Without the 12-bar blues, we wouldn’t have rock ‘n’ roll… or, come to think of it, much of the Western music we have today! In this episode of the Musicality Podcast, we’ll look at the simple chord progression that comprises the 12-bar blues, how to play it in any key, and how the 12-bar blues can be used as a powerful songwriting tool (and not just by blues musicians!).

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Today we’re going to be talking about the “12-bar blues”. This was mentioned in our recent interview with Bill Hilton, author of How to Really Play the Piano – but what we’ll discuss today matters whether or not you play piano – or blues!

You may have heard of the “12 bar blues” before and have a vague idea of what it is. In this episode I’m going to talk about what exactly it is, where you’ll hear it, and why it’s worth knowing about, even if you don’t like the blues.

What it is

The “12-bar blues” is a simply a particular chord progression which is 12 bars long.

It’s helpful to think of it as being arranged into 3 lines, each of 4 bars.

It uses just the I, IV and V chords – and if you don’t know what I mean by that please check out episode 33 about the “one, four, five and six” chords. It actually tends to use the V7 chord instead of the plain V, which just means that it adds a fourth note to the chord, which is note seven above the root. For simplicity I’m going to be saying just “five” as I continue, but keep in mind it’s normally actually a 7th chord, not a regular major chord like the I and the IV.

For example, if we’re in C Major, then our three chords for the 12-bar blues are going to be:
– C Major: C, E and G
– F Major: F, A and C
– G7: G, B, D and F

The 12-bar blues is just a progression which uses these chords in a particular order.

If we think in terms of those three lines of four bars I mentioned, then:
– Our first line is just four bars of the I chord.
– Our second line is two bars of the IV chord followed by two bars of the I chord.
– And our third line is the V chord, the IV chord, then two bars of the I chord

In fact that last chord is often changed to a V because it creates a nice turnaround for the repeat, so that last line becomes V, IV, I, V.

Let’s listen to an example of that. As you listen, think through: I I I I, IV IV I I, V IV I V

[ AUDIO EXAMPLE ]

That was a simple piano arrangement. Let’s listen to something with a bit more instrumentation.

[ AUDIO EXAMPLE ]

As you’ll remember from episode 27 on “finding chords in scales”, thinking in terms of numbers means you can easily think about and recognise this same progression in any key.

So our C Major example would be:

C, C, C, C
F, F, C, C
G7, F, C, G7

If we wanted a 12-bar in A Major that would instead become:

A, A, A, A
D, D, A, A
E7, D, A, E7

So that’s what the 12-bar blues is. And it probably sounded familiar to you when I played an example a moment ago, because it crops up all over the place.

So where will you hear it?

Well, from the name you’ve probably guessed, there’s a strong association with blues music. If you listen to old-school blues like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, you’ll hear a lot of songs that simply follow this 12-bar progression. Songs like Sweet Home Chicago, Hoochie Coochie Man, and Messin’ with the Kid.

But as one of the many ways blues influenced early rock music, the 12-bar progression also made its way into rock. You hear it in rock-and-roll classics like Great Balls of Fire, Johnny B. Goode, Rock around the Clock, Blue Suede Shoes – and also tracks by blues-influenced rockers like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

I’ll put a link in the shownotes to a playlist with all these examples and more.

Once you get to know the 12-bar blues it’s easy to spot it in music and it becomes a great case study for tuning your ear in to recognising chords by ear in the music you hear each day.

Why it’s worth knowing about, even if you don’t like blues

So I touched there on one reason it’s worth getting familiar with the 12-bar blues, even if you’re not a blues fan and even if you never play blues music. And that’s because it’s a really elegant example of a I-IV-V progression, and one you can easily practice recognising in real music.

I love the 12-bar because it’s about as simple as you can get with a chord progression while still being interesting. It tells a little musical story:

  • We start out with four bars of the I chord. This is the home chord and it feels relaxed and stable and there’s not much going on
  • Then in the second line we move to the IV chord. That still sounds pretty comfortable but it’s a definite move and we can feel it return to the I after two bars. We’re back home – that could be the end of it – but instead…
  • In line three we move to the V7 chord, the epitome of tension. This is the peak of the story, and it feels good to move to the IV chord which relaxes things a little, and then back home safe to the I chord. If we throw in the V7 as the last chord too we reintroduce that tension and it builds excitement to repeat the whole thing again

When you get familiar with this it gives you a way to start getting to know those three chords and their roles, and helps you spot them and those transitions from one to another, even if they occur outside of the 12-bar structure. For example you get to know what it sounds like to go from I to V7, creating that tension – and what it’s like to go from V7 to IV to I, gradually releasing the tension.

The 12-bar blues is also a great playground for learning to improvise. In episode 21 we talked about chord tones and how choosing your improvised notes based on the current chord can help you create tension and release, making your solos more musical. The 12-bar blues is a great progression for practicing that with, as you get a chance to see which notes from the major or pentatonic scale fit well with each chord in the progression. And that story we talked about, where the V or V7 is the peak of tension and interest – that gives you a natural structure to base your own solo’s musical story around.

The last thing I’d say about the 12-bar blues is that it’s also a good playground for exploring writing lyrics and melodies. A lot of 12-bar blues songs will use a fixed AAB pattern for the lyrics, meaning that if we think about that division of the 12 bar into 3 4-bar sections, there are three lines to the lyrics, and the first two are just the same. You’ll immediately know what I mean if I give you an example like:

I woke up this morning, and went and played my guitar
I woke up this morning, and went and played my guitar
But when I played it this morning, I could only play the 12-bar.

That lyric structure may seem over-used and formulaic, but as we’ve talked about on this show before and as we teach inside Musical U, when it comes to creative tasks like improvising and songwriting, having constraints can actually make it far *easier* to be creative and find new ideas.

So if you’re working on writing songs, challenging yourself to write a new and interesting 12-bar blues can be a great way to stretch yourself in a new direction.

So that’s the 12-bar blues. Now you know what it is, what it sounds like, and a few reasons you might want to get to know it better, whether you’re a blues fan or not. Check out the shownotes for this episode at musicalitypodcast.com to listen to more examples of songs in different genres using a 12-bar blues progression and try including some 12-bar blues in your own musical life too!

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