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12 Bar Blues Progression

If you want to get the hang of playing the blues guitar and other instruments used in blues, you must learn the 12 bar blues progression. 

It is the fundamental foundation of blues music. It has been the natural go-to since the beginning of the genre, and it is the base structure of several iconic blues songs today. 

Before Learning the 12 Bar Blues Progression

Before we begin, you should consider three standard chord progressions when it comes to playing the blues. They are the starting point for the blues. Mastering the three chord progressions will make it easy for you to learn a ton of blues songs, as well as create your own. 

If you’re starting out playing the blues, we’ll give you much-needed insight about the fundamental key concepts you’d need to stay on the right track. We’ll also help you outline the blues structure and theory and teach you how to infuse the knowledge into your play. 

First things first, take a look at the framework of the 12 bar blues and learn how it all works together: 

The 12 Bar Blues: How It Works 

In the blues, the 12 bar blues is the most popular chord progression. Renowned blues musicians were famous for using the progression since the start of the 20th century, especially during the Swing Era in the 1930s and 40s and the Rock’ n’ Roll years of the 1950s.

Many hit songs use the 12 bar blues, including “The Thrill Is Gone,” “In the Mood,” “One O’Clock Jump,” “Pride and Joy,” and many more. 

To use more technical terminology, the 12 bar blues is a progression of chords that lasts for 12 bars. These bars are also called measures, and they play repetitively throughout the song. 

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Typically, three chords make up the blues chord progression. To paint a clearer picture, the 12 bar blues are centered around the I, IV, and V chords of whichever given key. 

To better understand what the I, IV, and V chords are all about and how they work, we’ll first take you through the theory aspect.

Keys, Scales, and Chords: The Framework

When we talk about keys, we’re referring to the scale of a piece of music. If a song is in a particular key, it simply means that it is centered around the notes of the major scale. 

For example, there are seven notes in the key of C, and they are as follows: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Each note has an accompanying number that gets altered depending on whichever key you’re in. 

To put it simply, the note of C is identified as C1, D is identified as D2, E is identified as E3, and so on. And a tonic note or root note refers to every starting note.  

You can easily identify chords within a key the same way you identify notes. The only thing that differentiates both of them is that chords are marked out using Roman numerals, which means the note of C will be identified as 1, while the chord will be I. 

You should know that the same rule applies to every other key. 

The I, IV, V Chords: All You Need to Know 

The I, IV, and V chords function as the most frequently used chords. The I, IV, and V chords acquired their names from being on the first, fourth, and fifth note of each key. 

To paint a clearer picture, you can write out the key of C as C, D, E, F, G, A, B. In this case, C is the first note, F is the fourth, and G is the fifth. Simply put, C, F, and G are the chords you’re looking for. 

As mentioned earlier, you can apply this same rule to any other key. All you have to do is count from the tonic note, which is the starting note. If a song is in the A key, you’ll only need to identify the A major scales and select the I, IV, and V chords. The A major scales are A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#; this means the chords will be A, D, and E. 

With this formula, it’s easy for you to identify the chords that will appear in a song that is following the 12 bar blues progression. You only have to map out the major scale and select the I, IV, and V chords. 

Sharps and Flats: A Rundown

When you select the I, IV, and V chords from the major scale, be mindful of the particular notes that appear within the key you want to play in. 

You shouldn’t just start counting the tonic notes to the 4th and 5th because it can cause a discrepancy. It’s not advisable because some of the notes in the major scale of most keys are either flat or sharp.

Keep in mind that every key has flats and sharps, except the key of C. The only good thing is most, if not all, key signatures popularly used in blues work well with the guitar. This is because the fourth and fifth major scale notes are neither flat nor sharp. 

However, make sure to remember that this isn’t always the case. For example, the key of B has the following major scale: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#. The fifth note is sharp, which means that the I, IV, and V chords will be B, E, F#, respectively. In this case, you’ll play an F# when playing blues in the key of B. 

The 12 Bar Blues: Forms and Patterns

Now that you understand the basic structure of the 12 bar blues and how to apply it to various keys, it’s important to learn how the I, IV, and V chords work in sync within the progression. 

The simplest way to understand the 12 bar blues is if you divide them into three variations which are four bars long. They are as follows:

  • First bar: I, I, I, I 
  • Second bar: IV, IV, I, I
  • Third bar: V, IV, I, V 

The third variation of the 12 bar blues is the most interesting. It is called the “turn around” because it ends the 12 bar blues progression and takes you right back to the beginning. 

When you map it out this way, the progression will look like normal Roman numerals. However, when you put them all together, you’ll have a clear, beautiful progression. 

The Final Step 

The final step is for you to apply the synced progression to a key. When you do, play it until you master the chord changes and the sound of the progression. After getting that out of the way, you can start to interchange between all the other keys and play out the learned progressions. 

As you practice, make sure to be mindful of playing and memorizing the progression. You don’t have to worry about rhythm having perfect strums. The more you practice, the bolder and better you’ll become. 

For now, feel free to play around with the basics of the 12 bar blues progression found within this article, and you’ll no doubt unlock every chamber of creativity within you! 

Read next:

All major guitar modes

Guitar Harmonics guide

Master the CAGED chords

Last Updated on May 8, 2021 by Liam F. Admin