Guitar - Playing The Twelve Bar Blues

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By Tim Gillespie

To begin our study of the twelve bar blues we are going to work out of the key of E major. I made this decision based on the location of the fifth or power chord I want to work from. Anything we do today can easily be transposed to another key on the fly. This stuff is actually pretty simple.

So here are the chords we are going to use. They are the E major, A major and B major.

Notice we are going to work out of the open string area. Also notice the B major is the same form as the A major, it is just moved up two frets. The open string notes in the A major are played as a barre chord in the B major. Sliding between these two chords fits very nicely.

These chords comprise the one, four and five degrees of a major key. This is the I-IV-V (1, 4, 5) progression.

When we play the rhythm using the E major chord, we are going to start by playing the fifth instead of the full chord. The fifth is the second diagram with only the E and B notes. Play the B note with your second finger. Go ahead and play those two notes if you want to try it. Notice you get the full bodied sound. Now try playing the open E and C# notes (a sixth). Play the C# note with your third finger and the B note with your index finger.

We are going to do the same thing with A major. Now we are going to play the E note with the index finger and the F# note with the third finger.

Timing. Count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & for each measure. Each box below is a measure. I have kept this piece simple because we are more concerned with getting familiar with this progression. Usually you polish the piece much later in the process. Making it sound so polished might make someone think that is how it always sounds when in fact the song can be somewhat rough until everything is recorded several times and mixed down. So don't worry if your progression is a little rough at first. If you play this about 200 times you will develop a better feel for it.

Bar 1 - One Chord -E Major Bar 2 - One Chord -E Major Bar 3 - One Chord -E Major Bar 4- One Chord -E Major

Bar 5 - Four Chord - A Major Bar 6 - Four Chord - A Major Bar 7- One Chord - E Major Bar 8 - One Chord - E Major

Bar 9 - Five Chord - B Major Bar 10 - Four Chord - A Major Bar 11 - One Chord -E Major Bar 12 - Five Chord - B Major

So the progression is;
4 bars of the tonic chord.
2 bars of the subdominant chord
2 bars of the tonic chord.
1 bar of the dominant chord.
1 bar of the subdominant chord.
1 bar of the tonic chord.
1 bar of the dominant chord. This is called the turn around because it sets the progression up to repeat.

Click on the icon to hear twelve bars of the blues.


So this progression is only three chords with a few quick changes in the final four bars. I often switch between playing the fifths (power chords) and the full chord. You can do this whenever you want, but if you play this enough you will see there are opportune times for each type of chord. Experiment with this and see what you like.


Although we are not going to look at lead lines this month, I would like to point out that the E major scale will work very well with these chords. Hammer ons with the high E and B strings work nicely too. Just make sure you hammer the notes of E major. If you hit notes outside of the key of E major, you will hear it and you may not like it. You can easily substitute pentatonic scales for the diatonic scale of E major. As usual start slowly and concentrate on note selection, not speed.

Chord Substitutions

There are two different ways to think about substitutions. First, you can use the same chords only in different positions. For instance let's look at different chords of the same type.

When the second twelve bars come around, consider climbing up to this E major chord (second chord) instead of the open string E major. You can let the low open E string ring out when you play this.

When you transition to the A chord, try going all the way back down to the open string A, only go right into playing the fifths.

These two substitutions are straightforward. They are particularly useful when you hit the turn around in bar twelve. Try using these higher chords with the open string chords and fifths to create a more interesting progression. With these small changes you can create enough interest to mask the general progression and to cause the listener to pay attention.



Seventh Chords

This series of substitutions can change the entire feeling of the progression. These are substitutions that I use regularly because they inject a level of sophistication I find appealing. I strongly suggest you experiment with these because they present a marvelous opportunity to understand how a seventh chord can alter the sound.

Substitute the E 7 for the E major. Start out by strumming these chord instead of the E major. You can still use the fifths but you won't hear the differences this chord injects. So at first, just strum the chords.

Substitute the A 7 for the A major. By the time you hit this chord, the differences in the feeling of the progression should be obvious. The jazzy feeling of seventh chords is unmistakable. You can also substitute this seventh chord to the right.

Substitute the B 7 for the B major. The substitutions are a little harder to play since the fingerings are more complex.

With these chords you can change the feeling of the progression, mix the distance between chords and jump into a higher or lower octave. These options are quite varied and if you choose wisely you should be able to keep the interest level high.

So there you have it, a basic introduction to the twelve bar blues. This is just the beginning. This concept can be applied to any key under all sorts of conditions. The one thing the twelve bar blues have in common is the sound. With a little ear training, you will recognize this signature sound in all sorts of music.

The more you play this, the better it will sound. Have fun.