Blues Guitar Institute

Play Video

How to Play Blues Turnarounds in Any Key

Lesson ID: TB296

The turnaround is the coolest part of the blues progression.

It’s the moment you get to break free of the groove and show your stuff. For a full 10 bars, you’re locked in and chugging along with the rhythm. Then, for the final two bars, you break away and play something entirely different. That’s the important job of the turnaround and it’s the most fun part of the progression!

Learning classic turnarounds is essential, but you can supercharge them by learning how to play them in any key,

That’s what this lesson is all about.

Let’s get started with this Sweet Home Chicago-style turnaround.

Changing the Key of the Sweet Home Chicago-Style Turnaround

Let’s start by having a look at one of the most iconic blues turnarounds in the Key of E.

Remember that the turnaround takes place in Bar 11 and 12 which is normally where we play the I chord (E in this key). We’ll embellish the E chord until the end of Bar 12 where we visit the V chord (B7). This creates tension that pulls the progression back to the start.

Wondering what all this I Chord, V Chord business is about? Check out this lesson on Roman Numeral Analysis. 👇🏻

This structure is very common for blues turnarounds. Keep this structure in mind as we move this turnaround into another key.

We could move this to any key as long as we maintain the structure.

For our example, let’s move this into C#. While C# isn’t the most common key for blues, it makes for great practice. If you can change into this key, the rest will be a breeze!

Here’s one way to do it:

Count the notes ascending from E until you arrive at C#, and you’ll have the number of half steps between the two notes. There are 9 half-steps between these two notes and since a half step is one-fret on the guitar, we need to move the turnaround up 9 frets.

This is the most straightforward way of moving the turnaround (or anything) to another key. Count the half steps between the starting and ending note and move that same number of frets.

Here’s the result:

In Example 1, E is our I chord. When we change the key to C#, we need to move our I chord up to C#. Everything from the turnaround in E will shift since the target has shifted to C# instead of E.

We’ve focused on moving the notes on the top three strings only to simplify this first example. Use the same process to move the entire turnaround, including the walk-up and full chords using the same process (Example 1b).

Now, let’s look at a very popular modification of that turnaround.

Add a Pedal Tone to the Basic Turnaround

This turnaround is very similar to the previous example, but we’ll use the open first string as a pedal tone.

A pedal tone is where one note repeats against the others in the passage. In our case, pluck the open E and let it ring over the descending line played on the 3rd and 2nd strings.

Like before, we’ll move this turnaround into the Key of C# and we’ll use the same method to do so. Remember there are 9 half-steps between these two keys so we can move the entire fingering up 9 frets.

But as we move each note up 9 frets, we encounter a very difficult stretch from the 13th fret, 3rd string to the 9th fret, 1st string. Let’s workaround that.

Move the C# note (9th fret, 1st string) to the 14th fret, 2nd string to avoid the stretch. You won’t get the C# ringing out over the descending line like you do with the open string, but it sounds cool in it’s own way.

Pro Tip:  There’s always a workaround!

Now, let’s have a look at our last example from the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson’s Turnaround in A

This turnaround comes from Johnson’s, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues. While it’s right at home in the Key of A, we can extend it into any key like we did with the previous turnarounds.

Here’s the turnaround:

Click here to learn the Simplified Robert Johnson Turnaround in A.

Let’s dive into the structure of this one.

Like Example 2, we pedal the root note on the first string, which in this case is an A note.  Then we walk down the 4th string chromatically for the rest of the measure. Like before, we will punctuate the second measure with the V chord, E or E7.

Now, let’s move this into our example key, C# by counting the half-steps and moving the shape. There are 4 half-steps between A and C# so let’s move everything up 4 frets.

We start with the C# on the 9th fret, 1st string and the 4th string, 9th fret. Then, walk down the 4th string chromatically.

Follow up by strumming through the V chord, G#7.  In Example 3a, I used a simplified voicing of the V chord by only using a few notes from the chord. If you want a bigger sound, try strumming through barre chords like in Example 3b.

Let’s Recap

You’ve learned that you can play these classic blues turnarounds in any key on the guitar and you’ve learned a simple method to move them into any key. This makes them useful beyond the usual keys of E and A.

Remember that occasionally moving things around the fretboard can cause uncomfortable stretches. When that happens, look for an alternative. There is almost always a workaround for any part on the guitar.

Test yourself by taking your favorite turnaround and moving it into a random key. Can you move the classic turnarounds into Bb? How about G#?

With purposeful practice, you’ll be able to do this on the fly with confidence.

It takes time, but it’s worth the work.

Good luck!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

Subscribe to Tuesday Blues​

Join 14,000 Tuesday Blues subscribers for weekly lessons.  You’ll get strategies, tips and tutorials to help you play better blues guitar.

    Hey, Before You Go...


    Unlock the fretboard so you can play great blues guitar.