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12 Bar Blues: Chords, Pattern & Examples

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  • 0:04 What are 12-Bar Blues?
  • 0:49 12-Bar Chords
  • 1:50 Variations
  • 2:27 Examples
  • 3:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

As a musical framework, 12-bar blues allows musicians without prior musical interaction to play together. This lesson shows you how to make a 12-bar blues pattern and provides some examples of famous musicians who used this chord progression.

What are 12-Bar Blues?

You're at your favorite establishment, listening to a group play, when all of a sudden, its guitar player gets sick. Show's over, right? As you've brought along your guitar, the group asks you to sit in. But how can you possibly sit in with the band if you've never played its songs? No worries, this is a blues band, and fortunately for you, this American musical genre has a very standard framework: the 12-bar blues. Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future said: 'This is a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up.'

We can define 12-bar blues as a standardized chord progression commonly used in the genre, and that doesn't place too much emphasis on key and tempo. A bar is another word for a measure, which is the grouping of notes between two bar lines that rhythmically fulfills the time signature of a piece.

12-Bar Chords

In general, 12-bar blues follow a simple I-IV-V chord progression, or a group of chords that is repeated. The Roman numerals correspond to the scale degrees each chord is built upon. So, if your blues piece was in the key of C, the I would denote the C, the IV would represent the F and the V would signify the G chords. Often, the chords are played as 7th chords, meaning you would add the flatted 7th note above the bottom note of the chord, leading to a C7, F7 and G7 chord.

Bar Progression

Progressions in the 12-bar blues are organized into three 4-bar sections: four bars of the I chord, two bars each of the IV and I chords and two bars each of the V and I chords, as show below:

  • I, I, I, I
  • IV, IV, I, I
  • V, V, I, I

Now, this sequence doesn't mean you only play the chord one time per bar. The harmonic rhythm, or the speed at which you change chords, is determined by the tempo and style of the blues. It's why McFly said to watch him for the changes.

Variations

Obviously, not all blues use this simple progression. For example, variations include changing the second V chord to an IV chord, or the shuffle blues. You can also make each chord a 7th chord for more of a jazz feel, so you'd have I7, IV7 and V7 chords. Other simple variations include a quick IV chord, where the second I chord is replaced by an IV chord, or a minor blues variation, which uses corresponding minor key chords like i, iv and v. Here, lower case Roman numerals represent the minor chords. More complex variations include bebop blues progressions, which are beyond the scope of this lesson.

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