Every guitarist – regardless of what their stylistic interest are – should learn how to play the 12 bar blues and understand how the form works.
Many rock and roll and country songs share a similar format, since they are basically derivatives of the blues. So when you understand the 12 bar blues, your understanding of music, chord progressions and song structure also deepens.
On top of that, the blues provides a great foundation for jamming. Any guitarist worth their salt knows how to jam and improvise on the blues. It’s a kind of universal language, so even when you meet a player you don’t know, odds are you’ll be able to find some common ground with the blues.
Here is an explanation of how to play the 12 bar blues on the guitar.
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The Relationship Between Notes And Chords
You may have overheard musicians talking about the “first”, “fourth” and “fifth” before. If not, you’ll appreciate the simple explanation that follows.
You might recall the major scale, which features seven distinct notes. In the key of E, they would be: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, and D#.
Every note in the scale has a number and a chord attached to it. There’s nothing confusing or special about the numbering. E would be 1, F# would be 2, G# would be 3, and so forth. You don’t need to know why the notes are numbered that way – you just need to know that they are.
As for chords, the major scale always follows this formula: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. This would mean that the first (E), fourth (A), and fifth (B) are all major chords.
In a lead sheet or chart, these chords are usually represented by roman numerals, like so: I, IV, V.
The blues relies heavily on these specific chords, as they form the foundation of the 12 bar blues.
The 12 Bar Blues Form
Here’s a chart that represents the 12 bar blues form:
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
V IV I
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
You should have a basic working knowledge of what this means, but just in case, I’ll explain how it works.
A “bar” refers to a measure, typically lasting for four beats. So if you were playing the blues in the key of E, you would play E (I) for four whole bars, A (IV) for two, E (I) for two, B (V) for one, A (IV) for one, and E (I) for two (the final two bars sometimes become their own entity known as the “turnaround”). In the blues, these same 12 bars are often repeated until the very end of the song.
That's why it's called the “12 bar blues.” Once you know how the changes happen, there's nothing more to learn about the structure of the song!
Naturally, the chords would be different in another key signature. For instance, in the key of C, the I, IV and V chords would be C, F and G.
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Playing The 12 Bar Blues
The blues is more than just strumming chords, although sometimes dominant chords are used in place of a typical “chuga-chuga” riff.
But we all have to start somewhere, so here is an example of a chuga-chuga riff you would play in place of your E, A, and B chords:
Admittedly, that B riff can be a little tricky. If you can’t make the stretch, don’t worry about trying to get that sixth fret in there for now. You can just keep playing it like a power chord.
But rhythmically, there’s still a bit of a problem here. What we just played is closer to rock and roll than the blues. This is because the blues isn’t played to a typical 4/4 meter. As I said earlier, most music is built on a four-beat per bar form.
The blues uses a 12/8 meter instead. The notes need to be “swung.”
This problem can be solved by giving the same example a “triplet feel.” First, let’s take a look, and then I will explain how this works.
As you can see, the only thing that has changed is the tempo marker, which also indicates that eighth notes are to be played with a triplet feel, in this case long-short iterations.
This rhythmic pattern is the foundation of the blues. You need to keep alternating between long, short, long, short, long, short, long short, and so on.
The best thing you can do for yourself at this stage is to go and listen to a blues song like Eric Clapton’s “Blues Before Sunrise.“ This will give you a better idea of how the rhythmic pattern works, since it can be hard to describe with words.
Putting It All Together
Remember the chart from before that showed when and where to play the I, VI, and V chords?
I’ve created a full 12 bar example that follows this exact format. Let’s take a look:
As you can see, we’re using E as our I chord, A as our IV chord, and B as our V chord. Blues on the guitar is often in the key E, because it gives you easy access to open note licks and box patterns for lead guitar.
Now you should have a pretty solid idea of how to play the 12 bar blues. There are other nuances beyond the points we’ve covered here, like turnarounds, that are worth getting into. For the sake of this lesson, I’ve tried to keep things simple, but feel free to dive deeper into the blues on your own time.
When it comes right down to it, playing the blues on guitar isn’t that hard. It’s just that there are a lot of little things you need to be aware of.
Getting the swing rhythm down can take time, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t “feel” it right away. Try jamming with other musicians, or find a jam track that you can play along to.
The rhythm is what makes the blues distinctive, which is why it’s so important to learn it.
Give it some time, and pretty soon you will be jamming with other players everywhere you go. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to speak that “universal language” without knowing anything about your fellow jammers.