The first thing to learn as a new blues guitarist is twelve bar blues.
Twelve bar blues is used in countless blues songs. And it shows up in nearly all styles of blues music. Get this structure into your bones and you’ll have some serious leverage in your playing.
Learn it once and you’ll use it forever.
In this lesson, we’ll cover the basics of twelve bar blues along with a few common variations.
Then, we’ll dig into a tune in the style of Bo Diddley’s, Before You Accuse Me.
Learn the Framework
Think of twelve bar blues as a framework, a structure that tells us what chords to play and when to play them.
The framework consists of twelve bars and each chord is played for a full bar.
The framework – with a few common variations we’ll discuss later – has been used in legendary blues songs like:
- Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson
- Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Before You Accuse Me by Bo Diddley
Let’s take a look at the basic 12 bar blues progression in the Key of E.
The grid below has twelve boxes, each representing a bar of the chord in the box.
Memorize this pattern of chord changes in the Key of E – later, we’ll cover how to play this pattern in any key.
Here’s an example of the progression using the blues shuffle rhythm.
Twelve bar blues is closely associated with the shuffle rhythm, but you can use any rhythm:
- strumming patterns,
- Texas boogie patterns,
- rock riffs, and even
- swinging jazz rhythms.
That’s what makes the framework so powerful: it’s easy to customize and apply it to a variety of styles.
Let’s look at a few common customizations on the standard twelve bar blues framework.
Modify the Standard Twelve Bar Blues Framework
A quick glance at the standard twelve bar blues grid reveals its main problem. It stays on the E chord for a long time.
Half of the progression is spent on one chord. While this can give other instruments time to develop longer melodies, it can get quite repetitive.
If you repeat the progression, you’ll play six bars on the E chord. That’s quite a long time to stay on one chord. Naturally, little adjustments emerged create a sense of movement.
Quick Change Blues
A common way to break things up is to change chords in bar two of the progression.
This is aptly called Quick Change Blues.
Changing the second bar from E to A gives the standard progression a bit of a lift.
You can hear quick change blues at work in Robert Johnson’s, Sweet Home Chicago.
But you also hear another popular variation in Sweet Home Chicago – the turnaround.
The Blues Turnaround
A turnaround’s sole job is to connect the end of the progression to the beginning. It’s the glue that connects the end to the beginning of the progression.
This happens regularly in the last two bars of a twelve bar blues progression. Although you could view the last four as part of the longer turnaround sequence, we’ll focus on the last two here.
The simplest turnaround is to add the B chord at the very end of the progression. In the Key of E, the B chord has a natural pull back to the E. This makes for a perfect link back to the beginning of the progression.
So an effective turnaround could simply be switching the B chord for the E in the final bar. Try it. It works.
But in the blues, the turnaround is an opportunity to get creative.
You’ll find licks, fancy chords and all kinds of creative things in turnarounds. It seems like each blues player has their unique spin on the turnaround. They’re fun to learn and you should absolutely collect a few great blues turnarounds in your arsenal.
Let’s start with a basic turnarounds.
Notice how this is structured – a descending chromatic line followed by a transition into the B chord.
But of course, the turnaround isn’t the only place that you can get creative and have a little fun within the blues progression.
Spice Up the Bars
Quick Change Blues and Turnarounds modify the structure of twelve bar blues. But we can add spice to the progression, but adding fun little elements within the framework.
A great way to do this is to add short licks and rhythmic tricks into the progression.
Micro Licks: Short Three to Four Note Licks that Pack a Punch
Over the years, I’ve collected several short three or four note licks that are perfect for twelve bar blues.
I call them microLicks and you can weave them into the rhythm to spice things up.
Try adding this simple lick at end of bars 2 and 4.
The Breath Stroke
This is a dead simple trick that feels like taking a breath in the rhythm. It’s a brief upstroke (fingerpickers can use a brush-up) in between the beat. It’s used to a wonderfully extreme effect in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, Pride and Joy. But try playing it just on the “and” of beat four.
Fancy Chord Tricks
Here’s a fantastic chord that I call the E chord collapse.
We effectively work in a brief moment of the A chord into our E bars by just collapsing and E chord so we barre at the 2nd fret across strings 4 – 2. Then stand your fingers back up to quickly return to the E chord. Try this on beat four like this:
You can hear a similar move in Pride and Joy.
How to Play a Twelve Bar Blues Tune in the Style of Before You Accuse Me
There are countless examples of Twelve Bar Blues songs in the Key of E.
Let’s create a jam modeled after Bo Diddley’s tune, Before You Accuse Me. This early Rock and Roll song is a direct descendent of the Blues and was famously covered by Eric Clapton and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
This is a shuffle style Quick Change Blues in the Key of E with a classy turnaround lick. We’ll throw in a few microLicks and cool chord moves throughout the progression.
Here’s the progression:
Practice changing the microLicks, add a few E Chord Collapses or change the turnaround to keep things fun and fresh as you repeat.
Repeat this progression several times and you’ve got a fully formed twelve bar blues song.
Simply put, you need to learn the structure of twelve bar blues. It’s a flexible framework for the blues.
But stop here and don’t just memorize this one chord progression.
Supercharge what you’ve just learned by learning how to play twelve bar blues in any key on the guitar.