Building the 12 Bar Blues Progression

Lesson ID: FC000-002

Before you start crafting extended guitar solos, before you learn to play guitar behind your head and long before you make your first deal at the crossroads, you must learn the 12 bar blues progression.

Build a solid foundation in 12 bar blues and everything else becomes easier.

What is 12 Bar Blues?

In short, 12 bar blues is a repeating pattern of chords spanning 12 bars in musical time.

The pattern, or progression, serves as a framework of the blues and has been used in countless blues songs from the stripped down acoustic sound of the Delta blues to the electric Chicago blues sound.  It’s important.

Playing 12 Bar Blues on the Guitar

In order to play the 12 bar blues progression on the guitar, you’ll first need to select a key to play. In this lesson, we will play in the Key of A. Then you’ll need to know how to play the shuffle rhythm over A, D and E.

(Note:  These three chords aren’t random, they are the I, IV and V chord in the Key of A.  Click here to learn more about this).

Next, we’ll assign each of these chords to specific spots in the 12 bar sequence, each lasting a bar.  There are variations that we’ll discuss later, but the gold standard 12 bar blues formula in A, looks like this:


Each block in the grid above represents a bar. Each chord in the block means that you’ll play the shuffle for that chord for the entire bar.

Based on the grid about, you can see that you’ll play four bars of the A shuffle follwed by 2 bars of the D shuffle, 2 more bars of the A shuffle, a bar of the E shuffle, a bar of the D shuffle and finally 2 bars of the A shuffle.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Repetition is key in learning the 12 bar blues progression. You need to know this pattern of chords cold. In other words, your goal is to learn this so well that you can play the entire 12 bar progression without thinking about it.

The best way to get to this point is to practice playing the basic 12 bar blues pattern over and over.

Twelve bars can be a lot to track when you’re jamming with friends or performing for others. You never want to forget your place in the music. So, I encourage you to count aloud when you practice this chord progression.

For now, get comfortable with the chord changes, but aim for this becoming second nature.

What’s Up Ahead

Once you have a command of the 12 bar blues progression, the next step is to dress it up a bit. This is where things get fun.

There are many tweaks, licks or chord substitutions to the standard progression that can be made. In the next lesson, we’ll focus on two very important elements of a great blues song:

The intro and the turnaround.

Practice Hard. Play On.

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