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  • Christian J. Triola

What is the 12-Bar Blues?

Updated: Apr 14

You've likely heard of the 12-bar blues, but do you know what is or how to use it? In this lesson, I'll give you everything you need to get started with the 12-bar blues, including an explanation of what it is, three variations of it, and you'll get a PDF to practice playing it on your own.

The 12-bar blues, as its name implies, is a 12 measure pattern of chords that originated with the blues. However, since then it has become a common chord progression found in all sorts of music. It is the primary sound found in early rock n’ roll; it’s found in jazz; it’s found in country, pop. If it’s a popular style of music, you can find examples of this chord progression being used.

So let’s take a look at what makes up a 12-bar blues. First, there are a few common variations, so we’ll start with the most basic and build from there. The basic 12-bar blues consists of 4 measures of the primary chord. Let’s use the chord “A” as an example. So measures 1-4 are the “A” chord. The next two measures use a chord four notes away. So if “A” is 1, “B” is 2, “C” is 3, and “D” is 4. Therefore, the next chord is “D.” After the “D” the “A” chord is played again for two more measures. The next two measures use a chord that is 5 notes away from the starting chord. Since “D” is 4, then “E” is 5. So the next two measures are “E.” Then for the final two measures, we return to the “A” chord once again.

For an example, download this PDF:

The first, and most common variation contains all the same elements, but the measure after the first “E” chord changes to the “D” chord for one measure before returning to the “A.” This variation is actually the most common version of the 12-bar blues.

The second variation is based on the first variation, but the final chord is an “E” chord, assuming that the whole pattern is going to be repeated. Since 12 measures is a very short song, the 12-bar blues pattern is repeated over and over again to create an entire song. That is when this variation is used.

The third variation makes its change in the first four bars. Since four measures is a long time to play one chord, the “D” chord is often substituted in measure 2, going back to the original “A” chord in measure 3. Usually this variation then contains the aforementioned variations as well. (But not always.)

Since this pattern of chords is relatively consistent, any chord can be the starting chord. Then to find the other two chords that make up the 12-bar blues, simply count up four to get the second chord (called the IV chord in general terms), and then count up five to get the third chord (called the V chord). So if we start with “C,” the IV chord would be “F,” and the V chord would be “G.”

One final note, in the blues it is common to make all three chords dominant seven chords. Sometimes only the V chord is a dominant seven chord, but it is just as common to see all of them as dominant seven chords. (Example A7, D7, and E7).

Once you understand how the 12-bar blues works, be sure to practice it in all 12 keys.

For practice download this PDF:

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