pride and Joy” being a notorious example of Texas blues, but both use the same chord intervals. Understanding this concept will open the door for aspiring musicians of any genre, as being able to manipulate rhythm and feel of chords is an invaluable skill. On top of all of that, the twelve bar blues chord progression is one of the best places to start when learning how to improvise. It is easy to memorize the chord changes and find chord tones to fit them, as well as experimenting with bluesy bends and licks.

The twelve bar blues chord progression is an essential progression in the history of not only blues music, but rock, country, and many others. Learning it, and its many applications to the world of music can only make you a better musician so start now!

Ken K is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher who lives in Denver, Colorado where helps students enjoy learning to play the guitar. If you, or someone you know is looking for guitar lessons in Littleton, Highlands Ranch, Centennial, Lone Tree or other southwest suburbs of Denver, CO contact Ken!