Essential Blues Lessons Part One: The 12-bar

Our brand-new tuition series will teach you how to become a better blues-guitar player, but you won’t get anywhere without an understanding of the basics. Join us as we teach you how to truly get to grips with that most essential of blues concepts: the 12-bar…

Eric Clapton is so synonymous with the chord progression, the recent documentary about him was titled 'Life In 12 Bars'. Credit: Getty Images

If you’re a fan of the blues and play the guitar – let’s face it, that’s most of us – you’ll have almost certainly heard the term ‘12-bar blues’. But what exactly is it? The 12-bar is a chord progression, and its cycling pattern is the heart and soul of blues music. Most blues guitarists through the ages have leaned on this 12-bar concept to create the backbone for their songs, and everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to BB King, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan have used it as a foundation upon which to build their hits.

The blues in its most familiar form only requires three chords. As with most theoretical ideas in music, we’ll be calling on the major scale to give us the chords to work with. This lesson will be in the key of A, so we’ll be using the A major scale to obtain the chords we need. What we’re looking for here is to pull out the three chords that give the blues its familiar, repeating progression.

You may have heard of this term before, but what we’re going to play is also known as the ‘I-IV-V’ chord progression. In our case, as we’re in the key of A, it will be:

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If we want to play a blues in the key of A, all we need are these chords. Using the interval number, the chords will fit into our 12-bar structure as follows. This will be the structure for not only this lesson, but the roadmap to everything you will see on your blues journey:

If we apply the I, IV and V chords we took from the major scale earlier in the lesson, we can populate our 12-bar chart as follows:

This 12-bar progression now forms our blues track. You can repeat that progression as you see fit, with whatever rhythmic and chordal choices you feel appropriate. The 12-bar blues is a very open-ended style of playing: once you know the formula, you’ll be able to adapt it in many different ways by changing the rhythm, substituting chords for other chord types and embellishing the rhythmic parts with lead accompaniments.

To get a feel for the progression, take the chords you find (in the case of this lesson, A, D and E) and play them as either major chords or just powerchords.

Keep the rhythm simple, play in 4/4 time and play one strum per beat. This will help you get a feel for the pattern and how it moves through the different chord changes. Even playing it with simplified rhythms should instil the familiar sound of the blues in your ears.

Muddy Waters creatively extended the 12-bar-blues formula. His version of Willie Dixon’s ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’ is an example of a 16-bar blues. Credit: Getty Images

Try it for yourself

To put this into practice, try to find your I, IV and V chords in other keys. In the next lesson, we’ll start to look at the rhythms commonly found in blues music, and then put it all together to turn these three chords into a fully fledged blues track!

About the author: Leigh Fuge is a guitar teacher and professional musician from Swansea in the UK with over 10 years of experience. He’s taught hundreds of students face-to-face and via the MGR Music platform. To find a qualified guitar tutor in your area, visit mgrmusic.com.

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