Blues music and the guitar truly go hand-in-hand. Since its meteoric rise in the 50s, the blues has influenced every guitar player in some way. Whether you’re into metal, soul, funk, or country – there’s blues DNA hidden in there.
The 12-bar structure sits at the heart and soul of blues music because it’s simple, effective, and catchy.
In this article, we’ll:
- Explain the rhythmic and harmonic structure
- Offer some tips for authentic blues solos
- Give some simple practice exercises
Grab your guitar and let’s get started!
What is the 12-bar blues structure?
‘12’ refers to the number of measures or ‘bars’ in the progression – these are simply groups of beats.
- In standard time (4/4) there are four beats in a bar.
- 12-bar blues, as the name suggests, consists of twelve bars of 4/4.
- The diagram below shows twelve blocks that each represent a bar.
- The slashes beneath each block represent the four, quarter note beats.
- We start with four bars of the I chord
- Followed by two bars of the IV chord
- Then back to the I chord for two bars
- We then play the V chord for one bar, immediately followed by the IV for one bar
- Finally, we finish the progression with two bars of the I chord
That all adds up to 12 bars of bluesy goodness. This progression usually repeats in a loop for the duration of the song.
Examples of 12-bar blues songs
Music is best learned by listening! Here are some iconic tracks that feature the 12-bar blues format:
Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry
Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
Out Of My Mind by John Mayer
12-bar blues chords
Some of you may be wondering what the roman numerals in each block mean. They simply indicate the chord for each bar:
- I – the one chord
- IV – the four chord
- V – the five chord
This number system is useful because it can be applied to any key. The chart below shows three common blues keys and how to find the I, IV, and V chord in each.
If someone asks you to play a I-IV-V progression in the key of A, you can use this system to figure out the chords:
- A = I chord
- D = IV chord
- E = V chord
Here’s how it looks in our 12-bar structure:
Make sure you memorize this structure – it’s really important to to feel the changes as opposed to needing to count each measure.
How to play the 12-bar blues on guitar
Let’s start off simple with single notes. Luckily, the notes on our lowest three strings happen to be E, A, and D – perfect for our I-IV-V in the key of A!
Hit every quarter note (four times per bar), and make sure you practice to a fixed tempo.
Use our free online metronome if you don’t have one to hand.
Open chord exercise
Hopefully, you’re already familiar with these basic open chords. Follow the exact same method as the previous exercise. If it’s too difficult at first, slow down – if it feels too easy, increase the tempo a little.
Is the 12-bar blues major or minor?
It can be both, it just depends on the key and the type of chords you use.
The dominant seventh chord is ubiquitous throughout blues music and this may be what leads to some confusion around major and minor – it’s kind of in between the two
Dominant seventh chords have a major 3rd and a minor 7th. This blurs the line between major and minor and allows us to explore unusual territory – like playing a minor pentatonic scale in a major key, or vice versa.
Check out our article on essential blues chords to learn how to construct and play them yourself.
How to solo over 12-bar blues
Ahh, those first shaky steps into the world of lead guitar. Nothing beats the feeling of nailing your first pentatonic lick over a blues track!
Step #1 – Learn the blues scale
If you already know the A minor pentatonic, this will be a breeze.
- All you need to do is add one extra note.
- The ‘blue’ note is the b5 – it adds drama by adding some tension and resolution.
- Make sure you really pay attention to how this note interacts with the underlying chords.
Step #2 – Understand the chord progression
We’ve scratched the surface of a 12-bar blues progression, but there’s still a lot to explore.
- Each note you play will have a different emotion depending on what chord it’s over.
- Once you understand how chords are constructed you can begin to outline ‘chord tones’.
- We can even change the feel of a chord by highlighting certain notes.
Step #3 – Keep it simple
Most of the great blues musicians weren’t alternate picking three-note-per-string lines at break-neck speed.
- Sometimes a simple melodic phrase played with heart is all it takes.
- Don’t rely on licks and scale patterns too much.
- Try to sing through your guitar – think of a phrase and then play it.
- This can take time to develop but it’s an invaluable skill.
Step #4 - Be a copycat!
There’s no shame in stealing a few licks from the legends – they probably took a thing or two from their guitar heroes too.
- Listen to as much blues music as you can to internalize the sounds and vibes.
- Pay close attention to expressive techniques like bends, slides, and vibrato – that’s where the secret sauce is!
- Learning to play tracks by your blues idols is a good way to study, just be sure to work on your own style too.
That’s plenty to get you moving on down the road. Just remember, if you end up at a crossroads, don’t make any deals with the devil 😈
Here’s a quick reminder of our main points:
- The 12-bar blues is an essential structure to memorize.
- I-IV-V is unversal way to describe a chord progression for any key.
- Dominant 7th chords blur the lines between major and minor.
- Add a b5 to the pentatonic to make your solos extra bluesy.
- Practice singing simple phrases and then playing them on the guitar.
If you want to give yourself a solid foundation in blues guitar, we recommend you start with our Blues Learning Pathway.
It’s perfect for beginners, with daily lessons, exercises, and personalized feedback. You can even try before you buy with our 14-day free trial.
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