Before you start crafting extended guitar solos, before you learn to play your guitar behind your head and long before you make your first deal at the crossroads, you must learn the 12 bar blues progression. And don’t just learn the chords. Learn the feel, the pulse, the groove.
If you want to play the blues, this is the absolute first step.
I want to take my blues playing to daring new places, but its hard to reach new heights if you aren’t standing on firm ground. Learning the 12 bar blues progressions (or blues march as it is sometimes called) should be one of the first things you learn as an aspiring blues musician. It becomes part of the foundation of everything else that follows.
12 Bar Blues
The 12 bar blues progression is the framework that so much of the blues is built upon. From stripped down acoustic sound of the Delta blues to the very electric Chicago blues sound, tons of blues music is based on 12 bar blues progressions. It is a very familiar sound. A sound that screams ‘blues’ the second its heard.
So, how do you play the progression on the guitar?
Start by picking a key to play in. Let’s go with E major, a very guitar-friendly key. The chords that you will need to be familiar with will be the I chord, the IV chord and the V chord. In the key of E…
I = E major
IV = A major
V = B major
Note: If you are unsure what these crazy Roman numerals are and how they relate to music, check out the upcoming lesson on Roman Numeral Analysis.
Now that we have the chords, we simply plug them into the 12 bar blues formula which looks like this:
Now that we know what chords to play and when to play, its important to know how to play them. Just strumming the chords for the whole progression is not quite bluesy enough. Watch my video lesson on the blues march to pick up on some of the subtleties of playing this including altering each chord with a simple one-finger move that really brings out the blues.
Stay tuned to see how small alterations to this basic pattern can spice up your rhythm playing and keep your blues repertoire sounding fresh.
Want to Go Deeper?
BGI’s Premium Course on How to Get Started Playing the Blues dives deep into each element introduced in this quick lesson.
The multi-video course also shows you how to use the formula to play the progression in any key. And to get the most mileage possible from these 12 bars, the course shows you how to tweak a bar here and there for big results.
The lesson is complete with PDF and GuitarPro TAB files. If you’re interested in getting a solid foundation in 12 bar blues, check out the course here:
How to Get Started Playing the Blues
Best of luck to you!