How to Play the 12 Bar Blues on Guitar

This is a guest post by Matt Warnock from Guitar Player Daily. Today, Matt will be talking with us about how to play the 12 bar blues on guitar.

The 12-bar blues is one of the most common chord progression in traditional blues music, jazz, country, rock, pop, funk and almost every other genre of modern music. The simplicity of the chords and the easy to follow form of the 12-bar blues have made it a favorite songwriting, and soloing, vehicle for guitarists as diverse as Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, Pat Metheny and Slash. By learning to recognize the basic form of the 12-bar blues, and which chords make up this form, we will be well on our way to jamming along with some of our favorite songs and artists.

The Form

The 12-bar blues chord progression is exactly that, a 12-bar long song that has origins in American blues music. In order to better understand the overall form of the 12-bar blues we will break it down into three sections of four bars a piece.

The first four bars of the basic blues form contains one chord, the tonic, or I7 as it is often written. The tonic chord shares the same letter name as the key of the blues. If the blues is in the key of A than the tonic chord is A7, if the blues is in the key of E than the tonic chord is E7, and so on.

Here is how the first four bars of an A blues looks like.

Fig. 1

Figure 1

The second four bars of a basic blues progression contain two chords, the IV7 chord and the I7 chord. The IV7 chord is easy to find on the guitar once we know where the tonic note of the blues is on the 6th string. The root of the IV7 chord will always be on the same fret as the tonic note, but on the 5th string. For example, in an A blues the tonic note is on the 5th fret of the 6th string. To find the IV7 chord, simply look on the 5th fret of the 5th string, which is the note D. Therefore the IV7 chord in an A blues is D7.

Here is how the second four bars on an A blues looks like.

Fig. 2

Figure 2

The last four bars of the basic 12-bar blues contain two chords, the V7 chord and the I7. Once we have found the IV7 chord, finding the V7 chord is easy, it will always be two frets higher than the IV7 chord. For example, we just learned that in an A blues the IV7 chord is D7. From the note D, 5th fret on the 5th string, count up two frets and that’s the V7 chord, in this case the note E, 7th fret of the 5th string.

Here is how the last four bars of a basic 12-bar blues would look in the key of A.

Fig. 3

Figure 3

Now that we have broken down the three sections of the 12-bar blues we can put them all together and play through the tune. Here is the 12-bar blues chord progression in the key of A.

Fig. 4

Figure 4

Common Variations

Once we have learned the basic chord progression for the basic 12-bar blues, we can look at two common variations that occur in the first and third sections of the tune. Often times the 12-bar blues will contain a IV7 chord in the second bar. The additional IV7 chord is used to add extra chord movement to the first four bars, which can sometimes sound stagnant with only the I7 chord.

Here is how the first four bars of an A blues would look like with the new IV7, D7, chord added in bar 2.

Fig. 5

Figure 5

The second common variation we find in the 12-bar blues occurs in the last four bars. To add more chord movement we can add a IV7 chord in the second bar of the section, and a V7 chord in the last bar. Here is how the new chords would look in the last four bars of a blues in A.

Fig. 6

Figure 6

After we can play the basic chord progression, and two variations, in the key of A, try taking it into different keys. Most guitarists will favor the “sharp” keys, ones that have sharps in the key signature such as E, D, G and B, so these can be good keys to start with. Learning to recognize the I7, IV7 and V7 chords in these keys can be an invaluable resource for guitarists wanting to play in any style of modern music.

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.